TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Clinton's Foreign Policy is the Twentieth
Century's Missed Opportunity



LONDON-- It has been whispered that Bill Clinton is deeply envious of his vice-president, Al Gore. Mr. Gore stands the chance of being the president Mr. Clinton wanted to be, trained and matured for the job, able to set his own agenda and priorities. Clinton, when he ran for the Democratic nomination, never expected to win; his intention was to position himself for a future attempt. Perhaps this is what explains his lack-lustre performance in foreign affairs. Unschooled, his ill thought out, event-driven foreign policy has been arguably the greatest twentieth century opportunity missed.

Every leader's foreign policy is event-driven to some extent, since the unpredictable is a large part of human life. But no other American president in my memory has made it almost an art form. Nothing demonstrates this more than Iraq. For all the sabre rattling of the last couple of weeks, Clinton the last few years has acted as if he hoped that Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction would just disappear in a desert sand-storm. Only Saddam upping the ante forced Clinton to focus on reports of biological weapon construction that had been in his in-tray all year.

And only now, as Arab opinion has drifted dangerously away from America to the point where coalition-building against Iraq has become impossible, is Clinton belatedly getting tough with Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu's government needed both its settlements' policy and its anti-Oslo Agreement stance firmly to be knocked on their head seventeen months ago, before the newly elected Netanyahu got up speed. Now too much precious time has been lost. The Middle East that looked ripe for positive change after the Gulf War has slipped back into its former polarized, suspicious and antagonistic state. A rare historical opportunity has been squandered with consequences, such as another Middle East war, this time fought with weapons of mass destruction, not beyond the realm of possibilities.

The war in Bosnia was never, even at its worst, going to become another Sarajevo, 1914. Nevertheless, it's a black mark on contemporary western institutions. Clinton allowed himself to be pushed around by volatile American public opinion when he could have done much more to underpin what the Europeans and the UN were trying to do. In the end Washington was forced into assuming leadership as it confronted the likelihood of having to fulfill its pledge to facilitate the retreat of British and French peacekeepers.

Even if there is a tenuous peace in ex-Yugoslavia today, a peace that will probably not outlast the promised American withdrawal, the vagaries of U.S. policy have so undermined modern day UN peacekeeping, once the proud and extremely successful flagship of the UN, that it is going to take years for the UN to recover its standing. The rot began with Somalia when 18 American soldiers were killed in a fire-fight and Clinton, besieged by an outraged public opinion, fanned by a jingoistic media, impulsively pulled out the U.S. contingent, blaming as he did the UN, even though these particular troops were operating outside the UN command.

If Clinton today cannot get his way with Congress in paying the U.S.'s back dues to the UN it is because for so many years he has allowed the UN to be falsely misrepresented and denigrated. The UN, which could have done so many valuable things, has ended up more circumscribed than it was in the depths of the Cold War.

If much foreign policy has been shallow and reactive there are two areas where there have been the makings of a strategy, although in one case it is counterproductive and in the other half-baked. Indeed, it is with America's relationship with Russia that history may judge Clinton the harshest. Here clear-cut opportunities beckoned and either were not taken or simply spurned. Not only are there no compelling benefits to be gained from NATO expansion, not only has it gratuitously fed Russian paranoia about western intentions, it has diverted precious presidential energy from what was needed first and foremost--to educate and guide American public opinion away from reflex Cold War attitudes towards a new perception of what is possible with the new Russia. A short list would be: A nuclear-free relationship; a new joint security structure in Europe; a willingness to a full party to Russian economic reform by taking sizeable risks with financial aid; and an equal partnership in resolving the outstanding crises of the Middle East.

With China, tomorrow's superpower, fortunately time is still on America's side. The early mistakes of the Clinton presidency to go into a battle of words and wills on every front have now been subsumed into a more sophisticated strategy of engagement. Finally, this past year, the White House woke up to the fact that cooperating with China's economic emancipation was the single most powerful lever for liberalizing Chinese civic society.

Well done, Mr. Clinton. He doesn't have much else to be proud of. The world Clinton inherited was uniquely favorable to the creation of a much more benign international order than the twentieth century had ever seen. He blew it.


November 26, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

Note: I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172
and e-mail:












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the Webmaster at:
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF