When presidential elections are held during bad economic times, international issues naturally take a back seat to pocketbook concerns. That certainly has been the case during this year's campaign.
However, foreign policy is hardly a secondary concern in this or any other presidential election. American interests are more than ever intertwined with the politics and economies of the rest of the world, and the time and energies of any modern presidency will be consumed with arms control, trade, immigration, the environment and other crucial issues that can be effectively addressed only through international diplomacy.
It's especially surprising that international issues have been given so little emphasis by President Bush, whose most significant successes have come in the realm of foreign policy, if only by default.
The breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were the culmination of events that were set in motion decades ago. However, Bush, along with every other president since Truman, can claim a share of the credit for the historic victory that the United States and its NATO allies won in that four-decade battle of attrition.
In particular, the Bush administration deserves credit for having successfully negotiated a treaty that commits the United States and the former Soviet republics to mutual reductions in long-range nuclear weapons. The START treaty, along with a subsequent agreement to make even deeper cuts in strategic weapons, makes the world much safer than the one the Bush White House inherited.
Today, though, the luster has been removed from those and other international events that once were judged as unconditional diplomatic and political successes for the Bush administration.
In retrospect, the Bush White House clearly did not respond decisively enough to the revolutionary events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The president was too slow in recognizing Boris Yeltsin's rise to power in Russia, too cautious in developing a program of economic aid for the former Soviet republics and too timid in reacting to the genocidal civil war in what used to be Yugoslavia.
Even more inexcusable has been the president's pre-election orgy of arms sales, which has undone much of the past four years' progress in controlling the proliferation of nuclear and conventional weapons. For the crassest of political motives, Bush has given an artificial boost to the U.S. arms industry, even at the risk of destabilizing delicate balances of power in the Middle East, the Pacific rim and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the emerging details of events immediately preceding and following the Persian Gulf war, which originally was considered a popular and conclusive military victory that all but assured the president's re-election, have cast a cloud over the administration's Iraq policy.
There is growing evidence of the administration's misguided efforts to maintain friendly relations with Saddam Hussein, even to the extent of covering up some of Hussein's most heinous misdeeds, virtually until the moment that Iraq invaded Kuwait. And Hussein's continued control of the Iraqi government, along with his renewed persecution of his domestic opponents, has made the war's outcome appear less decisive than originally thought.
For better or worse, the administration's handling of these most notable international events is illustrative of a generally statist philosophy of Realpolitik that Bush has inherited from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Whether dealing with China, Haiti, Iraq or the Soviet Union, the president has instinctively identified himself with governments in power, regardless of their ideologies, rather than with the political will of their people. That overriding philosophy helps to explain his shocking insensitivity toward the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, his harsh treatment of the Haitian boat people and his curious inability to connect with the millions of Eastern Europeans who look to the United States for support and inspiration as they attempt to make the arduous transition to democratic government.
At least President Bush has a foreign policy record. Arkansas governors and Texas businessmen typically do not. And in fact, both Clinton and Perot probably have had less to say about current international issues than they have about a war that ended almost 20 years ago. Clinton's tortured explanations of his draft history and Perot's longstanding obsession with the POW-MIA issue have tended to overshadow both men's views on more timely and relevant foreign policy questions.
While Perot remains a cipher on most international issues, the Democratic Party platform and several specific policy statements from the Clinton-Gore campaign give voters a detailed picture of what a new Democratic administration's foreign policy priorities would be.
Clinton promises to make U.S. foreign policy more consistent with the democratic values at the heart of our own Constitution. The overriding failing of U.S. foreign policy in the past 12 years has been a tendency to enter into marriages of convenience with brutal governments, from China to Iraq to El Salvador, that do not serve our long-term interests. A re-emphasis on international human rights would help to put our government back on the right side of the popularly based democratic movements that are reshaping Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The Clinton-Gore campaign also has shown a greater appreciation than the Bush administration for some of the non-traditional international issues, such as educational competitiveness and environmental leadership, that will determine the United States' position in a new post-Cold War world order.
Overall, a Clinton presidency promises to be more activist and innovative in international affairs than the Bush administration has been. The United States might no longer lag behind its European allies in establishing new relations with the new governments emerging from the Soviet bloc. And we might no longer find ourselves out of step with the rest of the world on the kinds of issues addressed at the Rio environmental summit.
For now, those are only promises, because Clinton has virtually no foreign policy record on which he can be judged. However, a closer look at the record on which the Bush administration can be judged suggests that foreign policy is not nearly the great advantage for the president that many have assumed.
That may help to explain why foreign policy has become the biggest non-story of the 1992 presidential campaign.
First in an occasional series