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America’s Receding International Role

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

For 45 years the Soviet Union gave the United States a global role, one amply supported by both the American people and much of the Western World. Behind the country’s leadership, unprecedented in modern history, lay not only an abundance of power, economic and military, but also the relevance of that power to the perceived wants of others. By mid-century the United States possessed more global influence than did Britain in its days of imperial glory. The alignment of Western power and intentions enabled the United States to meet the Soviet challenge on every Cold War front: military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological. Containment bought time, time enough for the massive inconsistencies in the Soviet system to undermine it. No American leader at mid-century could have framed a more satisfactory and promising conclusion of the East-West confrontation than that which actually occurred.

Unfortunately for the United States, the heavy price of success assured the decline of its global leadership as well. The economic primacy of the postwar decade had given way by the 1980’s to massive deficits at home, huge adverse trade balances abroad, and the rise of powerful, competing economies, especially in Germany and Japan. Possessing 11 of the world’s 20 largest banks, Japan had replaced New York as the world’s leading center of international finance. Its stock exchange led the world in turnover. Not even in its industrial innovation and efficiency had the nation sustained its long-unchallenged primacy. In 1990 Japan, with half the population of the United States, invested far more in industrial research, plants, and equipment—twice as much per worker. But as long as the U. S. S. R. appeared to Americans and Europeans as a still-dangerous antagonist, military power, amplified at huge cost by the Reagan budgets, assured the United States a pervading role in world affairs.

It required only the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989 and 1990 to challenge America’s global leadership where the United States still claimed predominance—in is military power. Throughout the decades of Cold War, the nation’s special role assumed the presence of an archenemy, recognized as dangerous by much of the external world. But Mikhail Gorbachev’s withdrawal from the old East-West rivalry eliminated the face-offs that had, as The New Yorker observed,

automatically yielded us a more sharply defined sense of ourselves in relation to a belligerent, untrustworthy Soviet Union. They gave us a gratifying self-image, and an important, dramatic place in the world. In contrast, Gorbachev’s actions threatened to deprive us of an identity. . . . [W]e become less the defender of the free world and more a nation among nations. We lose a role, we lose a script, we lose a language by which we have come to be known to others and to ourselves.

The mirror by which the United States had defined itself was gone. It now faced the task of discovering an identity based on what it was rather than what it had appeared to be. The unraveling of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe merely deepened the identity crisis because it threatened to unravel Western Europe as well. Throughout the Cold War America’s European role demanded the presence of a different, threatening East; the Iron Curtain, now gone, symbolized the presence of that danger.

President George Bush’s war in the Gulf, whether purposefully or not, gave American global leadership a new lease on life by apparently reestablishing the role of military power in world affairs. Not since the Spanish American War, perhaps never before in its history, did the United States wage such a relentlessly successful war. Lt. Gen. Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces in the Middle East, proclaimed the Gulf War “a great victory, perhaps one of the greatest victories . . . in history.” President Bush exclaimed on March 1, 1991, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The country’s huge defense expenditures and technological supremacy in weapons had paid off. The war assured the demise of the U.S.S.R. as a superpower. “Beyond the superpowers,” observed John Hughes in The Christian Science Monitor, “ no nation looms to challenge the present American eminence. China is barely heard from. The economic giants, Japan and Germany, were faceless in the Gulf War because of their inability to project military power.” Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz declared that the war “underscores our place in the world.” Washington again had become the center of gravity in global politics. “Overtaken by last years’s collapse of the East bloc,” wrote Marshall Ingwerson in The Christian Science Monitor, “the city on the Potomac is back at the head of the parade.” Smart bombs had apparently enabled the United States to reclaim world leadership despite its huge indebtedness, budget deficits, and need of foreign investments.

As a ready program for dealing with future aggression, one defining the country’s recovered international role and building on its latest exertion of leadership, the president proclaimed a new world order. He addressed the nation on January 16 as Desert Storm began: “We have before us the opportunity to forge, for ourselves and future generations, a new world order in a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” The president recalled the Gulf War itself where an impressive alliance, granted purpose and moral sanction by the United Nations, seemed to offer those elements of power capable of guaranteeing future peace and security. Actually Desert Storm was no seminal event; it suggested no postwar role for the United States or offered any preview of future action. Bush had invited the conflict against doubtful public support. During the months that separated the Iran-Iraq war from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Washington created no consistent response, one based on White House coordination with the departments of Commerce, State, and Defense, to Saddam Hussein’s suspected military and territorial ambitions. Although the Baghdad regime had become the bulwark of the country’s anti-Iranian policy in the Gulf, the administration revealed no appreciation for the deep historic and economic frustrations that Kuwait’s borders and oil-pricing policies imposed on the Iraqi government.

Having issued no recognizable warnings, the president, following the Iraqi invasion, reversed course. After September he launched an incredibly successful campaign of demonizing Saddam to build both an image of global danger and the necessary domestic and foreign support for a policy of liberating Kuwait. Saddam rendered the task easy. As Thomas L. Friedman observed in The New York Times, “ Saddam Hussein was a mail-order despot right out of the Sears catalogue. He not only looked a bit sinister, but at every turn acted the pure villain and finally managed to alienate virtually the entire world.” Only after Resolution 678 of late November placed the United Nations behind the withdrawal deadline of January 15 did the president invite Congress to debate and vote on the issue of war. In the Senate vote of January 12, 52 senators, largely Republicans, insisted that a vote for force would guarantee the peace. The 47 Democrats who favored a boycott of Iraq argued that its rejection would mean war. However confused the vote’s message, Bush announced that the country stood united for war.

President Bush had anchored his pursuit of international support, not to an accommodation with Iraq, but to the uncompromising demand for withdrawal. As late as January 14, Saddam asked UN General Secretary Javier Perez de Cuellar, then in Baghdad, for terms. Cuellar responded that he was free only to demand Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from Kuwait without conditions. Given the choice between capitulation and war, Saddam predictably chose war. Having based his international support on the liberation of Kuwait alone, the president denied himself the right to pursue the war into Iraq, permitting Saddam Hussein not only to survive but also to punish his domestic enemies, the Shi’ites in the south and the Kurds in the north. President Bush had pointedly invited both groups to rise against the Baghdad regime. The disillusionment among those who took Bush’s crusade against Saddam seriously was profound. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel declared that his cabinet ministers “almost fell off [their] chairs” when the president announced his decision not to pursue the war into Iraq. Whether the United States, in response to another Iraqi aggression, would have the months to prepare a meticulous operation, or cobble together another alliance with UN support, was doubtful. The Gulf alliance had revealed vastly disparate interests and objectives. Only Britain, with its long and recent attachment to Kuwait, entered the alliance with enthusiasm. Except for the astonishing efforts of the Bush administration, there would have been no alliance at all. Even then the war, like the similar venture in Korea 40 years earlier, remained largely an American affair.


For many Americans the new world order never rested on alliances or the United Nations, but on the power of the United States as demonstrated in the Gulf. The American nation would be the guarantor of international stability, using its lone superpower status to assure conditions favorable to world peace. “Desert Storm,” observed Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland in March 1991, “established with clarity the strength and scope of American muscle in the post-Cold War era.” With that military dominance, added General Colin Powell, came global responsibilities. Lawrence Freedman, writing in Foreign Affairs, declared that the United States, with its victory in the Gulf, was “now well placed to define both the character of this new age of international history and the West’s role in it.” For columnist Charles Krauthammer the new realities of international life demanded that the United States take the lead in confronting, deterring, and, if necessary, disarming countries that brandished weapons of mass destruction. He concluded his prescription of the country’s emerging role in Foreign Affairs: “We are in for abnormal times. Our best hope for safety in such times, as in difficult times past, is in American strength and will to lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” The absence of competing power had apparently created a unique global environment, one unprecedented in modern times, that empowered the United States to establish a global Pax Americana.

Unfortunately, the notion that American power carried its own responsibility for action against infractions of the peace ignored the historic admonition that legitimate resorts to force must contribute to the defense of perceived national interests. The Gulf War demonstrated the military supremacy of the United States, but that supremacy had little bearing on the normal life of nations. It could not influence those who did not fear it, or those who no longer needed it for protection. The international community might prefer peace and stability to turmoil, but it harbored no desire for a selfappointed global policeman. U. S. weaponry, as deployed in the Gulf, existed in a world without a hegemonic antagonist. No enemy soldiers or nuclear arsenals threatened American or European security on a global scale; no enemy navies traversed the world’s oceans. President Reagan’s evil empire no longer demanded forward deployments in Europe of heavy infantry and armored divisions. No adversary possessed an industrial-technological base capable of building dangerous levels of ballistic missiles or sophisticated conventional weapons. Local and regional strife could still cause trouble, but not comparable to that posed by Hitler’s Germany or the postwar U. S. S. R. The Soviet collapse, rather than permitting the expansion of U. S. influence as the unipolarists predicted, vastly curtailed it. For more than 40 years America’s leadership in world affairs rested on bipolarity; without the presence of a powerful threat, one generally recognized, military power ceased to underwrite an effective, consistent merican role in world affairs. The “sole-remaining-superpower-syndrome” suggested no program at all.

But the retreat of war embraced far more than the diminution of the Soviet threat. With the end of the Cold War some writers, among them John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, predicted the revival of historic tensions among those Western powers responsible for most wars of modern times. The return of major conflict, he wrote, would cause Americans to regret the passing of the Cold War. Already it seemed apparent, however, that the experience of the 20th century had taken its toll of war. The stockpiles of nuclear weapons assured limitless devastation in any war that employed them. Recent memory suggested that another major conflict limited to conventional weapons would be an unacceptable disaster. Television reminded the public of even a limited war’s brutality and horrors. It is not strange that no Cold War issue, not even the Cuban missile crisis, approached a military solution. The United States accepted a stalemate in Korea and total defeat in Vietnam as preferable to any enlargement of the conflicts, despite official rhetoric that equated such outcomes with the loss of the world. The Soviet Union backed away from the Cuban missile crisis and ultimately permitted the collapse of the entire Soviet system rather than risk a resort to force. Communism had no staying power commensurate with the cost of war. As historian Robert O’Connell concluded, “The very fact that the [Soviet] ruling class—armed to the teeth and wedded to an institutional culture which lionized coercion—would give up without a fight, speaks volumes on the inutility of warfare.”

Americans who anticipated a continuing U. S. role, based on military power and the willingness to use it, quickly discovered new global challenges in the form of resurgent nationalism, ethnic strife, border disputes, economic and social chaos, and civil war. Historic tensions, frozen by decades of Cold War, suddenly burst forth across much of Eurasia. By 1991 the era of the Cold War suddenly appeared stable and reassuring by comparison. Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, summarized the post-Cold War issues facing the world community in March 1991: “All around us, naked ambition, lust for power, national uprisings and underdevelopment are combining to create potentially dangerous situations, containing the seeds of destabilization and conflict, aggravated by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” CIA Director James Woolsey described the post-Cold War outlook at his confirmation hearings: “Yes, we have slain a large dragon, but now we live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.” For Krauthammer the new instability, added to the danger of nuclear proliferation, created a world far more dangerous than that of the Cold War. It is not strange that President Bush, suddenly confronted by problems that defied ready, historic responses, dropped his plans to define his new world order in a planned series of public addresses.

Whether the world’s burgeoning turbulence offered a promising role for American power was questionable from the outset. Africa, with its thousand ethnic and linguistic groups scattered over some 50 states, with borders imposed by colonial masters, unleashed levels of violence that defied description. Ethnic rivalries were especially ruinous in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi, and Angola. Across India, Hindu-Muslim warfare and historic opposition to the Hindu caste system left hundreds dead in Srinagar, Bombay, and other Indian cities. In Sri Lanka, Tamil guerrillas unleashed unrestricted violence in quest of a separate Tamil state that killed thousands every year. Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington proclaimed a MuslimWestern clash of civilizations across the Middle East as the next global confrontation. The brutalities of religious fundamentalism were apparent from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Egypt and Algeria. Much of the ethnic conflict, unleashing decades, if not centuries, of pent-up hatreds, reached levels of virulence and genocide that shocked the world’s sensibilities. The death and destruction were a measure of the inexhaustible supply of weapons all over the world. Because the ethnic wars remained internal, they rendered external interests ambiguous. Observers and analysts warned that humanitarian interventions in ethnic strife were doomed to end in exhaustion and retreat. “If we want to avoid needless, thankless deaths among our own countrymen,” concluded Ralph Peters, a U. S. Foreign Service officer studying the Soviet collapse, “we must try to learn to watch others die with equanimity.” Clearly the post-Cold War global environment offered the United States no inviting arena for the ready employment of its vaunted military might.


Nothing in the international arena recommended a proper level of national defense. The présuméd military capabilities of the U. S. S. R. no longer served as both incentive and guide. To Pentagon officials, the United States required a defense structure sufficient to maintain its superpower status as well as the independence of the world’s oil supplies and industrial centers. They insisted that the country be prepared to fight two major wars concurrently. Still the list of potential aggressors remained implausible. The Pentagon, under pressure, named seven: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, China, and Cuba. Some would add one or more of the former Soviet republics. Precisely how these countries would endanger historic U. S. interests remained obscure. Equally unclear was the obligation of other states to protect their interests which would, in any crisis, be challenged far more directly than would those of the United States. Europeans seemed capable of defending their continent from any conceivable assaults. Whatever the elusiveness of possible dangers and the corresponding difficulty in judging future military requirements, the projected Pentagon budgets continued to hover above $250 billion, with localities clinging to their bases and defense industries. Expenditures even at that level could not overcome the constraints on U. S. military action imposed by the predictable incoherence among interests, costs, and public approval in a limited war. The absence of dangers required to assure a national consensus did not dictate an American retreat from national preparedness, but it rendered the definition of a necessary military structure exceedingly difficult.

This was not strange. Aside from its defense of discernable national interests under actual or potential threat, military power always exists in a policy vacuum, irrelevant to most global issues that capture the headlines. Rhetorically the Soviet danger exceeded all others of modern history. Still, Washington’s globalization of the danger rendered it so abstract that the country could never determine precisely what strategies its program of containment required. It scattered its forces around the world without knowing where, or to what extent, it would encounter any proclaimed Communist aggression. Meanwhile the United States and its European allies, pursuing their narrow security interests, did not respond with force to prevent or mitigate countless local and regional conflicts that took the lives of millions: civil strife in Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Chad, Nicaragua, and El Salvador; wars between Iran and Iraq, Israel and the Arabs, India and Pakistan; violence and massacres in Indonesia, China, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Cyprus. The discipline that the United States and the U. S. S. R. imposed on their allies preserved stability and discouraged aggression where the general peace demanded it, in Europe and Japan especially. But the Western goal of maintaining a Cold War peace never included peace where strife did not endanger Atlantic security. Democratic peoples, under any conditions, have always demanded to know the interests for which they were expected to fight and die. If the United States and its allies assented readily to previous assaults on humanity that did not touch their interests, they would assuredly do so again.

Even the Euro-American relationship that underwrote the country s primacy in global politics rested on mutual interests that were always tenuous. For 300 years before Pearl Harbor Europeans pursued interests of their own and assumed responsibility for their defense. During the Cold War the United States remained on the European scene because American and European interests coincided in the protection of the Atlantic world against direct Soviet attack. In China, Indochina, the Middle East, and Latin America, U. S. and European security interests, even amid assumptions of global dangers, scarcely met at all. The Gulf War seemed to offer a model in burden-sharing in defense of international law and Arab oil. Yet that war was, in large measure, another American venture for which the Bush administration claimed full credit. Throughout the Cold War and after, this country’s global role rested overwhelmingly on unilateral decisions. Confronted by the complexities of the new international environment, that tradition of unilateral action faced serious limitations. Nowhere in Eurasia or Africa could the United States address the chaos alone, and no existing challenge demanded that it should. The persistent injunctions of officials and writers, both American and European, that the United States alone could lead the post-Cold War world, reflected less a loss of capability or a plea for collective security than Europe’s habit of relying on American resources. Policies designed to meet the world’s problems through multilateral agreements on manpower and costs would merely reaffirm the external limitations on national action. On no issue was there a post-Cold War international consensus. Burdened by such constraints on its freedom of decision, the United States, only with difficulty, could design a role for its military power, accepted by most and recognized by all.

Determined to restore the nation’s credibility, and thereby its influence in world affairs, many advocated higher defense expenditures and a renewed propensity to address the world’s instabilities with force. But military preparedness, as the entire Cold War experience demonstrated, could establish credibility only where widely recognized national interests recommended some resort to violence. Credibility flows alone from expectations of what a country can and should do abroad. Those who lamented the decline of American influence and credibility, and anticipated a more assertive U. S. role in international affairs, could discover no arena for U. S. military action where interests were commensurate with the potential costs of intervention. Any attempt to extend credibility with greater reliance on excessive rhetoric could only lead to confusion, vacillation, and unrealistic expectations of support that would never come. “Although some ambiguity in official statements is inevitable,” advised former Undersecretary of State David C. Newsom, “high-level declarations should be carefully crafted, sparingly used, and as consistent as possible.” International leadership, anchored to high levels of credibility and influence based on readiness to employ power, could not transcend the diminishing threats to the country’s vital interests.


If the external constraints on America’s post-Cold War international involvements were not compelling enough, the domestic limitations were no less severe. Public opinion was perhaps the most pervading. The alleged eradication of the Vietnam syndrome during the victorious Gulf War suggested that the American people thereafter would welcome an active role in world affairs, including heavier reliance on force in pursuit of international stability. But the Vietnam syndrome taught only that the United States should avoid unnecessary wars where victory was elusive and interests not equal to the costs. Never did the American public believe anything else. The brief, popular war in the Gulf did not create an Iraqi syndrome. Both the Vietnam and the Gulf wars were totally unique; one was the easiest victory in American history, the other was no victory at all. Neither could dictate the country’s future course or the status of public opinion. The Gulf War did not demonstrate that aggression does not pay, any more than the successful, if limited, uses of force in Grenada, Libya, and Panama sent a warning to Saddam Hussein. Military deterrence has about the same effect on nations that police forces and capital punishment have on society. If Americans, responding to the euphoria of easy victory, approved of the use of power in the Gulf, they were not committed to its use elsewhere.

Polls revealed that the country remained reluctant to engage in war, especially when the interests pursued defied accurate definition. In an Associated Press poll of July 1993 a large majority denied that the United States had any responsibility for civil disorders around the globe. Even Americans who acknowledged some national obligation to address human rights abuses demanded that Washington limit the price to what the national interest required. No longer concerned with the Communist danger, many conservatives, concerned with fiscal responsibility, condemned those who would lead the country into unnecessary foreign pursuits. President Bush advised a West Point audience in January 1993 that the country should consider resorts to military force only where the stakes warranted it, where the application could be limited in scope and time, and where the escape from intervention was as well defined as the way in. U. S. military power was real, but the public support for putting Americans at risk was not. Without that support the country’s appellation as a superpower was irrelevant.

No longer did the United States possess the unchallengeable economic and financial resiliency that had earlier underwritten its global role. The United States after 1990 remained both the world’s richest country and its leading debtor. From George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, a period of 160 years, the country had little public debt, chiefly the $200 billion left over from World War II. The debts began to accumulate in the 1960’s when President Lyndon Johnson chose to finance the Vietnam War and the Great Society through borrowing. In 1980, the year of Reagan’s election, the national debt stood at $909 billion. It reached $1 trillion in 1982, $2 trillion in 1986, $3 trillion in 1990, $4 trillion in 1992. In January 1994 it reached $4. 8 trillion, with projections of over $6 trillion by 2000. Interest payments trailed only defense and Social Security. Unfortunately, the huge annual deficits responded to the demands of citizens who believed themselves entitled to benefits for which they had no intention of paying. Congressmen kept their constituents contented by permitting the national debt to climb, institutionalizing the nation’s indebtedness in the process. Der Spiegel, Germany’s noted news magazine, observed in 1992: “No one in the administration, and no one opposing the administration, is willing to tell the American people how deeply their nation has slid into a structural crisis.” The country’s tragic economic flaws discounted the importance of its military might. A country that could not raise revenues to meet its costs could not perform as a superpower.

Finally, the country’s massive internal constraints accrued from its burgeoning societal disabilities. Policy triumphs abroad, except when directly related to the country’s intrinsic welfare, could not compensate for drug-infested and crimeridden streets; a disfunctional educational system; a collaps-ing infrastructure of decaying roads, bridges, and public utilities; an unaffordable health system; personal, business, and political corruption. The existence of a huge underclass, with perhaps a fourth of the population living outside the main currents of American life, created a human burden that endangered the welfare, security, and financial soundness of the whole. James Reston, noted New York Times columnist, warned his readers that the chief dangers to American security came from within. It was not strange that the American people overwhelmingly demanded that the U. S. government focus on the gnawing problems at home. Polls invariably placed external issues at the bottom of the public’s concerns. Analysts and business leaders agreed that the country’s neglect of its internal problems, largely because of misplaced spending priorities, had diminished its economic and political capacity to play a leading role in world affairs.


For critics who yearned for policies that would confront the world’s devastating ethnic and religious strife, the ad hoc and risk-avoiding approaches of the Bush years assured only the loss of national self-respect and the denial of the country’s special obligation to defend the peace and uphold the rule of law. During his campaign for the presidency, William Clinton caught such notions of American exceptionalism, with its claims to exceptional virtue and exceptional responsibility, at high tide. Backed by such historic assumptions of American superiority, the new president hoped to skirt the powerful post-Cold War constraints on America’s global leadership. U. S. foreign policy, he promised, would again focus on humane values and the expansion of democracy and free market systems. Unfortunately, such assertions of American exceptionalism exceeded the limits of policy by vastly exaggerating both the country’s influence and its limited concern for the internal organization and behavior of other states. In practice exceptionalism comprised self-imposed and oftenresented obligations to act where American interests did not require it. In the absence of clearly-perceived interests in need of protection, exceptionalism had always faltered when confronted by antagonists who pursued interests of their own and were willing to fight for them. Nowhere did exceptionalism offer a recipe for action. Only countries such as Saudi Arabia feared that Clinton might take his concern for democracy and human rights too seriously.

From the outset the administration’s ubiquitous proclamations of principled intent embraced no clear perceptions of national interest—an omission some termed as morally corupt. “To pretend that foreign policy can operate without regard for our self-interest,” noted Kim Holmes in Harper’s Magazine, “ is a breach of the social contract between the U. S. government and the American people.” Unable to build any consensus for his exceptionalist goals, either within the country’s foreign policy elites or among the public generally, Clinton drifted between bold enunciations of intent and the avoidance of genuine commitments. In statement after statement both the president and members of his staff acknowledged the limits of U. S. authority in the world even as they repeated the goal of bringing peace and extending democracy and free market economies to troubled countries. The profound inconsistency was both embarrassing and demeaning. By the spring of 1994 both European and American critics agreed that Clinton’s foreign policy was in shambles. In his pursuit of external objectives the president never settled on the use of force, diplomacy, or neither. His problem lay less in the avoidance of action than in the persistent contrast between the decisions themselves, which often elicited strong approval, and the frequent vigorous and threatening rhetoric that preceded them. Every zig was followed by a zag. The confusion penetrated Congress as well. On every external issue Congress sent the President loud, but contradictory messages. “As ever,” commented London’s Economist in May 1994, “when Congress senses a vacuum in policy, it is rushing to fill it—as ever with the danger of sounding like 535 schizophrenic secretaries of state.”

Behind the contradictions lay two fundamental, antagonistic approaches to a proper American post-Cold War role. Michael Kinsley defined them in The New Republic: “ The position of those who hold that, with the end of the cold war, America can retreat from its world responsibilities is arguable and tempting. So is the position that we are a great, bold and compassionate country that should continue to lead the world. What is demeaning and harmful is the widespread belief that we can have it both ways.” The administration, indeed, attempted persistently to have it both ways. Quite typically the president admonished newsmen in late May 1994 that “we cannot impose our will, and we have to be flexible and listening.” There were limits, he said, to what the country could do. Nevertheless, he continued, “the United States is still prepared to lead in a world in which our concerns are clear—security, prosperity, democracy, and human rights.” Unfortunately, it was the latter goals that always defied the creation of policy. Clinton repeatedly clouded the contrast between purpose and accomplishment by equating all engagements with successes. Yet nowhere throughout a turbulent world did he succeed in extending democracy, stability, or human rights. The desired consistency and solvency in external affairs were available only at the level of traditional, concrete, and supportable objectives, rationalized by concerns that the country and the world could readily understand. The vast majority of Americans had no interest in involvements that exceeded such limitations.

Clinton could not transcend the limits that partisanship had imposed on the diplomacy of his predecessors. Exceptionalism, like other approaches to external affairs based on claims to superior virtue, tended to characterize other governments as good or evil, depending on the degree of perceived conformity to American values. Unfortunately, adverse judgments of other governments never contributed much to the resolution of international conflicts. They excused an unwillingness to examine the rejected country’s outlook, motives, and objectives, none of which necessarily endangered U. S. interests. Washington’s intentions toward such troublesome countries as Haiti, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, and Libya, as earlier toward China, Cuba, and Nicaragua, included the actual elimination of their leaders. U. S. officials could hardly negotiate successfully with governments that they hoped to displace. In not one instance, however, was the American interest in their overthrow commensurate with the price required to compel their demise. The persistent rejection of both diplomacy and force in dealing with unwanted regimes sustained tensions without visible solutions. Except for General Raoul Cedras’s military regime in Haiti, all governments that Washington marked for elimination outlasted the administrations that sought their overthrow.

President Clinton’s approach to Haiti followed the customary pattern. His determination to remove the island’s unwanted regime assumed a zero-sum quality when he demanded Cedras’s capitulation without terms. Cedras, predictably, refused to capitulate. Having rejected diplomacy, Washington prepared to fight. Haiti became the exception, however, because former President Jimmy Carter opened his Haitian negotiations in September 1994 by recognizing some legitimacy in the Haitian government and arranging for its easy and satisfactory exodus, eliminating thereby the zero-sum character of all previous efforts to remove it. Carter gained the peaceful entry of U. S. troops into Haiti, thereby enhancing the chances for democracy, by shifting the simple demand for capitulation to an agreement without clear winners and losers.


However pervading the domestic limitations on the country’s use of diplomacy and power in its international relations, the ultimate impediments to its global leadership lay in the realities of a multipolar world. The international stage, lacking a major disconcerting presence and teeming with a plethora of minor performers all demanding attention, offered no starring roles. The nation’s former commanding position required an antagonist with the power to ignite a global crisis; fortunately, after 1990 no such antagonist existed. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the American people had the opportunity to examine their country’s longterm interests, free of any immediate threat of major conflict. The passing of the Cold War offered them the freedom to address the domestic challenges that beset them, honestly and forthrightly, and thereby create a reservoir of economic, financial, technological, military, and educational competence and strength. Should the world at some future period unleash external challenges that touched the nation’s vital interests, the U. S. government, upon careful consideration, could adopt a promising strategy without the crippling constraints of a divided people, a troubled and debilitating society, and a deficient national economy.

Meanwhile, the United States, avoiding the extremes of a Pax Americana and a retreat to isolationism, could serve the world community effectively by anticipating crises through accurate and resolute analyses, eschewing unilateralism, and recognizing the limits of national action when confronted by issues that touch the United States only tangentially. Preventive diplomacy required, in the words of writer Mark Medish, “an especially clear picture of what one seeks to promote, to prevent, and the price one is willing to pay in the process.” The rejection of promotion or prevention did not dictate a subsequent course of action; rather it demanded a full application of common sense and an accurate evaluation of interests and possibilities. Honesty and consistency required the forthright acknowledgement of domestic and foreign limitations, making the absence of compelling interests clear at the outset and thereby reminding those directly involved in unwanted turmoil, and tugging at the country’s humane instincts, that they must seek their own destiny. Too often those who took American proclamations of special obligation and purpose seriously were ultimately left to cope as best they could, supported largely by their own resources.

There is nothing immoral or indefensible in policies that, in avoiding unredeemable promises, encourage realism, selfreliance, and cooperation in the behavior in others. Such an approach to international disorder does not deny the United States the opportunity to serve quietly the cause of humanity as occasions might arise. The United States, like all countries, carries primary responsibility for its own welfare. Beyond that very little in history tells a great power, even a superpower, how to behave, except that it must always define and defend its interests, precisely and historically calculated. To that obligation the passing of the Cold War added or subtracted nothing.


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