“Hard-headedness and empathy” — this seemingly paradoxical combination of qualities informed the foreign policy of former President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) at a time when the United States was surging as a unilateral world power, argued foreign policy experts Monday in Copley Formal Lounge.
The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union saw the erosion of the bilateral system of international relations that governed the post-World War II world, poising the United States to increase its influence under Clinton’s lead. Clinton’s extraversion and persistence helped to achieve that goal, according to three experts who worked with his administration.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott comprised a panel on Clinton’s vision of the world and the foreign policy agenda it inspired. The event, co-sponsored by the School of Foreign Service and moderated by SFS Dean Joel Hellman, was part of the “Clinton 25: Georgetown Reflects on the Vision of Bill Clinton” symposium hosted by the Institute of Politics and Public Service.
As an SFS graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Clinton had studied international relations extensively by the time he arrived at the Oval Office. Talbott said Clinton’s focus was ensuring lasting stability.
“He came into office wanting to do everything he could to make sure that the Cold War was over and that post-Soviet Russia would be able to succeed,” Talbott said.
Albright said that through the 1994 Partnership for Peace, a NATO program aimed at increasing trust in European and former Soviet states, Clinton showed Russia a sign of respect.
At the negotiating table, the panelists said, Clinton pursued a “mission rich in diplomacy and engagement.” He complemented this mission with a proclivity for empathy, Zedillo said, citing Clinton’s support for the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement to improve the region’s economy.
NAFTA, which set up a free trade zone among Canada, the United States and Mexico, is currently being renegotiated by the administration of President Donald Trump, who called the agreement “the worst trade deal” during his 2016 presidential campaign.
Clinton believed it was in the national interest to bring financial stability to the region, Zedillo said. The former president sidestepped the U.S. Congress in 1995 to authorize a $20 billion loan to Mexico through the Department of the Treasury.
Clinton’s administration is also remembered for the 2000 Camp David summit among the American, Israeli and Palestinian premiers, during which the parties attempted to broker territorial disputes, the status of refugees and the elimination of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Despite not being able to reach a watershed agreement, Clinton aimed to foster understanding between the parties, according to Albright, who participated in the 13-day negotiations.
“He made it a point of sitting down both with [Palestinian Authority] Chairman [Yasser] Arafat and with [Israeli] Prime Minister Ehud Barak and made them put themselves into the shoes of the other party,” Albright said. “That was kind of his way of saying, ‘We have to solve this together; it had to be win-win and not zero-sum.’”
Perhaps one of the Clinton administration’s most notable foreign policy moments remains the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, through which an international consortium was set to replace North Korea’s plutonium reactor with two light-water reactors.
The talks broke down after incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell of the George W. Bush administration “got hauled into the White House” and was told the negotiations must cease, according to Albright.
The Clinton administration also drew heavy criticism from its decision not to intervene in Rwanda, where 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group were massacred by Hutus in 1994.
Talbott, who went on to preside over the Brookings Institution for 15 years, said Clinton was also instrumental in convincing former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to de-escalate conflict at the India-Pakistan border in 1999. The former president spent his Fourth of July weekend negotiating the demilitarization of the border, averting possible nuclear war.
But it is impossible to encompass eight years of foreign policy in one three-person panel, Hellman said. The conversation thus “wasn’t so much an assessment of the era as an assessment of the man” and how Clinton used his global influence.
In international relations parlance, this analysis of an individual’s vision has a name: the great man or woman theory, which states that foreign policy can be explained by the impact of individuals.
“Russia had a critical role to play in the world and … how it used its strength and potential was largely a function first of [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and then [President Vladimir] Putin taking it in a different direction,” Hellman said, echoing Talbott’s assessment that appointing Putin was Yeltsin’s biggest regret.
For Albright, the foreign affairs lesson from the Clinton presidency is the linkage between international engagement and domestic policy gains: The United States needed to become an “indispensable nation” in the eyes of the world to advance its own interests.
“What I’m worried about is that we are about to become the dispensable nation, where nobody thinks that we do have a role to play,” Albright said. “I would hope that the president, the current one, would understand that what he is trying to accomplish requires the United States to be engaged in a respectful way and stop tweeting.”
This article has been updated.