Present at the Solution

Who says the Clinton folks lack a foreign policy? Here it is.

Global thinkers have routinely attacked the Clinton administration for its lack of a foreign-policy vision. They will have to change their critique. Evidently having become comfortable with the uses of American power, the president and his new national-security team are planning an ambitious and coherent second-term foreign policy. Their model is that great post-1945 generation of Americans who launched the Marshall Plan and NATO, who were, in plan architect Dean Acheson’s words, “present at the creation” of a new era. The Clintonites aspire, if not to a new Creation, then to be Present at the Solution; to go down in history as the wise men and women who resolved the outstanding difficulties of the post-Cold War era and launched the world on a new Millennium of peace and goodwill.

In practical terms, this boils down to two large tasks: managing Russia’s decline and China’s rise. At its daylong planning session for the second term held at Blair House Jan. 11, the new National Security Adviser Sandy Berger described the administration’s international ambitions on both fronts. The most immediate step, said Berger, was to assert that the United States remains a European power, one that plans “to build an undivided, peaceful, and democratic Europe.” The vision was to complete for Central and Eastern Europe what the Cold War generation had achieved for Western Europe. The administration is determined, as Clinton will insist at his Helsinki summit with Boris Yeltsin this week, to persuade Russia to accept an enlarged NATO alliance advancing right up to its borders.

Clinton’s second goal, rooted in the United States’ parallel claim to be an Asian-Pacific power, is “to cement America’s role as a stabilizing force in a more integrated Asian-Pacific community” in which China is somehow to be engaged and cajoled into becoming a cooperative power.

These are monumental dreams for a team that bungled the petty squabbles of Somali warlords four years ago and has now embarked on the grandest reordering of the global order since the Treaty of Versailles. None of this promises to be simple, even if Sen. Trent Lott and Speaker Newt Gingrich prove as cooperative and bipartisan as the old isolationist Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who in 1947 agreed to Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s entreaties that politics should stop at the water’s edge. Still, Achesonian metaphors are fashionable: Gingrich has privately assured Clinton’s new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, that he stands ready to be “the Vandenberg to your Acheson.”

Albright herself invited the Acheson/Vandenberg comparison by telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at her confirmation hearing, “We must be more than audience, more even than actors–we must be the authors of the history of our age.” Her entire budget for foreign aid, diplomacy, the United Nations, and all the other international organizations to which the United States subscribes, amounts to barely 1 percent of the federal budget–“but that will be used to write 50 percent of the history and legacy of our times.”

She then explicitly compared the challenges ahead to those that faced the United States when, as a little girl, she fled Soviet domination for an America already girding for the long Cold War struggle that Acheson had envisaged. So when she invoked Acheson’s name before the U.S. Senate as she prepared to become the first woman to join the ranks of his successors, a wheel of history had come full circle:

One of my predecessors, Dean Acheson, wrote about being present at the creation of a new era. You and I have the challenge and the responsibility to help co-author the newest chapter in our history. … The purpose of enlargement is to do for Europe’s east what NATO did 50 years ago for Europe’s west: to integrate new democracies, defeat old hatreds, provide confidence in economic recovery, and deter conflict.

T he grand strategy to contain the Soviet Union without all-out war held good for almost 50 years and, in the process, built the West, the grander structure of the Atlantic and Pacific alliances, and the new tripartite global economy of North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim. The historic figures who devised this system, President Truman, Gen. George Marshall, and Acheson, along with Britain’s Ernest Bevin and France’s Robert Schuman, built the world we inhabited until the Soviet implosion.

The new Clinton team, not to be outdone, sees the next four years in almost equally ambitious terms. Its members sing from the same inspirational hymnal. Just before Christmas, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Bob Hunter defined the goal in equally Achesonian terms:

What the European Union and NATO are trying to do in Central Europe is nothing less than to complete the promise of the Marshall Plan, which was thwarted by Joseph Stalin some 50 years ago and bounded at the Iron Curtain. We now have a chance finally to take that grand effort to completion. How rare it is in history–perhaps unique–that we have a chance to take a second bite at history’s apple. In doing so, we have a chance to fulfill the legacy of the Marshall Plan.

But, unlike the vapid rhetoric of George Bush’s short-lived New World Order, which all this Achesonian guff recalls, Clinton’s vision faces two imminent reality checks. Just as the plan to fulfill the Acheson vision in Europe must pass this week’s test of the Yeltsin summit, so too must the China gambit face a daunting hurdle–the fate of Hong Kong after it reverts to China’s tender mercies in July. These may be two bites more than any scandal-tossed administration can chew. The double task of managing Russian decline and Chinese ascendancy will be formidable, given the resentments and suspicions in Moscow and Beijing. The fuss over the fatuous certification of Mexico as a cooperating partner in the war on drugs shows why. Mexico, Russia, and China are all one-party states in tempestuous transition to a kind of bastard pluralism. That pluralism has so far enfranchised robber-baron capitalists and organized crime, corrupted the judicial system, and widened the politically destabilizing gap between the very rich and the demoralized poor. All three are wounded states where traditional central authority is problematic, and where unscrupulous new elites are emerging whose new wealth comes from sources of questionable legality. Their power is such that the usual government-to-government agreements and commitments cannot be relied on.

In each case, these countries have another feature in common: that any U.S. government has very few policy tools beyond a little aid, trade, and sweet reason available to improve their behavior. But between the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan this June and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the NATO treaty in 1999, the grand design to complete the dream of the United States’ great Cold War generation is now on the way to what promises to be an awesomely high-stakes year.