Washington, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - The year 1996 was 12 months of middling grace for U.S. foreign policy.
Bilateral relations in most regions of the globe marked some progress. However, great expectations remained unfulfilled in areas that dominated the U.S. agenda -- the Middle East, Russia, NATO and Bosnia. But if the best did not happen, neither did the worst.
Peace held in Bosnia and American troops did not die there, making it politically feasible for President Bill Clinton to extend the U.S. peacekeeping role in the Balkans until mid-1998.
President Boris Yeltsin did not die. He seemed to have recovered well from heart surgery and held on to the Kremlin in Russia's first post-Soviet presidential election.
Washington heaved a sigh of relief that nationalist and extremist alternatives to Yeltsin remained in abeyance, and the tone of subsequent official assessments of the situation in Russia seemed slightly more critical.
U.S. policy towards Russia has generally emphasized support for Yeltsin, reforms and the positive elements in Russia's wavering course toward democracy. The election results and the apparent end of Moscow's disastrous war on Chechnya gave some encouragement to U.S. proponents of this approach.
At the same time, the United States moved this year to expand and upgrade ties with Russia's biggest European neighbor, Ukraine, and other countries in the region.
Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma was received at the White House in February and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Kyiv briefly in March.
Washington declared in September that relations with Ukraine had deepened into a "strategic partnership," and established a bilateral commission that will meet regularly, like the U.S.-Russian "Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission."
A similar bilateral commission, formed with Kazakhstan, renamed this year to follow the pattern: "Gore-Nazarbayev," held its third semi-annual meeting.
A U.S. State Department official told RFE/RL "U.S. relations with Kazakhstan are close and growing."
One of the economic highlights of the year for the United States was the signing of a long-awaited pipeline agreement in December by Kazakhstan, Russia and other partners in an international consortium to develop northern Caspian Sea oil fields.
The U.S. government has no role in it, but the official said the United States is pleased that this opens up a huge economic project in which several major American companies have shares.
He also emphasized America's interest in the independence, stability and prosperity of all five Central Asian states, even though it is not yet possible to develop full ties with Tajikistan, still gripped by civil strife, or unreformed and authoritarian Turkmenistan.
Nevertheless, the official pointed out that contacts with Central Asian nations grew in 1996.
Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Shikh Muradov visited Washington in September and had talks with Secretary of State Christopher and Defense Secretary William Perry.
Uzbekistan's President Islom Karimov was invited on an official visit in June and spent more than an hour with President Clinton at the White House.
A Central Asian battalion, including troops and officers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, took part for the first time in military exercises in the United States in September, held under the auspices of the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program with former communist countries.
The Central Asian Battalion plans to host a major Partnership exercise in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan next September.
While U.S. military ties with the Central Asians deepened, Washington in 1996 also spent considerable effort on military relations with European countries.
NATO expansion was another issue for the United States where some advances were made but early hopes remained unfulfilled.
Christopher met several times with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov but failed to overcome Moscow's steadfast resistance to NATO expansion.
Their latest encounter in Brussels earlier this month produced only a grudging acquiescence from Russia to begin separate negotiations with NATO on a special charter to deepen cooperation and anchor peaceful relations between Russia and the western defense alliance.
Analysts say this may be a promising first step toward Moscow's eventual acceptance of the inevitable, expected to come in tough negotiations next year. But it hasn't happened yet and Moscow's public position is as unyielding as ever.
U.S. officials denied this had any bearing on the timetable for NATO enlargement. The three or four Central European candidates for new membership are to be announced at a NATO summit in Madrid in July 1997. But at the beginning of this year, U.S. officials had been saying invitations to join NATO would be extended before the end of 1996.
Although, none of the potential new members has been publicly identified, unofficially, it is assumed that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia will be the first in line for full-fledged NATO membership.
Clinton signed legislation in September naming these four countries as recipients of U.S. assistance, specifically to prepare them for NATO membership.
The three Baltic governments have pressed for inclusion in the first group. But instead, the U.S. response has been to advocate faster integration and inclusion of the Baltic states into west European institutions, and intensified participation in the NATO Partnership for Peace.
.Bosnia and Serbia
U.S. policymakers also began the year with somewhat exaggerated hopes of progress in Bosnia.
After the triumph of the U.S.-mediated Dayton peace accords signed in December 1995 by the presidents of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, Washington officials envisioned decreasing conflict and co-existence of the ethnic groups to be governed by freely-elected officials by year's end. That has not happened.
Presidential elections in Bosnia were postponed and eventually took place in September, mostly confirming those already in power. Municipal elections have had to be delayed until next year.
The main U.S. preoccupation in 1996 was simply getting the parties to stick to their obligations.
Christopher met Balkan leaders in Europe and the United States half a dozen times, mainly to elicit recommitments to various Dayton provisions.
A special U.S. negotiating team worked fulltime on the issue. Senior officials from Washington toured the region every month to iron out disputes and unblock implementation of the peace accords.
The laments in Washington throughout the year were on the slowness of civilian reconstruction, the fragility of institution-building, and much rhetoric but little action on bringing war criminals to justice.
Early in the year, U.S. attention was on the international peacekeeping forces. Clinton's first foreign trip in 1996 was a visit to U.S. troops serving in Bosnia in January.
As it became clear that America's peacekeeping military involvement would not cost many lives, U.S. policymakers concentrated on restoring conditions that would allow elections and on organizing international donations to rebuild Bosnia.
In recent weeks, the unrest in Serbia seems to have moved Bosnia off front stage in the theater of Washington's foreign policy.
U.S. policymakers are once again ending the year with hopes of advancing democracy in the Balkans -- inspired this time by the sustained civil protests of Serbians.
But U.S. officials say their optimism is tempered by a pragmatic awareness of the power and perserverance of Serb president Slobodan Milosevic's regime.
The high hopes for peace in other parts of the world with which the year began also did not materialize. There was turmoil in central Africa. Fighting erupted in Afghanistan. On the Korean Peninsula, tensions rose again between North and South, renewing U.S. concern about the vulnerability of its troops manning the demarcation line dividing North and South Korea.
Lasting peace did not come to Northern Ireland or the Middle East.
President Clinton went to Egypt and Israel in March to boost the peace process. Christopher made at least half a dozen trips himself and sent high-powered emissaries to keep negotiations on track but violence in the region has continued intermittently.
Tensions flared in the Persian Gulf, when Iraq's President Saddam Hussein backed one of two rival Kurdish groups in the north. The United States fired cruise missiles and with its allies extended air patrols over Iraq to protect the other group.
The United States continued to shun Libya and Iran as countries ruled by governments that sponsor international terrorism. On the global scene, that translated into pressure from Washington on Azerbaijan and Russia, countries that were considering economic projects with Iran, and on Turkey and China reported to be selling arms to Tehran.
In addition to arms, China and the United States also clashed over bilateral trade, human rights and Taiwan. The United States sent protective warships to Taiwan in March when China launched missiles close to the island in a military exercise designed to intimidate Taiwanese voting in their first democratic presidential election.
But Washington, in a show of determined goodwill, continued to talk to the Chinese, seeking to build on common interests. The two sides agreed to hold a U.S.-Chinese summit next year, although most of their major problems have not been solved.
America ends 1996 with very few of its foreign problems resolved, but U.S. officials says that on balance, it has not been a bad year.