Clinton’s assertion that Americans confront a stark choice between engagement and isolationism typifies the administration’s simplistic portrayal of the post‐Cold War foreign policy debate. Last summer Secretary of Defense William Cohen stated that Americans should not act “as if we could zip ourselves up into a continental cocoon and watch events unfold on CNN.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright routinely derides her critics as isolationists.
Such caricatures retard a debate on the real foreign policy options at the dawn of the 21st century. No one of any prominence is suggesting that the United States cut itself off from the world and create a Fortress America or a hermit republic. There are increasing calls, however, for Washington to focus its foreign policy resources, energy and attention on those relatively few developments in the international system that can have a direct and substantial impact on America’s own security and well‐being. Critics worry that the Clinton administration is unwilling or unable to set priorities and distinguish between essential and nonessential matters.
Clinton’s San Francisco speech did little to allay that apprehension. The president outlined five “great challenges” requiring U.S. leadership: spreading peace; helping Russia and China achieve greater prosperity and political pluralism; combating terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental degradation and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; expanding international trade; and promoting democracy around the world.
Not only is that a breathtakingly broad agenda, it implies U.S. omnipotence. An intelligent and sustainable foreign policy must consist of something more than a wish list of desirable objectives. There are distinct limits to the ability of any nation — even one as powerful as the United States — to shape the global political, economic and strategic environment. For example, the political futures of Russia and China will be determined largely by domestic developments in those two countries. Likewise, democracy is not a product that can be exported to the developing world by U.S. political or economic exertions, however well intended.