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HomeEditor's PickThe Turn of American Foreign Policy and the End of Cold War

The Turn of American Foreign Policy and the End of Cold War

The post-Cold War era was an era of indisputable power and influence for the USA. America had risen from the Cold War as a victor in an ideological battle with the erstwhile Soviet Union, which was on the path of adopting market reforms and liberalization. The fall of the Soviet Union was a testament that American ideals and values were desirable and undefeatable. George H.W Bush, the then President, made a statement in regards to the news of the disintegration of the USSR,“Our enemies have become our partners. They ask for our support, and we will give it to them. We will do it because as Americans we can do no less”. This set precedent for the way America would place itself in world affairs, as an example and a leader.

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In contrast to Bush, Bill Clinton chose a mellow approach to foreign policy, one that would be known as the “Doctrine of Enlargement and Engagement”. The international stage set for the incumbent President was full of ambiguity, frayed ends, and endless opportunities for the USA. Clinton, unlike his predecessor, had no experience with foreign policy; neither from his Presidential campaign speech of 1992 did it seem that he was inclined towards an aggressive foreign policy.

If anything, it seemed quite vague. This did not mean there was no need for a cohesive foreign policy.The global paradigm that Clinton was taking over required American presence more so than before. Letting American presence be known was important to counter any new developments in the political debris, that were the Balkans, and the role of NATO states in a newly unipolar world. It was also important save the American hegemony from being jeopardized. Yet, Clinton’s foreign policy was heavily criticized for its inability to create a looming American presence that penetrated international borders. With the hindsight we have today, evaluating and understanding Clinton’s foreign policy in a broader aspect is easier.

Clinton’s fatal mistake was that the oscillation between action and inaction was so severe, where it ranged from the paralytic response in Rwanda to the knee-jerk reaction in Kosovo. It didn’t help solidify American presence in world affairs. The unpredictability of Clinton’s foreign policy is what bogged the President with criticism;for instance, the weakly planned attempt to coerce China into improving its human rights record. 

Clinton’s foreign policy concentrated on greater reliance on international institutions and multilateralism, and much of it yielded positive results; a softer approach. Brokering peace in the Middle East and Ireland, with the signing of the Wye River Peace Accord and Good Friday Agreement proved that Clinton’s “social work” foreign policy was just putting American hegemony to good use.

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Even today, Clinton’s inconsistency in foreign policy is not a proof of his weakness but a reminder of the international paradigm shift. The shock of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the abrupt change in the world order with America as a great power meant that Clinton had to be careful in his handling of foreign policy. For Clinton, his foreign policy was not the aggressive Wilsonianism, in essence, that American presence was devised in such a way where it would not antagonize or intimidate. America needed to make sure to not undertake an aggressive approach towards its foreign policy because the newly emerged states and uncertainties of the post-Cold War posed a peculiar hurdle for America. 

A miscalculation in policy or action could have shifted the USA from a harbinger of democracy to an aggressor. In the new world order, antagonizing Russia or any other state was not helpful. Clinton neither increased American presence nor decreased it; rather he balanced it through his doctrine which suited the period of post-Cold War uncertainties. Multilateralism did improve and emphasize the American presence. Fostering China’s entry to WTO also put economics back on the map for American foreign policy and diplomacy.

If we were to view events in sequence, the humiliation for America in Somalia was a precursor to the inaction in Rwanda. Clinton took over the office with a failing operation in Africa and faced backlash for American action in the African country. When the Rwandan conflict was unfurling, the Somalian experience could have played a decisive role in choosing to keep America out of conflicts that it did not understand. But the outcry towards American inaction in Rwanda and its inability to stop the genocide, Kosovo proved to be another example of how America could not afford to repeat the same apprehension in Kosovo. Even if it came at the cost of aggravating and alienating Russia.

Hence, it is hard to evaluate whether Clinton’s doctrine was a success or failure, if anything, it was adequate. Adequate in the sense that it dealt with the post-Cold War to the best of its ability; to manoeuvre the unchartered waters that were the unipolar world.The Clinton doctrine is a good example of moderation as well as restraint.

Written by– Lakshmi Priya Panicker

Edited by– Khyati Kallianpur