Morality is No Mantra

by Benjamin Schwarz

New York Times 20 November 1992

Bill Clinton’s six major statements on foreign policy show that he shares with George Bush a grandiose vision of an American effort to create a new world order. According to the President-elect’s “pro-democracy” vision, America’s duty is to promote human rights worldwide by leading a “global alliance as united and steadfast as the global alliance that defeated Communism.”

Under Mr. Clinton, then, we may be destined to continue a foreign policy beyond our means in the pursuit of unnecessary and unattainable ends. He should remember that foreign policy crusades are expensive and usually disastrous, and will bleed his plans for domestic renewal.

With the Soviet Union gone, President Bush cast about for new enemies and a new global role for this country. Finding that “the enemy is instability,” he declared that America would be secure only if it forged a peaceful and just international order. According to Mr. Bush, our task was nothing less than to exorcise tyranny, aggression and instability from the world.

Oddly, Mr. Clinton criticizes the Bush Administration’s foreign policy not for being Sisyphean and extravagant but for being too restrained. While Mr. Bush acknowledged practical limitations to his new world order, Mr. Clinton seems to believe, quixotically, that a stronger pro-democracy policy, including for instance a more muscular response to Serbian aggression, will “create a more democratic and stable world.”

Mr. Clinton declares that a global democratic make-over is a moral necessity and a security imperative. Echoing the Bush Administration’s mantra that new threats have replaced old ones, he asserts that conflicts over religion, language and territory are the new threat to peace and — by unwarranted extension — to U.S. security.

Evidently resurrecting the discredited domino theory, Mr. Clinton argues, for example, that aggression unchallenged in the former Yugoslavia will encourage aggression elsewhere and that instability in areas of no strategic interest to us will “spill over” into other areas, somehow endangering the U.S.

Using the same logic that propelled intervention in Vietnam, he seems to regard disorder and oppression anywhere as a threat to peace and freedom everywhere. Although he fails to explain how instability, regardless of where it occurs, would threaten the U.S., he argues that American security can be assured only in a “just, peaceful and ever more democratic world.”

Instead of recognizing strife between states and among peoples as a permanent feature of the international environment, Mr. Clinton would yoke our security to the fundamental alteration of that environment.

If the U.S. sees instability, aggression and tyranny as threats in themselves, it will adopt a somewhat paranoid position in a chaotic world. And, if Mr. Clinton equates our security with world order, he will find it difficult to rein in America’s customary imperial overstretch.

Since Mr. Clinton, like Mr. Bush, adheres to the notion that our eternal responsibility is to provide reassurance and “stability in Europe and East Asia, it is no surprise that Mr. Clinton’s proposed overseas commitments are as extensive as Mr. Bush’s and that he will be able to reduce the bloated Bush defense budget by only $60 billion over five years.

Rather than pursue the dream of ordering and democratizing the globe, Mr. Clinton should remember that foreign policy primarily serves defense, not ambitions of greatness. It would not be neo-isolationism but realism for him to urge Americans to accept foreign policy’s modest but difficult task of enabling us to survive and prosper in the world as it exists. Its purpose is not to transform global politics, nor to change men’s hearts, nor to busy ourselves with the alleged cause of mankind.

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