Foreign affairs put Clinton to test

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The Independent Online
THAT paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan was predictably the most caustic. 'Bill Clinton's foreign policy experience,' he jeered from the rostrum of the Republican convention in August, 'is pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes.'

Today, that jibe seems about to be put to the test. As America's friends and foes have abruptly realised, barring an astonishing Bush comeback between now and 3 November, a Democrat - by his own admission unversed in foreign policy - will in three months' time be moving into the White House.

The anticipatory tremors are everywhere apparent. The biggest guessing-game in Washington is naming the future Clinton Cabinet: who will get State? Who will be his national security adviser? Could Colin Powell move over to be Secretary of Defense? Around the world, governments are adjusting to the prospect of life without Messrs Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and Cheney, arguably the most polished foreign- affairs quartet of any recent administration; in recent days Clinton emissaries have been scurrying around Europe dispensing assurances to key allies. In truth, however, there may be little cause for alarm.

Every Clinton speech on the subject suggests that the traditional bipartisan consensus on foreign policy will broadly be preserved. A Democratic administration will continue to press the Middle East peace process and permit no let-up for Saddam Hussein. Nor is there any reason to suppose Bill Clinton will be any more inclined than President Bush to launch American troops into risky and unpopular foreign adventures: look no further than his celebrated opposition to that most divisive one of all, the Vietnam war.

As his recent endorsement of the North American Free Trade Area proves, he is no isolationist: what caveats he has attached are primarily bones thrown to that ever-important Democratic electoral constituency of organised labour. On more specifically European concerns, such as the new Gatt round, a Clinton administration would be a tough negotiating partner, but no tougher than its predecessor. 'Basically, he's a moderate,' said one European diplomat. 'I think he's going to be pretty sensible.'

Indeed, among the British there are even faint but discernible stirrings that with an alumnus of University College Oxford in the White House, the much-faded 'special relationship' will acquire a sharper lustre. On two issues at least, though, the Foreign Office might do well to be wary.

One is the eternal problem of Northern Ireland. Whitehall will not be amused to learn that, if reports of an interview Mr Clinton gave a New York Irish paper last month are correct, he plans to appoint a special envoy (the Mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, was the name mentioned) to the province. The other is the more aggressive human rights policy Mr Clinton seems likely to pursue, particularly towards China. Too aggressive, some in London may fear, and the delicate process of Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 could be upset.

But, seen from Washington, these are but minor wrinkles in the great sweep of American foreign policy. The hint of a gesture on Ireland may prove to have been no more than angling for the votes of an important ethnic community in the heat of an election campaign. And over China, as on other sensitive issues, Mr Clinton's more idealistic leanings will probably be balanced by the pragmatism and caution that is central to the man.

Much the same probably goes for the future of US troops in Europe. Certainly, Mr Clinton argues that in the post-Soviet world, their number can be reduced from 150,000 to 100,000, while the Europeans will unquestionably be asked to pay more for their own security: 'They're richer now; it's time for them to start picking up more of the tab,' insisted his running-mate, Al Gore, during one of foreign policy's rare intrusions into Tuesday's vice-presidential debate. But no sudden rundown of the military is in prospect. Mr Clinton's planned defence spending over the next five years is only 5 per cent less than that envisaged by President Bush.

Gradually, of course, greater differences will appear. This is an election about America's domestic economic plight, which will condition every aspect of foreign policy. As Mr Clinton puts it in every speech, 'We cannot be strong abroad unless we rebuild our strength at home.'

Almost certainly, a Democratic administration will look more to the United Nations, and emerging global problems, such as the environment, will gain higher priority (no bad thing after Mr Bush's cack-handed performance in Rio last summer). But right now, the paramount consideration is to pass what his aides term 'the commander-in-chief threshold test'.

And thus the argument returns, inevitably, to 'character'. Mr Clinton's lack of international experience is per se no drawback. Jimmy Carter, another Southern governor and the last Democrat in the White House, had none. Yet the Camp David accords were the crowning achievement of his presidency. Nor did Ronald Reagan, nor that obscure Senator from Independence, Missouri, called Harry Truman, who was thrust into the Oval Office in April 1945 and confronted with the end of a world war and a new Soviet superpower. But how Mr Clinton will deal with the sudden foreign crises which will surely crop up in the four years ahead is less easily predicted.

The all-things-to-all-men Clinton, seeking compromise at every turn, does not look a man likely to draw lines in the sand. Small wonder the Bush campaign makes so much of his ambivalence over Operation Desert Storm as evidence of a perilous lack of principle and tendency to hedge every bet.

The span of views represented by his current advisers offers few clues. They range from dovish veterans of the Carter era to pro-military Senate Democrats, through to hawkish neo-conservatives. But compromisers are also deal-makers and coalition-builders, no less important qualifications for a successful foreign policy. By instinct and proven habit, a President Clinton will work the phone to members of the world-leaders club as vigorously as Mr Bush.

And lack of experience could even be a blessing. This President is 68, his outlook shaped by an international order that has vanished. The multi-polar, post-Cold War world confronting him or his successor fits into no paradigm of the recent past. A fresh mind may be just what is needed.

(Photograph omitted)