(Washington, D.C.): At every conceivable turn, spokesmen for the Clinton
its friends are repeating, in mantra-like fashion, that the Republican-led Congress is guilty of
practicing a “new isolationism.” As George Melloan, the Wall Street Journal’s highly regarded
columnist specializing in international affairs, puts it in today’s editions: “Get real.”
There are real disagreements about the manner and consequences of Mr. Clinton’s
security policy. Those disagreements, however, are generally not over a preference on the part
the President’s critics for American isolationism. They reflect, instead, very different judgments
about how the United States can most successfully and safely engage internationally.
Those who persist in propagating the “new isolationism” myth risk being seen as either
know-nothings or demagogues — or both. Such individuals are unlikely to contribute usefully to
sort of rigorous debate about security policy that is so urgently needed, and to which Mr.
Melloan has helpfully contributed.
Clinton Proposes and Congress Disposes, Thank Heaven
By George Melloan
Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, rocked the staid Council on
Relations last Thursday night with a flailing attack on the “isolationist” Republicans of Congress.
Similar themes have been heard a few blocks away, in that center of the universe better known as
the United Nations building. According to Mr. Berger and like-minded theorists over at the U.N.,
Americans should be worried about the “bad image” projected when Congress challenges the
collective wisdom of what is so frequently described as the “international community.”
A proper reply from Congress would be that its job is to weigh benefits against costs to
American citizens, either in terms of money or national security. If you want nothing more than
images, the world’s leading expert sits in the White House. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
that failed to make the grade in Congress–touching off the Berger counterattack–was long on
imagery, but short on substance when subjected to rigorous analysis. It would do nothing to stop
any country bent on becoming a nuclear power from doing so, or, more to the point, nothing to
control the expansion of nuclear arsenals by countries, such as China, that already have them.
Mr. Berger clearly subscribes to the political theory that a good offense is the best defense.
was wise not to rely on defense, since neither he nor anyone else in the Clinton administration
has adequately explained why China could apparently steal American nuclear secrets with ease.
Trying to defend this administration’s national security policies would have required far more
intellectual agility than was needed to attack the “isolationists.”
Not that Mr. Berger’s speech in New York would rate a Heisman Trophy for offense, either.
missed the target by a mile. Some of the most prominent internationalists in U.S. public life
voted against the test ban treaty on grounds that it was unenforceable and thus worse than
useless. To imply, for example, that Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and Jon Kyl of
Arizona are “isolationists” is merely ludicrous. Sen. Kyl is the Senate’s leading defender of
NATO and other U.S.-sponsored security arrangements around the world. Indeed, it would be
hard to find anyone in the Congress, from either party, who could legitimately be called an
“isolationist” in this day and age. Get real.
Aside from trying to peddle political twaddle to the Council audience, Mr. Berger managed
tangle himself in contradictions. The central U.S. foreign policy problem, as he sees it, is that the
U.S. “is accused of both hegemony and isolationism at the same time.” Clearly, the only solution
to this problem is for the U.S. to do what the “rest of the world,” whoever that might be, wants.
Which brings us back to that “international community” that swings so much weight with the
Clinton administration. That term, properly understood, doesn’t refer to the world’s six billion
souls. Rather, it refers to the rather small community that gathers at the U.N. and the venues of
the U.N.’s multilateral sister organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the
World Bank. These people are jealous of their considerable power and rightly see the U.S.
Congress as a threat. Congress of late has not been happy with the “international community”
and through its control of the lion’s share of the funds that support that community’s projects, it
has the power to express its unhappiness in significant ways.
Although the Congress has willingly funded U.N. peacekeeping around the globe, it has
an appropriation to bring U.S. dues to that organization up to date. If the money isn’t paid by the
end of this year, the U.S. is in danger of losing its seat in the General Assembly, we are told.
Some of the Capitol Hill complaints against U.N. programs are founded on beliefs that are of
special importance in the U.S. Objections to U.N. population control efforts are an extension of
the continuing battle between right-to-life and right-to-choose adherents in America, for
example. But multilateral organizations are most vulnerable to legitimate criticism when their
activities threaten to waste economic resources.
One such U.N. effort is the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, which is being revisited in
this week by several hundred environmental activists from around the world who hope to convert
it from a paper tiger to one with real teeth. The Kyoto document is based on the flimsy theory
that industrial emissions of carbon dioxide–hardly measurable in a vast ecosphere of which CO2
is a natural component–pose an environmental threat. The treaty aims at reducing those
emissions, whatever the cost in money and jobs. Mr. Clinton, at the urging of Vice President Al
Gore, has enhanced his image with these fanatics by signing this idiotic document. But he has
not brought it before Congress, knowing full well that it could never be ratified.
As to the IMF, the Congress has supplied it with more capital despite growing doubts that
body plays a positive role in the world. The IMF, we now learn, has little clue as to what has
happened to all the money it has funneled into Russia, yet still wants to supply some more. More
generally, there are persuasive arguments that IMF loans do not really succeed in bribing
national governments to adopt better economic policies, as supporters claim, but in fact finance
the continuation of bad economic policies. The IMF proved to be woefully short on crisis
management skills during the Asian currency meltdown.
None of these challenges to Clinton and the international community have their basis in
isolationism. Two of the very few positive things this administration has accomplished, the
Uruguay Round and the Nafta free trade agreements, could not have been pushed through
Congress without Republican support. Mr. Clinton’s failure to get “fast track” authority for new
trade negotiations last year was not because of Republican objections but his own foot-dragging
to appease the labor movement, a major Democratic Party constituency. The World Trade
Organization meeting coming up in Seattle in late November promises to be a fiasco for similar
In short, the problems Mr. Clinton has had with Congress on foreign policy have resulted
the incoherence of his own policies: He has allowed U.S. military power to wither while at the
same time tasking it with more and more U.N. assignments. He has played domestic politics by
signing nice-sounding treaties that are in fact meaningless, or even dangerous, for U.S. security.
Mr. Berger may rail at imaginary “isolationists” but that’s not what the coming political battle in
the U.S. is going to be about.