Stability and Change in President Clinton's Foreign Policy Beliefs, 1993-96.


Debate over President Clinton's Worldview

The election of Bill Clinton as president in November 1992 brought to Washington, DC, a "self-admitted [domestic] `policy wonk'" who "was clearly less comfortable with foreign and defense matters than his predecessor."(1) Indeed, throughout the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Clinton made it clear that "if a battle was to be fought, resources of intervention deployed, it would be in a war against domestic problems, not foreign enemies."(2) In other words, the public had a good idea that if Clinton were elected, he would "focus like a laser beam" on the domestic economy in order to be the domestic policy president that George Bush had not been. However, because he spent the majority of his time discussing domestic problems, his views on foreign policy and America's place in the post-cold war world largely remained a mystery.(3)

Some argue that the ad hoc, inconsistent nature of American foreign policy during 1993 and 1994 further contributed to the growing feeling that President Clinton had still not developed a coherent worldview. During his first term, for example, he earned the nickname "William the Waffler" for his administration's supposed inconsistency in linking rhetoric with policy on human rights violations in China, refugee problems in Cuba and Haiti, and in haphazardly getting the United States involved in the long-running, tragic conflict in Bosnia.(4) Thus, trying to discern Clinton's image of the world has been the cause of much debate and academic focus, particularly since, as the first "baby boomer" president, Clinton has very little "in common with the life experiences and shared worldview of the generation of Cold War leaders" who preceded him.(5)

Much analysis of Clinton's foreign policy at midterm characterizes the president's worldview and his administration's policy as inconsistent/incoherent, complex/complicated, or nonexistent. Fred Greenstein describes Clinton's approach to foreign policy as "highly personalistic and sometimes indecisive" and his worldview as "inconsistent."(6) Wolfowitz generally concurs with Greenstein, calling it "confused and inconsistent."(7) Friedman also agrees, calling the president's "foreign policy blueprint nonexistent" and incoherent.(8) Brent Scowcroft characterizes the Clinton image of the world as a "peripatetic foreign policy outlook at prey to the whims of the latest balance of forces."(9)

Gelb and others disagree, arguing instead that Clinton does have a coherent worldview: these analyses argue that President Clinton's worldview is "complex and coherent" rather than inconsistent and confused.(10) Schneider, for example, argues that President Clinton has developed a cohesive, complex sense of U.S. policy as "more multilateral" and oriented toward collective efforts "to deal with threats to the [international] peace."(11) J. Bryan Hehir also agrees that the Clinton image of the world is complex and suggests that it is one well tailored for the realities of a world that has changed to such a degree that "the very depth and change at work in the world has made the formulation of a grand strategy impossible."(12)

Another prominent midterm view centers on the idea that Clinton simply does not have a foreign policy worldview because he focuses almost exclusively on domestic political, economic, and social concerns. Robert Pastor explains that Bill Clinton justities his administration's "internationalism by reference to domestic political concerns like drugs, crime, or jobs, and that he employs a domestic political calculus to judge when and how to respond to foreign crises."(13) Berman and Goldman argue that "Clinton has defined the U.S. national purpose as one of domestic renewal."(14) Lieber reports that upon taking office as president, Clinton was initially very reluctant to devote regular attention to foreign policy, but that if his policy had to be articulated, it would center on the nexus between domestic and international concerns, especially the link between the global and the domestic economy.(15)

More recent research and debate show that there is still a decided lack of consensus on whether President Clinton has developed a coherent worldview. Lieber, for example, argues that the administration's first-term foreign policy was characterized by a "highly personalistic and sometimes indecisive decision-making style."(16) He notes however, that the confusion and indecision are understandable given the withering of the cold war, "the absence of an external threat [and] the concomitant reduced priority for foreign affairs."(17) Thomas Omestad argues that Clinton's first two years were marred by inconsistent, uncertain, and puzzling policies toward Bosnia's Serbs, China's communists, and Haiti's dictators, among others.(18) According to Omestad, however, the final two years of Clinton's first term show that he did develop a consistent and effective foreign policy: "realism was prevailing over impractical idealism, clarity over confusion. Illusions were being shed and greater policy coherence attained."(19)

On the other hand, Charles William Maynes believes that Clinton started with a coherent foreign policy but has ended up with an inconsistent, "reactive" policy and worldview.(20) According to Maynes, the administration came to office with a vision of centering America's post-cold war foreign policy on the idea of democratic and free market "enlargement." However, the administration abandoned this policy and began to follow a reactive policy pattern, in which "events and not doctrine have driven foreign policy responses."(21) Along this same line, one-time Republican presidential hopeful Arlen Specter critically suggests that the United States needs "a president who projects a foreign policy that is more than a surprised reaction to world events."(22)

In contrast to Maynes, and in support of Omestad, others argue that Clinton started off inconsistently but has developed a cohesive worldview and foreign policy. For instance, Douglas Brinkley says the president took office with a foreign policy centering on "crisis management rather than strategic doctrine," but by midterm decided on a policy centering on "enlargement."(23) According to Brinkley, since 1994, President Clinton has followed a consistent and effective foreign policy path: foster and consolidate "new democracies and market economics where possible" and "counter the aggression and support the liberalization of states hostile to democracy."(24) Finally, Snow and Brown suggest that except for foreign economic policy, foreign policy did not maintain Clinton's interest during his first term, and thus "the president has not shown consistent leadership, and this has been reflected in policy inconstancy."(25)

One thing is clear about the president's foreign policy worldview: it profoundly puzzles reporters, pundits, and academics alike. Thus far, there has been little theory or empirical evidence to use as a guide in making sense of Clinton's many seeming inconsistencies. In our study, we use a political psychology perspective to examine and more systematically explicate the worldview of President Clinton during his first term as president. First, the role of individual beliefs in foreign policy are examined. We follow the lead of the majority of scholars who have studied the foreign policy perceptions and beliefs of political leaders and focus our attention on one key political actor: President William Jefferson Clinton. Second, the level of stability and change in beliefs is analyzed over time. As Rosati explains, "most studies on perceptions and beliefs tend to be static and rarely integrate other factors that may affect the evolution of an image."(26) We establish Clinton's worldview for 1993 and discuss how and why it came to be. Then we examine his worldview during 1994, 1995, and 1996 to look for differences and similarities. Finally, we assess the effects of system structure, personality, external events, and domestic forces to explain stability and change in the president's image of the international system over his first term in office.

In brief, three primary research questions guide this study. First, what is President Clinton's image of the international system throughout his first four years in office? Second, does this image remain stable, or does it change over time? Third, if worldview does evolve through the term, what factors help explain this change?

Psychological Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis

Systematic research on attitudes and attitudinal change commenced in the 1930s but became more prominent in the 1960s. For the most part, this research had been the domain of social psychology. However, by the mid-1960s, some fairly prominent international relations scholars began to apply what has been discovered about attitudes in their own work. Kelman,(27) Brodin,(28) and Jervis(29) were all early advocates of attitudinal data for their work on beliefs and images. A considerable amount of work on belief systems has been devoted to the description of images.(30) A large amount of research has also been devoted to examining the content of beliefs, including elite image studies by Holsti(31) and Starr,(32) research on operational codes by George(33) and Holsti,(34) cognitive mapping by Axelrod,(35) and work on the effects of personality by Etheredge(36) and Tetlock.(37)

One of the most significant elite image studies to date is Ole Holsti's research on the relationship between Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's beliefs and his mode of processing and interpreting foreign information.(38) According to Holsti, Dulles maintained a rigidly negative view of the USSR throughout his tenure as secretary of state by selectively processing new information and by "explaining" away nonhostile Soviet actions as the "exigencies of weakness." Starr's general focus is the connection between individual belief systems and discrete...

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