European Affairs

Bill Clinton's Legacy: Make Trade, Not War     Print Email
Patrice De Beer

Washington Correspondent, Le Monde

A president's legacy in foreign affairs traditionally comes down to how he reacted to international events or crises. How did he deal with the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic? How did he react to a world economic crisis?

Sometimes, however, a president has the chance to take advantage of a new situation, such as the end of the Cold War, in order to give a new impetus and direction to the outside world, as Harry Truman did with the post-war Marshall Plan.


When the time comes for history to assess Bill Clinton's legacy, he should be given credit for according a key place to international trade in U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Clinton has given trade a priority second only to, and sometimes equal to, national security.

Mr. Clinton's eight years in the White House have added a new, post-Cold War dimension to America's vision of its world role as a superpower - or "hyperpower," as the French prefer to say - whose might is based as much on economic, trade, financial, technological, and cultural strength, as it is on traditional military power. For the French, a hyperpower is more powerful than a superpower, just as a hypermarket is bigger than a supermarket.

In the words of Stephen D. Cohen, professor of international relations at American University: "International economic relations were one of the most important parts of Clinton's foreign policy. Questions of war and peace were still number one, but trade was a very close second. After Kosovo and the bombing of Belgrade, the next thing history will remember of him is international trade. The reasons were, in part, the end of the Cold War and, in part, the absence of any potential war, except with Serbia."

As the first president of the post-Cold War era, Mr. Clinton replaced outdated anti-communism with the only other available ideology - linking democracy, this time, to globalization and the free-market economy.

Operating in "uncharted territory," in the words of his National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, and mixing improvization with vision, according to columnist Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, Mr. Clinton started his tenure with the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement initiated by his predecessor, President George Bush, and ended it by securing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China and agreement on Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organization.

In between, Mr. Clinton upgraded the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum from its previously obscure status as a regional trade body - albeit in the then-fastest growing region of the world - to a prominent international organization graced by annual summit meetings.

Mr. Clinton was instrumental in completing the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations that gave birth to the WTO, and promoted economic dialogue between the United States and the European Union. He supported free trade in the Western Hemisphere, and backed legislation liberalizing trade with Africa and the Caribbean.

These are milestones of his presidency, just as much as the American interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Only a few months after his election, on September 14, 1993, Mr. Clinton characterized the signing of NAFTA as "essential to our leadership in this hemisphere and in the world." He then added, "Having won the Cold War, we face the more subtle challenge of consolidating the victory of democracy and opportunity and freedom.

"For decades, we have preached and preached and preached greater democracy, greater respect for human rights, and more open markets to Latin America. NAFTA finally offers them the opportunity to reap the benefit of this."

NAFTA, Mr. Clinton said, meant "hundreds of millions more American consumers for our products" in the market democracies south of the Rio Grande. That prospect was even more important for a Democratic president - who had to accommodate his left wing and labor unions, who oppose globalization and tend to be protectionist - than for a Republican.

Mr. Clinton's words illustrated from the beginning of his presidency a strategy that replaced his predecessors' Cold War concept of containment, with themes of enlargement and engagement. He adopted a blend of idealism and realism stressing the importance of foreign trade wherever and whenever possible.

A good example of this Clintonian diplomacy was American relations with Japan and the newly industrialized countries of Asia. In 1993, the Pacific Basin area, then basking in the prosperity created by the Asian economic miracle, became the new U.S. priority - ahead of a supposedly decadent Europe that was in the midst of an economic crisis. The first APEC summit meeting in Seattle, in November 1993, showcased Asia as an increasingly vital area for the United States. America was now looking west.

On that occasion, Mr. Clinton linked increasing trade flows to U.S. national security. "Our security in this new era clearly requires us to reorder our military forces and to refine our force structure for the coming years," he said.

"But our national security also depends upon enlarging the world's community of market democracies, because democracies make more peaceful and constructive partners."

"More than ever," he added, "our security is linked to economics. Military threats remain, and they require our vigilance and resolve. But increasingly, our place in the world will be determined as much by the skills of our workers as by the strength of our weapons; as much by our ability to pull down foreign trade barriers as our ability to breach distant ramparts. As President, I've worked to put these economic concerns of our people at the heart of our domestic and foreign policy."

Nevertheless, when the Asian crisis of the mid-1990s shattered those countries' economies, when their markets, bled white, drastically reduced their imports of American goods and services, the United States rebalanced its foreign policy, restoring greater prominence to Europe, a safer, and older, trade partner and ally.

During a meeting of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue in Charlotte, North Carolina, in November 1998, the then Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Stuart Eizenstat, told me that Europe had been, together with the United States, a force for stability for the last 50 years, and that Americans felt more compatible with Europeans, in terms of shared values and outlook, than they did with Asians.

"Europe is a very important source of stability when Asia is in crisis" and an even more important trade and investment partner, Mr. Eizenstat said. "Europe is more important for the United States (than Asia) and vice versa. Our stability and our growth are linked."

It is also true that, during that time, the United States was very much involved in Europe - especially in the Balkans - where NATO forces jointly fought to restore peace against Milosevic's Serbia. From the beginning, Mr. Clinton also showed some understanding of Europe's efforts to build a common security and defense policy in close cooperation with NATO.

Addressing a NATO summit meeting in Brussels on January 10, 1994, Mr. Clinton said, "We have to recognize that this new (post-Cold War) security challenge requires a range of responses different from the ones of the past. That is why our administration has broken with previous American administrations in going beyond what others have done to support European efforts to advance their own security and interests."

The United States supported the commitment of the EU to a common foreign and security policy, Mr. Clinton said. "Consistent with that goal, we have proposed making NATO assets available to Western European Union operations in which NATO itself is not involved. We believe a strong and more unified Europe makes for a more effective economic and political partner."

Like those of others before him, Mr. Clinton's presidency was marked by a series of world crises - in Somalia, Haiti, and former Yugoslavia - which, like his predecessors, he dealt with, sometimes to the best of his ability, sometimes not. These crises were imposed on him by circumstance, and he had to react to them.

As an interventionist, he was more and more at odds with the streak of isolationism, or unilateralism, that he saw in many Congressional Republicans. After having his fingers burned by his debacle in Somalia, he let a decent interval pass before sending U.S. troops to Bosnia and Kosovo, side by side with the Europeans. It was not always easy, but it worked.

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Clinton involved himself personally in the peace process in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, although at the end he had to watch, powerless, as years of efforts unraveled in the West Bank and Gaza.

Talking about prospects of peace when it still seemed at hand, Mr. Clinton said, "We know economics must be a big part of the Middle East peace process...When people are working together for common prosperity in a rule-based system, they have big incentives to lay their differences down and join hands to work together."

U.S. relations with China under Mr. Clinton also displayed the streak of optimism that can so often be found in American diplomacy, even if that optimism coexists with a strong determination to fight for U.S. national interests, American jobs and exports, and the protection of foreign investments.

Expressing his satisfaction after the House of Representatives approved PNTR for China in May 2000, Mr. Clinton described it as a "historic step toward continued prosperity in America, reform in China, and peace in the world."æHe described China, with more than a billion people, "as the largest new market in the world."

It also, of course, could be seen as one of the business world's largest illusions, if one remembers all those executives' dreams of selling a pair of shoes or a can of Coke to every single Chinese consumer - hopes which, as should have been expected, remain to be fulfilled.

Trying to address the concerns of his friends in the Democratic Party and in the labor unions, Mr. Clinton added, "But we will have more positive influence with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist (because) we will be exporting more than our products. By this agreement, we will also export more of one of our most cherished values, economic freedom. Bringing China into the WTO and normalizing trade will strengthen those who fight for the environment, for labor standards, for human rights, for the rule of law."

But Mr. Clinton's policies have not always been successful. He suffered some notable failures. Mr. Clinton failed in his efforts to promote the Mulitlateral Agreement on Investment in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

As the host, he contributed to the failure of the disastrous WTO Ministerial meeting in Seattle in late 1999. His attempts at compromise, his "diplomatie de charme," failed to move a majority of WTO members, who had their own trade concerns. Nor did he convince the environmentalists, who felt betrayed by globalization.

His proposals satisfied no one; neither developing countries, who rejected his plans to include labor and environmental standards in future trade agreements, nor non-governmental organizations, which found, on the contrary, that they did not go nearly far enough. The arrogance of Charlene Barshefsky, Mr. Clinton's Trade Representative, did not help.

If the ratification of NAFTA was a success for trade, it was, in political terms, a Pyrrhic victory at best. Mr. Cohen says that it showed the Clinton Administration "at its best and at its worst."

Mr. Clinton did a very good job of selling NAFTA to Congress and to public opinion, both of which were highly suspicious of a trade agreement with a poor country. A number of promises made on environmental and labor standards, however, were never kept.

Labor unions made the Democrats pay dearly in the 1994 elections by sitting on their hands and declining to vote, thus helping Newt Gingrich and his so-called revolutionaries to win back Congress for the Republicans.

Presidential fast-track negotiating authority - a prerequisite for serious international trade negotiations - was the first victim of the mistrust that ensued, which was shared by members of both parties. As a result, although he made half-hearted attempts to renew fast-track authority, Mr. Clinton never fought hard enough to secure it.

Mr. Clinton's speeches were perhaps more consistent than his performance. Certainly not all his theories were put into practice. But Professor Louis W. Goodman, Dean of the School of International Service at American University, thinks that Bill Clinton will leave behind "a very positive legacy."

"Of course," Mr. Goodman says, "it will not be a grandiose legacy. But he started a huge new concept of America as a world leader" by enlarging the scope of U.S. leadership. During his eight years in the White House, Mr. Clinton relied at least as much on diplomacy as on America's economic, technological, and cultural muscle, to "export our leadership across the world."

Without Mr. Clinton's efforts, the United States might look weaker on the diplomatic front, and more insecure in facing new threats like international terrorism. Many leaders and opinion-makers in other countries might still be living with a vision of America as a traditional superpower; and some Americans might still think that they could conduct U.S. foreign policy tomorrow like they did in the 1980s, before or just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thanks to Mr. Clinton, however, the WTO is now a battleground as important as the United Nations, and trade agreements matter as much as defense or peace treaties. His legacy can perhaps best be found in the way he adapted the concept of international relations to globalization.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.