The Clinton administration's argument that a new isolationism has taken hold was made most forcefully by national security adviser Samuel R. Berger in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Oct. 21 in New York City. It is excerpted below:
The internationalist consensus that has prevailed in this country for more than 50 years increasingly is being challenged by a new isolationism, heard and felt particularly in the Congress. . . . It's tempting to say that the isolationist right in the Congress has no foreign policy, that it is driven only by partisanship. But that underestimates it. I believe there is a coherence to its convictions, a vision of America's role in the world.
Let me tell you what I think [the five principles of the new isolationism] are:
First: Any treaty others embrace, we won't join. The new isolationists are convinced that treaties--pretty much all treaties--are a threat to our sovereignty and continued superiority. That's what they say about the [nuclear] test ban [treaty]--though it requires nothing more of us than we've already undertaken to do ourselves. . . . They think there is no point in trying to raise standards of international behavior, because rules can be violated, because perfect verification is impossible, because other countries can't be counted on to keep their word. Never mind that the alternative is a world with no rules, no verification, and no constraints at all.
We have a different vision--and by "we" I mean the Clinton administration, members of Congress of both parties and countless others who want to preserve America's tradition of leadership. We agree it would be foolish to rely on arms control treaties alone to protect our security. But it would be equally foolish to throw away the tools good treaties offer: the restraint and deterrence that comes from global rules with global backing; the ability to shine a light on threatening behavior through inspections, and to mobilize the whole world against it.
The second plank of the new isolationism: Burden sharing is a one-way street. [Isolationism's] proponents rightly insist that Europeans fund the lion's share of reconstructing the Balkans, because we carried the heaviest burden of the conflict. But then they balk at doing our part. They oppose American involvement in Africa's tragic wars, but refuse to help fund the efforts of others, like Nigeria, when they take responsibility to act. And when it comes to paying America's part of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping missions, they're not interested, even if it is to uphold a peace we helped to forge. This year, Congress has cut our request for peacekeeping by more than half.
We believe that is dangerous and wrong. Unless we want to be the world's policeman, we must support the institutions and arrangements through which we share the responsibilities of leadership. That's why we've maintained our commitment to a revitalized NATO, while urging our allies to take on new responsibilities, with the capabilities to match. It is why we have aided Asian nations as they step up to the challenge of stopping the violence in East Timor. It is why we have helped to launch the African Crisis Response Initiative to train African forces for peacekeeping. And it is why all Americans, whether they are internationalists or those who wish to limit our involvement, should agree it is utterly self-defeating to fail to pay our dues and debts to the U.N.
The third plank: If it's over there, it's not our fight. Foreign wars may hurt our conscience, but not our interests, and we should let them take their course. That is what many said about the war in Bosnia--let it go on until they get tired of killing themselves. A part of the Congress would have let the brutal onslaught in Kosovo rage until it spread.
Let me be clear: America cannot do everything or be everywhere. But we also cannot afford to do nothing, and be nowhere. The new isolationism of 1999 fails to understand precisely what the old isolationism of 60 years ago failed to understand--that local conflicts can have global consequences. In an era of worldwide communication, we cannot choose not to see; we can only choose not to act. Sometimes that's right. But not acting must be a conclusion, not a conviction. We have learned the hard way that when the spread of conflict threatens our interests and our values, often the only realistic choice we have is between acting sooner and acting later.
The fourth plank: We can't be a great country without a great adversary. Since the Cold War ended, the proponents of this vision have been nostalgic for the good old days when friends were friends and enemies were enemies. We've seen lately how easily Russo-phobia can be revived. But the new enemy number one, China, [has become] most popular with some, with its growing economy, its nuclear program, its missiles aimed at Taiwan.
We should not look at China through rose-colored glasses; neither should we see it through a glass darkly, distorting its strength and ignoring its complexities. Here is the China we see: A country that has lifted tens of millions of its citizens from poverty and expanded personal freedoms, but whose progress is constrained by its resistance to the political reforms necessary for its long-term growth and stability. A country that could, if it chose, pour much more of its wealth into military might and try to dominate its region, but which has not yet decisively made that choice. Our interest lies in protecting our security while encouraging China to make the right choices. We can only do that if we continue a policy of principled, purposeful engagement with its leaders and people.
The final plank of new isolationism: Billions for defense, but hardly a penny for prevention. The president [recently] vetoed the foreign operations bill, the vehicle for much of our international resources. It was about 40 percent below what America spent on international engagement in 1985, despite the fact that the world has become more, not less, complex; it is $2 billion below what the president requested. It does not fund our request for a vitally needed expansion in the effort to safeguard nuclear technology and expertise in the former Soviet Union, increasing the likelihood that deadly weapons will fall into dangerous hands. It does not fund our initiative to help relieve the debts of impoverished countries that are finally embracing freedom, increasing the likelihood of humanitarian crises that will cause instability and conflict. Astonishingly, it does not fund the commitments to the Middle East peace process growing out of the Wye Accords. Meanwhile, the Congress is trying to add $5 billion to the defense budget this year for projects our military says it doesn't need. . . . [Clinton signed the defense bill last week with the additional defense funds.]
The outlines of this debate are, I believe, quite clear. The Clinton administration believes we must use all the tools of our leadership to maintain our strength. The new isolationists would have us rely solely on our military defenses to protect our security. For example, to us, a missile defense is part of a sound national security strategy. To them, missile defense is the strategy.
In effect, they believe in a survivalist foreign policy--build a fortified fence around America, and retreat behind it. And if other nations complain that we're abdicating our responsibilities--or if they start abdicating their own--let them, because we are stronger and richer than they are. As the president said [after the Senate treaty vote], that is a recipe for a "bleak, poor, less secure world."
The outcome of this debate about our role--between leading the world and hunkering down--is hardly academic. The test ban vote and the devastating cuts to our foreign affairs budget make clear that our most fundamental interests are at stake. I believe those interests are clear.
America must continue to be a peacemaker. . . . We must keep working to integrate Russia and China into the global system as open, prosperous, and stable societies. . . . We must continue the struggle to stop the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and to be especially vigilant where proliferation intersects with the threat of terrorism. . . . and yes, [that means we must work] to build a consensus for eventually ratifying the test ban treaty. . . .
History teaches us that this moment of preeminence for America may be fleeting. Common sense tells us it won't be self-sustaining. That may be hard for many people to imagine, in part because there is no real threat to our power in the world today. But there is a very real threat to our authority. It lies in the impulse to withdraw from the world in a way that would squander our advantages, alienate our friends, diminish our credibility, betray our values and discredit our example. We cannot let that happen. Every chapter in American history of which we're proud was written by people who refused to let that happen.
The Senate vote on the test ban treaty was a cloud, but there is a silver lining. The stakes of our engagement in the world have been made clear. The lines have been drawn. And an old debate has begun anew. I have no doubt how it will end. The American people will choose as they have chosen so many times before: to keep America engaged in a way that will benefit our people and all people. That is a goal for which this president and his administration will work every single remaining day of our term.