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Home arrow Political science arrow Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War

Clinton’s New World Order

The incoming president’s inaugural address struck an internationalist, even a Wilsonian, note so interesting in retrospect, given his campaign’s heavy domestic orientation. Clinton uttered the usual warning of the United States employing military force when “our vital interests are challenged.” But the 42nd president fused American purpose, Wilson-like, with world interests, when he added: “or the will and conscience of the international community is defied, we will act, with peaceful diplomacy whenever possible, with force when necessary.”5 With this pugnacious promise, the new leader evidently committed the United States to the role of world policeman, in a way for which George Bush came under fire. As it turned out, Clinton ended up reluctantly leading military interventions on behalf of humanity.

At first, however, President Clinton turned to internal matters, where his heart and expertise lay. Restoring economic growth ranked at the top of his to-do list. One means of rejuvenating the economy was through international trade. This course led to Clinton’s espouse a globalization agenda—internationally integrated finance, stepped up international commerce, and easy foreign travel—as an engine for economic prosperity and peace among nations. His international legacy rests, in part, on expanded globalization during his presidency. So laser-like was Clinton’s attention to the home front that he tried to cut himself off from problems abroad. Indeed, Christopher and Lake shared the portfolio to “keep foreign policy from distracting the President from his domestic agenda.”6 Keeping the presidential desk free of international issues proved as futile as it was unwise, as events would soon make clear.

One international issue did early on preoccupy the new occupant of the White House. And this item pertained to America’s economy as well as its international orientation. Before leaving office, George Bush negotiated a free-trade pact with Canada and Mexico and passed it over to the US Congress. Now Clinton was at the helm to prod Capitol Hill to enact the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Passage of this agreement required the president to cross swords with some of his key constituencies among labor unions and environmental activists. To assuage their concerns, Clinton added two side agreements to protect workers and the environment from the ill-effects of NAFTA.

Linking together over 450 million people, NAFTA led to soaring trade and financial investment across borders after coming into force January 1, 1994, although it failed to settle all disputes among the three signatories. This US, Mexico, and Canada pact paved the way for America’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is a global entity dealing with trade rules between states to reduce trade barriers among producers, exporters, and importers. Clinton also took the United States into WTO membership one year after NAFTA came into force. The presidential team invested heavily in the belief that the WTO and NATFA were necessary not only for spurring American economic growth but also for contributing to worldwide development and, by extension, building peace and stability within and among nation-states. The easier flow of goods, peoples, and financing did create wealth and bettered lives.7

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