Bill Clinton's performance on the world stage can be fairly summed up in a memorable Churchillian phrase: a themeless pudding. Clinton was elected President on the promise to change the United States, but the rapid, profound, and often mysterious changes in the rest of the world threaten to cripple his Presidency. He came to the White House with the unrealistic hope that he could defer major foreign-policy initiatives until he had won the tough battles over taxes, deficits, health care, and other domestic issues. As President, he has had little chance to reflect on the tectonic changes in world politics that culminated in the collapse of communism, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of other multi-ethnic states, much less to develop a coherent national-security strategy that takes it all into account.
During the Cold War, the United States took on self-described "world responsibilities," and the simple ideological framework offered off-the-rack policies that could be applied anywhere in the world. If the Kremlin did not like it, it was almost certainly a good thing to do. Clinton is the first President in more than forty years without the ideological security blanket of the Cold War. But because of his experience and temperament and the pressures of domestic politics, he appears committed to a Fix America First policy through free trade - a policy that cannot work.
Clinton has not accurately assessed the most significant trends in world affairs; he has not sensibly set the nation's priorities; he has not grasped the challenges posed by political, economic, and military developments beyond our shores.
In the Cold War years, American Presidents were so obsessed with their grand design that they sacrificed to the fight against communism all sorts of important interests, including the economic health of the United States, the bedrock of any real security strategy. Yet without a clear sense of American priorities, an understanding of the limits of American power, and a clearer vision of the decent world order we seek, foreign and military policy will continue to be immobilized by obsolete Cold War assumptions.
To his credit, Clinton seems determined to sweep away Cold War debris where it is politically feasible to do so. There is still a chance that the Clinton Administration will ease the anachronistic and increasingly cruel embargo of Cuba. The President recognized Angola and ended U.S. support for the long war to unseat the government of that country. As with Angola, there are political and economic interests to be served by normalizing relations with Vietnam, and Clinton seems to be moving in that direction. He also played a constructive role, by threatening...