How Bill Clinton Made America More Ambitious—and Dangerous

Former President Bill Clinton at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

His humanitarian foreign policy fed Bush and Obama’s recklessness.

On October 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton, running for reelection, made what the New York Times characterized as “a rare turn to foreign policy on the campaign trail.” Speaking in Detroit, he called for NATO to extend full membership to a group of former Soviet bloc nations by the following spring. Thus did Bill Clinton move his nation into a new era of foreign policy based upon a dangerous philosophy of American hegemony justified by American exceptionalism.

This philosophy also drove Clinton’s intervention in war-torn Serbia (under NATO auspices). These initiatives, from an administration notable for its concentration primarily on domestic issues, constituted a major turning point in U.S. international relations. So much of what has happened since—the United States’ penchant toward regime change in countries deemed troublesome, the rancorous relations with Russia, the cultural wildfires of the Middle East—emanate from the frothy humanitarian vision of the Clinton presidency.

And Hillary Clinton embraces this turning point with a view that it represents America’s status as the world’s “indispensable nation.” If she becomes president, the outlook that captured Bill Clinton’s presidency will be more entrenched than ever in America’s foreign-policy firmament. That poses a question: What precisely is that outlook, and how did it lead America astray in its global missions?

When Bill Clinton issued that call for NATO expansion in October 1996, he was facing pressure from his Republican opponent, former Senator Bob Dole, who suggested Clinton was a bit of a wimp for not boldly embracing NATO expansion. Even after the president’s Detroit speech, Dole chided him for “dragging his feet” and added, “We think it’s time for the foot dragging to stop.” Hence, it seems that Clinton’s action, or at least the timing of it, was influenced in part by political considerations.

In embracing NATO enlargement, Clinton claimed to be completing work begun by his two GOP predecessors, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. This was untrue. Both men represented a foreign-policy ethos far different from Clinton’s—and from Clinton’s White House successors.

When Reagan began his momentous outreach to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, he outlined his principles of action in dealing with the Soviet leader. First, he acknowledged that Gorbachev wouldn’t be acting on his own but at the behest of his politburo. Thus, the president recognized that Gorbachev couldn’t do anything inimical to his country’s fundamental interests. Second, a top priority was to alleviate the distrust that had festered for decades between the two nations. As former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock has noted, this reflected a Reagan understanding that no progress could be gained on any major issues without this alleviation of distrust. Third, whatever breakthroughs he could reach, they must not be hailed as victories because, as Matlock explained, “that will simply make the next achievement more difficult.”

The first President Bush continued these principles in dealing with Moscow after the end of the Cold War and through the collapse of the Soviet system. The big questions, for both Russia and the West, surrounded the matter of German unification. In pressing for Russian acceptance, Bush administration officials suggested the West had no interest in “exploiting” the Cold War victory by moving NATO eastward—even, in early conservations, into the former East Germany itself. In early February 1990, Secretary of State James Baker asked Gorbachev a crucial question: “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?” Gorbachev’s reply: “Certainly any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.”

Clearly, Baker and his boss were playing on presumed Russian fears of an independent Germany untethered from NATO protections—and diplomatic constrictions—and also (hint, hint) free to develop its own nuclear deterrence. But Baker clearly signaled to Gorbachev that the United States and the West would forgo eastward expansion in exchange for Russian acceptance of German reunification. Baker confirmed this in notes he took during the conversation.

But Baker had committed a diplomatic gaffe, since NATO jurisdiction covering only part of Germany was unworkable. Western diplomats had to walk back the Baker framework so the alliance would protect all of Germany. This ultimately was accepted (with a bundle of Germany cash going to Russia as part of the agreement)—but implicitly within the context of the earlier Baker assurance that NATO would not move “one inch eastward” beyond the agreed upon shift to include the old East Germany.

We see here what might be called the old foreign-policy outlook at work. It encompassed balance-of-power thinking, buffer zones and recognition of all nations’ fundamental interests. The Reagan principles remained intact—mutual trust, limits of diplomacy based on respective national imperatives, no diplomatic gloating.

Bill Clinton rejected all that. In 1999, he brought about the first round of NATO enlargement when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined the Atlantic Alliance. George Kennan, one of his generation’s most distinguished diplomatic thinkers, warned in 1997, “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” He said it would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and would “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.”