Continuity and change in American foreign policy: some thoughts on the imperialism of free trade: througout the Clinton years American foreign policy-makers focused on the dual global triumphs of the American military and the economy. What are the objectives of the next administration?

Author:Reed, James
Position::Perspective
 
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Whether George W. Bush or Al Gore is eventually declared winner of the American presidential election (and this was still in doubt at the time of writing), come January 2001, Americans will have a new president, national security adviser, secretary of state, trade ambassador, Senate, and House of Representatives. This naturally raises questions about the shape of American foreign policy over the next four years. The answers are of paramount concern to Canadians, partly because of Canada's special relationship with the United States and partly because of the vigorous role Canada has chosen to play historically in the international community.

Canada's particular sensitivity to change in American foreign policy was vividly expressed by the late prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, when he told an American audience that `Living next to you is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.' Twitches and grunts are of course commonplace, but they are also unpredictable, especially during the atmosphere of an election year. Yet, even in this overheated context, it should be possible to stand back and reassess the nature of the beast - whether `friendly,' `even tempered,' or about to go on a rampage. With appropriate trepidation, it should also be possible to consider the direction of the beast called American foreign policy under a new administration.

Even though policy details are unpredictable, trend lines can be extrapolated from historical experience and from the policy pronouncements of the major political parties, the candidates, and their foreign policy advisers.

My purpose in this exercise - an exercise that is being repeated obsessively in Washington embassies and in foreign ministries around the world - is to identify the factors that might indicate either continuity or change under the new order of things.

Though the details are inherently unpredictable because future world events cannot be foreseen, even by a president or prime minister with a crystal ball, the shape of America's multifaceted role in the world over the next several years seems reasonably clear. But before discussing continuity and change, and what they may mean for Canada, it is important to have an accurate picture of American foreign policy in the 1990s

The Legacy of the Clinton-Gore Administration

American foreign relations over the past decade, particularly during the administration of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, can be summed up analytically as the pursuit of a kind of global hegemony following the collapse of the Soviet Union as superpower rival. It is important to emphasize `analytically' as distinct from `pejoratively' because foreign policy analysts of all stripes increasingly use the concept of hegemony. Even Foreign Affairs, a publication of the establishment Council on Foreign Relations, recently featured a heated exchange on the question: `Is American Hegemony Working?' That such a policy exists was not disputed. (1)

American hegemony, which assumed definitive shape in the Clinton-Gore years, is a peculiar kind of imperialism that is not fully understood, even by foreigners who resent it. It is formidable in some areas but strikingly vulnerable in others, seemingly monolithic in certain respects but finally rather shallow. It is a patchwork hegemony that is perhaps most comparable historically to the British Empire of the mid-nineteenth century after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 - the so-called imperialism of free trade - underpinned by the worldwide military and technological prowess of the Royal Navy and given ideological justification by the Manchester School of Economics. (2)

Like the architects of mid-Victorian Britain's imperialism of free trade, Clinton - who resembles the Victorians in few other respects - settled early in his first term on a foreign policy that was essentially reactive, risk-averse, and episodic. Sensing how little lasting popularity President George Bush the Elder had gained domestically from the diplomatic and military triumph in the Persian Gulf in 1991-2, Clinton quickly decided that a foreign economic policy centred on the pursuit of free trade agreements could substitute nicely for foreign policy in a period of public apathy about world affairs and a robust domestic economy. The slogan `It's the economy, stupid,' which guided Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign, became the underlying principle of American foreign policy.

Throughout their successive administrations, from 1993 to the present, Clinton and Gore consistently pointed to free trade agreements as the signal accomplishments of their foreign policy. Gore's televised face-off with Ross Perot on the eve of Senate ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Clinton's vision of `the three amigos' and their potential partners at the Miami Summit of the Americas, the administration's push to ratify the World Trade Organization (WTO) treaty, and, in the autumn of 2000, congressional approval of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China are generally hailed in the American media as the defining moments in recent American foreign relations (never mind `the battle of Seattle,' to which we will return later).

Such was the public face of American foreign policy at home during the Clinton-Gore years. The reality `on the ground,' however, was quite different. It is entirely possible that the Clinton-Gore years will be noted by future historians not so much for the triumph of free trade as for the expanding role of the American military. The free trade regime, after all, is merely continental; American military power is in theory worldwide, if not universal.

That the militarization of American foreign policy may turn out to be the principal legacy of the Clinton-Gore years is in retrospect astonishing. When the cold war ended, Americans generally assumed that the need for a massive military would be substantially reduced now that the enemies had, by and large, been vanquished, nuclear disarmament seemed inevitable, and the expected large `peace dividend' could be spent on domestic programmes. There was also an expectation that the United Nations would play an expanded role in world affairs, particularly in security issues and peacekeeping. Even during the Gulf War, a serious school of thought held that we were witnessing the birth of a `new world order' based on multilateralism and international law.

Yet, because of Clinton's domestic preoccupations, his lack of a coherent vision of world affairs, and, above all, his failure to impose adequate civilian control over the United States military, that opportunity was lost. Instead...

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