Clinton's Reluctant Donkey

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle, Bill Clinton welcomed Asian heads of state in down-home style. The plaid-shirted president was eager to give a casual, friendly air to this summit--an event which, nevertheless, crackled with symbolism for the future. While most of the attendees humored Clinton by dressing down, China's President Jiang Zemin was a notable exception: He chose to remain in his business suit.

When confronted by intransigent nations, the U.S. government has made accommodation the name of the game. Under a president who accused his predecessor of coddling the Chinese, it has renewed China's most-favored-nation trading status and raised only a minor ruckus over alleged arms shipments to Pakistan. More recently, the U.S. has responded to North Korea's alarming refusal to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by dangling various rewards--from an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises to steps toward diplomatic recognition--in exchange for cooperation.

Such behavior may seem surprising coming from Clinton, who campaigned as a foreign-policy idealist. As a candidate, he took a hard line on human rights, attacking George Bush's passive policies in China, Haiti and Bosnia. Voters expected to see a more interventionist foreign policy, where Clinton would use resources freed up by the end of the Cold War in the aggressive pursuit of humanitarian goals.

Instead, Clinton has settled into a foreign policy that looks suspiciously like Bush's. He has muted his criticism of China's human-rights record; such concerns were quietly pushed to the sidelines during the Seattle summit. His uneven policies in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia have raised serious questions about U.S. leadership in international affairs.

Clinton did not foresee the extent to which his foreign policy would be determined by the same issue that dominated the domestic agenda: the economy. He was elected as the man most in touch with the pocketbook of the average American. What he did not realize was that those economic concerns would reach far beyond the borders of the United States.

To be sure, he knows it now. In Seattle, he declared: "More than ever our security is tied to economics." While this in nothing new, it has in the past been obscured by rhetoric; never before has our economic interest been so blatantly the overriding concern of our foreign policy. Secretary of State Warren Christopher certainly has no illusions about our priorities. Our paramount interests are, he says, "our security, prosperity and, where possible, the advancement of our democratic values." A world dominated by money has little room for noble crusades.

When George Bush proclaimed that the end of the Cold War had brought a "new world order," he probably envisioned a new era of U.S. military and political leadership. Now it is clear that the battles of the age will be fought in the marketplace; certainly Clinton has resigned himself to this reality.

In such a context, America's role as "the last superpower" is a farce. The bruising battle over NAFTA showed that we live in fear of the economic power of our North American neighbors, to say nothing of the Asian powerhouses. Our new "enemies" are countries like Japan, which is constitutionally barred from raising an army. And although only a handful of countries can match our military might, Japan and dozens of others can compete with us in commerce.

On this leveled playing field, an American president must walk gingerly. Clinton cannot engage in old-fashioned, Reaganesque saber-rattling, since he has no saber to rattle. Humbled, he finds the tables turned: the U.S. has little economic leverage in countries like China and Japan, with whom we have large trade deficits. Instead, Clinton confronts the leaders of Asia as the representative of a job-starved, slow-growth economy, in the hope that they have something to offer him.

America's discomfort in its new role is reflected in a foreign policy characterized by thinly veiled double-speak. The Clinton administration maintains that China's continuing Most Favored Nation status hinges on its improving human-rights performance. But this "threat" is so hedged that it is worthless. According to Christopher, "We don't expect them to remedy all the wrongs."

The Chinese are justified in their haughty response to American human-rights posturing. They know that if Congress tries to rescind China's MFN status, it will be besieged by frantic business lobbies which are currently salivating at the prospect of cheap labor and a market over a billion strong. Even the relatively minor sanctions imposed by the U.S. over the supposed Pakistan arms shipments hurt American companies more than it hurts the Chinese government.

Unlike a conventional weapon of war, the trade weapon cuts both ways: Both sides are injured when it is used. China, with its roaring economic growth, can afford the loss; Clinton believes that the U.S., with its stagnant economy, cannot.

Geared as it is toward economic concerns, American foreign policy has proven impotent when faced with noncommercial issues. In the current global atmosphere, invoking American military might on a large scale would be like drawing a gun in a boardroom; Clinton is understandably reluctant to do so. Instead, he champions dollar diplomacy, hoping to buy off uncooperative governments in a way that might even help American workers.

North Korea has exposed the weakness of this simple system. Faced with a nation that is diplomatically and economically isolated, the U.S. has no weapons to use. At best, it can impose sanctions through the United Nations, but this will have little effect on a country that already has a tiny volume of trade.

To avert a crisis, the U.S. can do nothing but give ground; the best bribe it can offer, of course, is that of diplomatic recognition and free trade. But here, just as with China, the opposition holds all the cards. If North Korea fails to give in to economic pressure, the U.S. has proven that it will do little but threaten and dawdle--as in Bosnia, where sanctions have done little to stop the slaughter.

Columnist William Safire recently character-ized American foreign policy as a variant of the carrot-and-stick game: the promise of reward combined with the threat of punishment. The problem, he believes, is that of too much carrot and too little stick.

This is certainly true. But in fact, the U.S. does not even possess such instruments of motivation. In fact, countries such as China and North Korea are wielding the carrot and stick with such skill that we cannot perceive it.

The Chinese have beaten the U.S. at its own game by needing America less than America needs China. For the Chinese government, free trade is both carrot and stick, drawing the U.S. in and chaining American pocketbooks to Chinese interests. The North Koreans have done just as well by simply refusing to play by the economic rules; while the U.S. can offer nothing to them, the North Koreans wield a nuclear stick that the U.S. must respect.

So this is where America finds itself at the dawn of the new world order: as the reluctant donkey, teased by the carrots and sticks of other nations, while all along imagining itself to be the master.