Barack Obama has vanquished Hillary Clinton, but when it comes to his evolving foreign policy, he still must grapple with the legacy her husband left behind. Bill Clinton worked hard to move the Democratic Party to the center, and most pundits believe that for Obama to win this November, he must do the same. But the Illinois Senator will have a more difficult time staking out the centrist positions that have come to define liberal foreign policy.
Foreign policy was not central to either of Bill Clinton's electoral victories. Like Obama, Clinton had little experience when he first ran for president, and each time his Republican opponent -- George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Robert Dole in 1996 -- possessed all the attributes of a national security leader. Yet Clinton understood that he needed to stake out "New Democrat" positions to convince Americans that liberals could be trusted on national security, something they had struggled with since their meltdown over the Vietnam War, as well as regain popular support for Democratic economic policy after the stagflation of the Jimmy Carter years.
During his presidency, Clinton made three issues the foundation of his foreign policy. The first was his approach to globalization. Clinton entered the White House arguing that the domestic and foreign economies were inseparable. He elevated economic policy to be a coequal of foreign policy, pursued trade agreements and intervened to stabilize global markets. He broke with the unions and advocated strongly for free trade; in his first two years he successfully overcame staunch Democratic opposition in Congress to pass both NAFTA and the agreement establishing the World Trade Organization. He continued to argue that America had no choice but to embrace free trade, infuriating the political left, which organized against him, culminating in the violent street protests in Seattle against the WTO in 1999.
But trade wasn't the only issue Clinton used to reposition the party. Working with his top foreign policy adviser, Anthony Lake (who is now advising Obama), Clinton argued that supporting democracy was central to America's role in the world. It was also good politics. Clinton used the issue against the first President Bush to woo back to the Democratic fold those neoconservatives who abandoned the party for Ronald Reagan and believed the United States needed to do more to promote freedom in Russia and China.
Although Clinton had a complicated relationship with the military, he ultimately became comfortable with the use of force, something that initially bedeviled him in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. By the time Clinton left office, U.S. warplanes had launched major airstrikes against Iraq on several occasions and led the NATO allies in a war (without explicit UN Security Council authorization) to save the Muslim population of Kosovo. As had been the case on trade, many liberals were outraged as America dropped bombs in the Balkans and in the Persian Gulf, but "liberal hawks" heralded a Democratic commander-in-chief using force to defend humanitarian values.
Free trade, democracy promotion, and the use of force to uphold global norms comprised the core of Bill Clinton's foreign policy - and they remain the central ideas of today's Democratic foreign policy establishment.
Obama's approach falls squarely within this tradition, even if it might hurt him among his more strident progressive supporters. While Obama has criticized some of the specifics of trade agreements, he has been a steadfast defender of an open global economy. Although a critic of the Iraq War, Obama is hardly a dove -- he has called for doing more to end the genocide in Darfur and advocated the use of force against al Qaeda in Pakistan. And in terms of promoting democracy, several of Obama's most influential advisers have advocated for creating a new alliance of democracies (an idea also championed by McCain).
Yet each of these positions will be even harder for Obama to maintain than they were for Clinton. Already, this campaign has seen tremendous pressure on the Democratic candidates to repudiate NAFTA, arguably the signature trade achievement of the Clinton presidency. Many Democrats now see democracy promotion as radioactive - something forever poisoned by George W. Bush's rhetoric and justifications for the war in Iraq. And the political left will be clamoring for bringing troops home, not finding new ways to deploy them in the world.
For many Americans, the promise of an Obama presidency is in how he can transcend partisan politics and turn a page from the battles of the last generation to the addressing the challenges of the new one. But ironically, his ability to fulfill his potential as a new kind of Democratic foreign policy leader rests on how he manages to follow the path that Bill Clinton blazed.
For more, check out our book, America Between the Wars: 11/9 to 9/11
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