Second Term Policy
December 6, 1996
Charlayne Hunter-Gault and a panel of historians look at Presidents of the United States and their foreign policy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yesterday, President Clinton announced his national security team for a second term. Key appointments included United Nations Amb. Madeleine Albright to be secretary of state and the nomination of retiring Republican Senator William Cohen to be secretary of defense. We get a longer perspective now on Presidents and foreign policy. It comes from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight are two diplomatic historians: Ronald Steel, a visiting professor at George Washington University, and Nancy Bernkopf-Tucker, who teaches at Georgetown University. Thank you all for being here. And starting with you, Michael, how important has presidential foreign policy been over the years?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, it's been particularly important, obviously, during the time of World War II and the Cold War. And to show you how much things have changed during that period--since that period, go back to Richard Nixon, end of the 1960's, early 1970's. Nixon said at that point the only reason you need a President is for foreign policy. Domestically, the country can run itself without a President. Compare that to Bill Clinton. It really shows how long a distance we've traveled since the end of the Cold War. You know, this month it's five years since the Cold War ended. And during the duration of the Cold War, Americans and Presidents oftentimes talked very lyrically about what it would be like when the Cold War ended. We've had a couple of things that we didn't expect. One has been that presidential power has really drained. These last five years have been the last year of George Bush, the four years of Bill Clinton. They could not look at the Soviet threat and use that to unify the nation and to some extent draw people to their leadership. This has been a period in which both of those Presidents really had a period when they were trying to assert themselves. The other thing is if you've got those two Presidents, they've been very quiet on foreign policy. George Bush running in 1992 was told by his aides and advisors, don't talk about international affairs; the public is no longer interested. Bill Clinton has taken the same advice. He has largely seen silence on foreign affairs to a great extent as evidence of the seriousness about addressing domestic problems. And the result has been at times over the last four years that silence has been rather deafening.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Haynes, do you have anything to add to that?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: It's interesting, what Michael's talk about, Nixon, all we need is a foreign policy President. Go back to the beginning. George Washington told us just the reverse, don't get involved in foreign entanglements, don't--that's not what America is; take care of our own needs, we don't want those foreign wars, all those ethnic, religious rivalries that have torn apart history and so forth. And, in fact, for a century, that's what this country did. And it's only in this century that foreign policy has dominated so many presidencies in different ways. General Roosevelt sending the great white fleet around the world and America's ascendancy under the globe and Eisenhower later with Communism and all the Presidents since then, various doctrines along the way, contain our enemies at home and abroad. And now it seems as though Michael's right, we have no foreign policy President, but what we saw in the markets today is a reminder that this country is tied absolutely as we've never been before all around the globe. We're bound together with the markets. So foreign policy is economic policy. It's the farmer in Iowa. It's the yen. It's the Japanese mark--I mean, the German mark. And there we are--around the globe just absolutely tied to our foreign entanglements in different ways economically.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does it go up and down? I mean, does foreign policy become more important at sometimes, rather than others?
RONALD STEEL, Diplomatic Historian: Absolutely. It depends entirely on what period of crisis, if you will, there is in the world. I think we're at a transition point now. We've had three major transition points in this century. The first was in 1918, after the First World War; the second in 1945, after the Second; and the third now, after the Cold War. And we're still in this transition period since the five years that the Cold War has been over. This period I think we're entering now is similar to the one we entered in 1918, which is to say we've come out of a major war, and there's no threatening rival out there. The transition from 1945 was from war, hot war to cold war, if you will. And so that was a permanent crisis. So there was a retreat, if you will, from foreign policy, a retreat from a preoccupation, even an obsession, with foreign policy. And I think President Bush and Clinton were both correct in feeling that the country didn't want to be overly concerned, or overly bothered by foreign policy. Nonetheless, the President must convey that he is in command of these issues even if he puts them in a relatively peripheral position. And the few times that President Clinton stumbled, I think, is when he appeared not to be in command. I think he could have said to us in certain cases these issues are not critically important to us, and these are the reasons why. It was the lack--what seemed to be the lack of attention, I think, that was the problem.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Foreign policy has been the place, Nancy Tucker, where Americans have projected their values, right, in the past? I mean, has that changed--those values changed much over the years?
NANCY BERNKOPF TUCKER, Diplomatic Historian: I don't think the values have changed. I think what Americans believe in has stayed constant, but Americans have had increasing difficulty in relating those values to what they're seeing happening in the world. During the Cold War, it was very clear. We had a defined enemy. We saw that enemy as one that didn't believe in our political system. It was opposed to democracy. It was opposed to private property. It challenged the things that we held the most dear. With the end of the Cold War, Americans are having difficulty understanding what is happening in the world, and they've had the added problem of not having Presidents willing to articulate to them and help them to understand. My biggest concern is that the President's central responsibility in foreign policy is really to educate the public as to why foreign policy is important to the American people. Why is it that we have to take countries like China, whose principles and values and institutions are so different from ours, why do we need to take them seriously? What are the dangers? What are the opportunities? I don't think the President in the recent past has made an effort to do that. I think that's essential.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And have people's--the public's interest in foreign policy waxed and waned, depending upon how the chief executive dealt with it, or to the sense in which we had a crisis?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It has. You know, during most of the Cold War, you look at the polls and what were the top ten issues of importance to people, usually foreign policy and especially relations with the Soviet Union were at the top. You look at that poll now, and foreign affairs oftentimes doesn't even make it into the top ten. But one of the purposes--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because there's no crisis?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Because there's not a crisis, and also because a lot of Presidents during the Cold War I think to some extent connected a lot of foreign affairs to simply the Soviet Union, so that when the Soviet Union died as a threat to the United States, a lot of the other reasons why the United States should be active in the world seemed to diminish as well. And I think this is really where a President has to exercise leadership. Sometimes Presidents have to do things that are not immediately popular and the people do not immediately demand. During the Cold War, Presidents had to make the case to Americans why they should make sacrifices to oppose the Soviet Union. Now that's longer forced. And you see a situation, for instance, like Haiti in 1994, when Bill Clinton was in favor of an invasion to change that regime. The first serious statement he made to Americans on why they should do that was only a couple of days before that invasion was to begin. The old conversation between Presidents and Americans has really diminished.
RONALD STEEL: I think there's a good reason why Presidents have dealing with foreign policy and why the public doesn't want to hear about it, why it puts it low on the top ten list, and it's I think because we define foreign policy in too narrow of a way. I think foreign policy is important, but Haynes Johnson, I think, put his finger right on it when he talked about foreign policy as economic policy. That's certainly what has happened. The really crucial decisions now are in economic policy. Now, we talked about this new team coming in. And this new team, we're looking at it in traditional, almost Cold War terms. Who's the head of the CIA? Who's secretary of state? Who's head of the NSC? I think more important than any of that is who's the secretary of the treasury. These are the big decisions that are having to be made.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's what I guess I was trying to suggest earlier. If you sit with a farmer in Iowa at 4 o'clock in the morning and drink coffee, they'll talk about Brazil and soybeans--
RONALD STEEL: And the price here.
HAYNES JOHNSON: --and the commodity markets. And the same thing would be true of factory workers up in New England, or wherever they've been. They understand that's foreign policy. It's not defined as great global sweeping terms, and the enemy is not Hitler or Stalin or whatever. But it does--they are very much connected to that world, even if they don't want to be.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nancy, can you give us some insight into how much the way in which foreign policy is formulated has changed and how much the team, the makeup of the team matters in the formulation of that?
NANCY BERNKOPF TUCKER: Well, Presidents have often had difficulty choosing teams. It really is not so much evolution over time as evolution with the different personalities of the Presidents. Some Presidents have chosen to have strong foreign policy teams. Dwight Eisenhower relied very heavily on the team he assembled to use the National Security Council. On the other hand, Richard Nixon got a secretary of state precisely because he knew nothing about foreign policy and wouldn't get in Nixon and Kissinger's way. With Bill Clinton, it seems to be an emphasis on the team as a team, people who will work together, who will be loyal to him. He's not looking for somebody who's going to be an independent star, not a Dean Atchison.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about to the point that Ronald Steel just made, about how the whole thing has changed now and who's the most important, you know, cabinet official and how--
HAYNES JOHNSON: But, you know, the President's the most important official. He's the person that is, as you say, the educator. It's that voice, the only voice that can articulate who we think we are in the world, and what we think we should be doing. And I guess we're each of us saying in different ways here, is it's been rather mute in recent years.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And it's also a problem, it's a problem in general because the President is probably, if you had to isolate one influence that really shapes the way that Americans look at the world, it's probably largely what their President tells them in those times, and it's a problem if a crisis comes up, because people do not know what to make of it. A President has to deal with lost time. I agree with very much of what Ron Steel said comparing this period to the 1920's. You had Warren Harding and two successors who spoke almost not at all about foreign affairs. What they did say in public was often rather ignorant, and the person who had to pay the price in politics was Franklin Roosevelt. In the late 1930's, he had to make up for a lot of lost time, educate Americans why they might have to make very deep sacrifices to oppose fascism in Europe and Asia.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are there some other examples like that, where foreign policy has been ignored at somebody's peril, either the nation's or the President's, or--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, the nuclear threat we've all dealt with. Still, I mean, I was interested in the general this week who came out after being the head of SAC, the Strategic Air Command, saying we've got to get rid of all the missiles in the world, and the United States should take the lead. That's what you'd expect the President to be talking about somehow, but we're not, I mean, as an example.
NANCY BERNKOPF TUCKER: Well, that's one of the things I think that does concern me about what was Ron was saying earlier, that I think to some extent one of the problems with the administration has been the emphasis precisely on economic issues to an exclusion of other strategic kinds of issues. It seems to me even without a Cold War, proliferation, strategic deployment of forces, human rights issues, there are a whole range of things that go beyond economics. It may be the economy at the heart of much of what we're doing today, but there's been an exclusive emphasis, a tendency to say treasury, commerce are where the action is.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I might even say there is self-interest in this for Presidents because I think that if Presidents really talk about these things, exercise some vision, I think it's going to increase their power because Americans will listen to them on other subjects. I think that would have happened with George Bush in ‘92, and also Bill Clinton, if he had gotten started earlier.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Excuse me, Ron. Did you--
RONALD STEEL: These other issues are clearly important. Nancy is certainly right. But we've defined power in a traditional way as well. Power is nuclear throw weight, or missile throw weight. It's armies; it's submarines; it's this sort of thing. And this has clearly changed in a dramatic way, as we saw--as has been pointed out with Alan Greenspan's comment yesterday. This kind of power that the United States disposes with such enormous value is not the kind of power that is usable. The kind of power that's usable is the wealth of our economy, our ability to influence other societies. And this the President has to act upon. He has to use power in a very different way because his instruments of power are different.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about bipartisanship, has that always been a factor in U.S. foreign policy?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's always been said that politics stopped at the water's edge, and it really never did. We have these romantic views about cooperation between Capitol Hill and an opposition president in the late 1940's, during the Truman period, and that was a period you go back for the debates, there is enormous hostility and very tough talk of a kind that we don't remember. I think, bizarrely enough, one reason why there's a fairly great hope for a bipartisan foreign policy now is that the issues are not really that sharp.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nancy.
NANCY BERNKOPF TUCKER: It's interesting because, to some extent, it's not bipartisanship that's the problem; it's the antagonism between the Executive Branch and the Congress. And so long as the President doesn't take command of foreign policy, he leaves room for the Congress to decide to do it by itself. And the Congress really isn't capable of doing that. So as much as the parties may war, there's also a continuing tension between the President and people on the Hill.
RONALD STEEL: It's not a healthy notion that politics stops at the water's edge. It means that there's no debate.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We have to stop at this edge because we're out of time. Thank you all for joining us.