The world carefully gauges the ups and downs of the stock market, recalculates the value of the Korean won, and frets about continuing recession in Japan. At the same time, slaughter goes on in Rwanda; the fractious Bosnians busily unravel international efforts to repair their social fabric; and the Middle East simmers over the Oslo Accords, the state of near-war with Iraq, and the ambiguous re-emergence of Iran.

When the Soviet Empire collapsed and with it cold-war diplomacy, who expected U.S. foreign policy would be monopolized by trade issues or high-wire rescues of sinking economies? Who could have foreseen the extent to which the Treasury Department would eclipse the State Department in the intricate business of managing U.S. relations with other nations, or that the secretary of the treasury would become the United States’ foremost foreign-policy troubleshooter?

But business is business, and the travails of capitalism wonderfully focus the mind. If events in Korea follow the scenario of the U.S. rescue of the Mexican economy, investment bankers will heave a sigh of relief. And so will many ordinary Americans who have come to accept that the stability of their jobs, the value of their pensions, and the performance of the U.S. economy are increasingly exposed to the ups and downs of the global economy-that is, to what happens in Korea, Thailand, Mexico, Japan. Interdependence comes in many forms and carries many responsibilities; knowing the value of the Korean won is part of that.

But what of Rwanda? Bosnia? South Africa? Zimbabwe? And many other nations in the throes of political and cultural upheaval? Don’t their troubled situations merit the attention of policy makers and the American people?

The anxiety over Korea is understandable—economic stability is perforce a necessary focus of U.S. foreign policy. But is that it? Is the United States simply to become lender of last resort, “the invisible hand” steadying unregulated markets and compensating for the buccaneering spirit of global investors, including many of its own citizens?

The classic tasks of foreign policy—information gathering, analysis, negotiation—still must be carried on. What about NATO? Have we fully and frankly engaged our European partners in discussions of military strategy and funding as the alliance expands eastward? Are Russia and its myriad levels of complicated politics receiving the sustained attention they deserve? What about the future of South Africa as Nelson Mandela steps back from center stage? Or developments in Central Asia? Turkey? Algeria?

Of course, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is very visible, and very active, almost hyperactive. Her continuing negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority may yet achieve a kind of stability on the West Bank. Her travels—her very presence in Rwanda, for example—draw attention to the precarious state of peace in many parts of the world. But these are specimens of personal diplomacy; a necessary but not sufficient component of policy making. As forceful as she appears to be, and as successful as she may prove to be (or not), Albright can’t do everything. She needs direction and support from the president and from Congress. And the rest of us seek a reasonably clear idea of our country’s goals and guidelines vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

The cold war supplied a kind of discipline, a set of convictions about who conducted foreign policy and how. That discipline and those convictions are gone for good. Now we need leaders capable of seeing and shaping policy at many different levels in very ambiguous situations. We seem to be managing at the economic level, but at the political level there is drift and indecision. President Bill Clinton never promised to be a foreign-policy president, a promise he has kept. But still—he needs a policy. His Christmas visit to Bosnia was an opportunity both to state policy and shape opinion. But the visit seemed strictly pro forma, impressing neither U.S. soldiers nor Bosnian leaders. It was a missed opportunity to clarify for the American people why those troops are going to be there for some time to come—because peacemaking is a long and arduous undertaking.

Back in Washington, it’s all checks and no balances. The Congress, specifically Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has effectively usurped the president’s prerogative to name ambassadors and to deal with international bodies. U.S. relations with the United Nation are tense and difficult because of congressional refusal to pay our long-delayed dues. A world in ever greater need of cooperation and collaboration can ill-afford to have the U.S. Congress thumbing its nose at the one body that can, at least, deliberate about genocide; that helps foster economic cooperation; and that, in extreme cases, actually supports the Herculean task of peacemaking.

No one could have predicted the aftermath of the cold war. Even so, it is dismaying that dollar diplomacy garners the attention of the best minds in Washington and sets the priorities for our policy on everything else. A broader vision is needed.


Related: Intervention: When and How? by the Editors
Humanitarian Intervention by David Hollenbach

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Published in the 1998-01-16 issue: View Contents
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