Will Albright Return Principle to Policy?

January 23, 1997 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Two years ago, National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, now President Clinton’s nominee to head the CIA, proclaimed that the chief mission of U.S. foreign policy was the “enhancement of democracy.” He was promptly denounced by hard‐​nosed foreign policy professionals. These self‐​described “realists” argued that the true goal of foreign policy was the enhancement of national interest. By this they generally meant giving priority to power relationships, business, economics, anything that turns a profit.

The realists had a point. Mellifluous phrases about democracy and human rights do not of themselves add up to a policy, especially when applied inconsistently, irresolutely and without tactical finesse, as has been the pattern throughout the first Clinton administration.

Recent events in Israel, China and Serbia, to name only the most salient, have, however, exposed some of the shortcomings of the realist argument. Money and power are not the clinching issues in any of these cases; fidelity to principle also plays a part.

These events also provide a signal opportunity for incoming Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Speaking at her introduction ceremony on Dec. 7, Albright referred to America’s “core values.” Her rhetoric was right on target. But this is the easy part. The difficult task will be to turn fine words into sustainable policy that earns the world’s respect.

The turmoil in Serbia shows just how difficult this will be. To bring off the coup de theatre of the Dayton agreement, the U.S. pocketed its distaste for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and allowed him to bask in the accolade of statesman. The result, of course, was the intensification of his ugly authoritarianism. Belatedly, the administration has backed off in its support of Milosevic. But this has occurred at the eleventh hour and only after hundreds of thousands of courageous demonstrators took to Belgrade’s streets. Two months ago, these same people were shunned.

The administration’s dilemma, of course, lay in the choice between democratic values and power‐​based stability. As secretary of state, Albright will face the same choice time and time again. Nowhere more so than in Hong Kong next July, when China resumes control of the British colony. There are many in Hong Kong who argue that the Chinese takeover has been well prepared through detailed agreements between Britain and China. There also are many who see China ripping up Hong Kong’s democratic roots and turning the colony into a communist gulag.

Adjudicating this argument (which is certain to be high‐​decibel) will require diplomacy of the highest order. There will be little margin for error. China’s leaders are not tin‐​pot dictators who quail at overheated Washington rhetoric. Careful preparation of the balance between moral and power considerations needs to begin now, not in mid‐​June. And Albright needs to articulate this balance to the American people. Only in this way will she demonstrate to the Chinese that, whereas there will be room for tactical flexibility, there are some basic positions off which the U.S. will not be pushed.

In this regard, there is much ground to be recovered. All too often the Clinton administration has been ready to concede long‐​held positions at the first whiff of trouble. Shortly after last May’s elections in Israel, for example, Secretary of State Warren Christopher hurried out to Jerusalem to curry favor with the new Likud‐​led government. In doing so, Christopher publicly devalued the decades‐​long U.S. opposition to increased Israeli settlements in the West Bank. There may have been good tactical reason for Christopher’s concession, but the results speak for themselves. Israel’s settlement plans have expanded dramatically, representing a major setback—temporary, one hopes—for the peace process. For U.S. policy, the damage was long‐​lasting. The impression was given that, when the going gets tough, the U.S. will concede ground rather than stand on principle.

This not, of course, to suggest that American policy should be rigid or that it should ignore power realities. But the fact remains that U.S. policy sets the moral tone for the rest of the world. Without American power engaged on the side of decency and fairness, the law of the jungle will apply. Throughout its history, the U.S. has stood for something better than pragmatism. As a fugitive from both fascism and communism, Madeleine Albright knows this instinctively. Now she will have the opportunity to turn easy rhetoric into hard reality.