Tuesday, May 19, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XX

This is the twentieth and last chapter of Herring's book. Rob's review is here.

Herring covers the 1991-2007 period in this chapter. It's really an excellent chapter overall. I'm much more interested in talking about Clinton than Bush. This blog and a million others have covered Bush foreign policy for years. It was a disaster in every single aspect. He comes across as bad in Herring's book as he does everyplace else.

Both Rob and Herring make an important point about Clinton--he was totally unprepared to deal with foreign policy issues. This isn't too surprising--he was a member of the Democratic Party who came of age during the Vietnam War; for a generation, the Democrats basically lacked a coherent foreign policy. In addition, few Americans had a sense of where American foreign policy should go with the Cold War rug pulled out from under us. I remember being hopeful that the U.S. would use its tremendous power to do good in the world, ending conflicts and improving people's lives. Boy was I naive.

I do think both Rob and Herring underplay the one way Clinton was active in foreign policy--globalization and free trade. Herring discusses a bit, but it gets significantly less play than Somalia, Bosnia, Israel, and Rwanda. This isn't surprising, but is unfortunate. One of Clinton's most important policy decisions in his first year of office was to sign NAFTA. Free trade and neoliberalism became the hallmark of American foreign policy during the Clinton years. From Southeast Asia to South America; from Mexico to Russia, untrammelled capitalism ruled the day. The U.S. decided to use its power to promote its own business interests. It did so with the most vigor in Latin America and the reaction against this in the last 10 years suggests how significantly the U.S. overplayed its hand.

Of course, neoliberalism was not just an economic idea. Politics mattered too. "Our Brand is Crisis," a documentary about James Carville's political firm intervening on the behalf of a neoliberal presidential candidate in Bolivia is a great document of American foreign policy in the Cold War era. Popular will, the betterment of the people, and fighting poverty played secondary roles at best to promoting the interests of multinational corporations.

The inability of Democrats to have a cohesive foreign policy after 1968 was a real problem. Clinton provided little leadership on foreign policy issues during his first term. Even AIDS prevention programs were underfunded. While part of this was a general triumphalist turning of our back on the world by the nation's populace as a whole, no foreign policy platform came out of the White House to direct American foreign policy. A large percentage of the Democratic congressional delegation and progressive leaders around the country had a knee-jerk "no" response to most uses of the American military. The problem with this became clear in the run-up to the Iraq War, when more centrist Democrats didn't want to flatly say no to the president despite reservations about the war, but also had no alternative arguments. John Kerry's inability to articulate an effective response to Bush and to swiftboating in 2004 is emblematic of this problem. The disaster of the Bush administration seems to have changed this and while we may not yet have an "Obama Doctrine," we surely have a Democratic president quite comfortable in the foreign policy world for the first time since Lyndon Johnson.

I'll have more conclusions on the book as a whole in coming days.