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1997 in Review: U.S. Foreign Policy Holds Steady, But Rocky 1998 Ahead

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 2 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- America's foreign policy matured and gained in 1997, holding to a steady and mostly even course but. leaving several major challenges unmet to be dealt with in the New Year.

A sweeping glance around the world shows that for the United States, 1997 was a year of pivotal importance in Asia, slow progress in Europe, continuing ambivalence in Africa, and in the Middle East mostly a year of deadlock and disappointment.

In December, Israelis and Palestinians seemed no nearer to a lasting peace then they were a year ago. And elsewhere in the region, the U.S. was plagued by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of weapons inspections mandated by the United Nations, and his renewed bid to lift UN economic sanctions, restricting Iraq's oil exports.

The most important foreign policy event of the year in Washington, according to experts, was the U.S.-Chinese summit in late October, the first since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of demonstrators for democracy.

Disregarding protesters and human rights advocates, the White House rolled out the red carpet and fired a gun salute in honor of President Jiang Zemin. However, President Bill Clinton at the summit spoke at length of U.S. concerns and the two countries agreed to establish a forum for discussing human rights, along with a host of other mechanisms to normalize relations and deepen U.S.-Chinese cooperation on economic and security issues.

Respect for human rights remained an important tenet of U.S. foreign policy but Clinton made clear that it is not the determining element and that economic interests and considerations of political power prevail in his decisions.

The year began in Washington with high expectations as Clinton put in place an entirely new foreign policy team, headed by Czech-born Madeleine Albright, the first woman ever to become U.S. Secretary of State.

She brought a change of style to U.S. diplomacy, with a directness, energy and vivacity that has muted domestic congressional critics and charmed some foreign counterparts, possibly even Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. They met at least a dozen times over the last 12 months, in public embracing seemingly with respectful affection. Many of their meetings have been at various international events.

Albright travelled to more than 50 countries in 1997, including three separate trips to Russia in February, May and July -- all connected to NATO expansion.

She put relations with Russia and NATO expansion at the top of her foreign agenda in the first half of 1997. Albright's first introductory trip abroad in February underscored U.S. priorities. She travelled only to Moscow in the east, to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing in Asia, and to all the west European capitals of America's NATO allies.

The special relationship between the U.S, and Western Europe was reaffirmed in pomp and ceremony and summitry in late May, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Marshall Plan, the program of U.S. economic assistance that helped rebuild western Europe after the Second World War.

The occasion gave rise to impressive oratory, among other things, about unifying Europe through enlargement of the European Union and NATO U.S. officials count the management of NATO expansion eastward among their policy successes of 1997.

Russia did not respond with extremist menace but grudgingly accepted what the U.S. declared was inevitable and made the best of it in tough negotiations on the Russia-NATO Founding Act, ceremonially signed in Paris on May 27.

Ukraine signed a similar charter with NATO at the alliance's memorable summit in Madrid in July which decided to invite Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to join the alliance. Despite pressure from the southern members of the alliance, the U.S. stood firm on the chosen three, delaying consideration of Romanian and Slovenian, as well as Baltic candidacies, to a vague possibility in 1999.

To reassure Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that they are not being left out of the western club, the U.S. is signing a U.S.-Baltic charter in Washington next month, declaring support and friendship with the three countries but stopping short of the security guarantees they want.

On the plus side, the U.S. also made strides in 1997 towards its longstanding goal of strengthening the peace in Bosnia. Although the pace was slow, halting and often exceedingly frustrating, U.S. officials doggedly insisted on implementing the Dayton Peace Accords. Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton, left the State Department in January and was succeeded by Robert Gelbard who kept up the pressure.

Some U.S. negotiators on his team spent more time in the region than in the U.S. and in Washington, government spokesmen kept up almost daily exhortations urging the arrest of war criminals, the free return of the refugees and an end to ethnic violence.

It took a year longer than initially planned, but local elections were held in Bosnia and presidential and parliamentary polls brought new people to nominal power in the Serb entities.

As economic isolation took its toll, political cracks widened in Serb ranks inside and outside Bosnia, The U.S. threw its support behind Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic, preferring her brand of nationalism to the lawlessness of suspected war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

Finally, in what experts say is a decision of far-reaching consequence for European stability, the U.S. has decided to maintain a military presence in Bosnia.

After months of hinting, Clinton announced two weeks ago that a June 1998 deadline for U.S. troops participating in the NATO stabilization force in Bosnia is to be extended indefinitely. He paid a lightening pre-Christmas visit to Bosnia to underscore its importance to the U.S., telling the people "it is imperative that we (the U.S.) not stop until the peace here has a life of its own, until it can endure without us."

Meanwhile, America's relations with Russia continued in 1997 along their customary twisty path, with no major ups or downs to disrupt the brotherhood of convenience.

In the early months, Washington policymakers were preoccupied with military issues and apprehension about arms proliferation and President Boris Yeltsin's health. A U.S.-Russian summit, overdue because of Yeltsin's heart surgery in 1996, eventually took place in Helsinki in March. But it was Clinton who was in the wheelchair with a knee injury, not a surprisingly ebullient Yeltsin.

Clinton came with a packed agenda and was hoisted back on to his plane well satisfied, according to U.S. officials. The two presidents came to agreement on NATO expansion. Russia agreed to cooperate on arms control issues -- important for the Americans, and the U.S. agreed to economic programs to boost Russia's global standing, a matter of great importance to Russians.

Yeltsin and Clinton were thus able in Helsinki to declare a new stage in U.S.-Russian relations, calling it "a true partnership."

But unlike previous years, the meeting in Helsinki was the only bilateral U.S.-Russian summit of 1997. Yeltsin did not travel to Washington or New York and Clinton did not visit Moscow this year. He has said he will go there after the Russian Duma ratifies the 1993 START Two treaty to reduce each side's nuclear arsenals.

The two presidents met again in June at the annual western economic summit of the Group of Seven wealthiest democracies but had nothing significant to say afterwards. This year's meeting in the U.S. city of Denver was called "The Summit of the Eight" in recognition of Yeltsin's expanded participation.

But within the scope of U.S. horizons, relations with Russia seem to have settled into a mode mostly of managing problems rather than expanding and developing ties. At the same time, the U.S. in 1997 paid increasing attention to non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union.

There was one major exception -- Belarus. Because of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's expanding dictatorship and worsening human rights record, the U.S. in February declared a halt to economic assistance to his government and restricted official contacts to a minimum. With most other republics, U.S. relations grew in 1997.

Ties with Ukraine strengthened, continuing 1996 cooperation initiatives.U.S. officials from time to time expressed unhappiness at lagging economic reforms, and widespread corruption but recognized Ukraine's democratic commitment and potential regional power.

President Leonid Kuchma came to Washington in May on an official working visit, and the Kuchma-Gore Commission, modelled after U.S. Vice President's joint commission with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met in regular session.

Clinton did not travel this year to Kyiv, but sent his wife Hillary in November on a brief visit to Lviv, demonstrating by proxy Ukraine's importance to the United States.

Mrs. Clinton stopped there on her way back from a tour of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, the highest-ranking American ever to visit those countries. The White House said she travelled to the region at the request of President Clinton to demonstrate U.S. support and encouragement for the region.

U.S. policymakers in 1997 acknowledged frequently, in public and in private, the growing importance of the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Major American private companies are participating in development of the Caspian Basin oil and gas deposits, And Washington's interest is heightened by an obscure tangle of geopolitical power concerns involving Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan and several West Europeans.

The question of pipeline routes was a factor in an intensified drive by the U.S. to stabilize the Caucasus and resolve years of ethnic conflict in Georgia with the breakaway Abkhaz province, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott travelled to the region with undisclosed proposals and President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan for the first time made an official visit to Washington in early August. But by year's end, the exchanges had yielded almost no visible results.

The list of high-level visits to the U.S. in 1997 was another indication of Washington's expanding policy focus. The presidents of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan came to the U.S. capital, as well as Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmonov. He met with Albright at the United Nations General Assembly in New York for their first bilateral talks and later made a side-trip to Washington to receive pledges of increased U.S. humanitarian assistance

Experts say a factor in U.S interest in Tajikistan is a shared desire of both countries to stop the fighting in Afghanistan where various Islamic extremist groups maintain training camps which have been involved in insurgencies in Tajikistan and Chechnya and other parts of the region the U.S. wants to become stable and prosperous.

America's NATO ally Turkey has long been a valued component of U.S.strategy to contain expansionist and extremist trends. Its importance to the U.S. has grown as Turkey has strengthened ties with Israel and the Balkans, as well as the Central Asians and Caucasus countries, and provided pipeline route options favored by the U.S.

The U.S. has consistently opposed any pipeline proposals involving Iran and promoted multiple alternatives, including routes through Russia, as well as Turkey.

Washington worried a lot in 1997 about Turkey's external role and internal changes.

In the early months, Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan seemed to be embracing Iran and Libya in a bid to forge closer ties with the Muslim world.Even after the June election that replaced him with the secular and moderate Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, Turkey's identity crisis continued, generating some uncertainty among U.S. officials.

Yilmaz came to Washington earlier this month to reassure U.S. policymakers and in turn seek assurances and vent outrage at the European Union's rejection of his country's application for membership, following a similar rejection by Muslim countries at a summit in Tehran.

The U.S. duly expressed strong support, saying Turkey belongs to Europe, and at the same time urged improvement of Turkey's dismal human rights record and resolution of its disputes with Greece.

U.S. officials said recently they are determined to stop the squabbling between Turkey and Greece over rights in the Aegean and the division of Cyprus.

Presidential elections in Iran in May also seemed be an improvement for the U.S. The virulent anti-Americanism customary in Tehran for many years appears to have moderated since President Mohammed Khatemi took office. The U.S.responded to his comments about a possible dialogue with words of encouragement and expressions of hope. But Clinton emphasized there would be no compromise in U.S. opposition to Iran's support for terrorism, disruption of the Middle East peace process and its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

What to watch for in 1998 -- Washington analysts caution against expectations of a quick U.S.-Iranian thaw.

They say it will be a long, drawn-out process, although Washington knows its effort to isolate Iran has been crumbling for some time, hastened by the pipeline issue. The latest sign was this week's inauguration of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Iran.

The New Year begins on a busy note for the U.S. with activity on nearly all the major fronts of U.S. foreign interests.

For the first time in January, U.S., Turkish and Israeli forces will conduct joint naval exercises. Iran, reverting to its usual tone, has condemned the U.S. for the project. The U.S. says the exercise will have a humanitarian orientation, training search and rescue operations.

Also in January, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are to meet in Washington in another attempt to restart the peace process.

And the three Baltic presidents will be in town for the ceremonial signing of the U.S.-Baltic charter set for Jan. 16.

The spotlight on NATO expansion shifts in 1998 from the corridors of the State Department to the halls of the U.S. Congress. As soon as it resumes session in late January, hearings are set to begin in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ratify the protocols of accession to the NATO treaty. Senators are expected to focus on enlargement costs, especially since NATO is suddenly secretive about a December report on costs, after initially promising full disclosure.

There are also familiar clouds over U.S.-Russia relations. Yeltsin's health is a continuing source of worry in 1998, as he begins the year with a two-week vacation, closely following weeks of absence from work due to a respiratory infection.

The Russian Duma still has not ratified the START TWO Treaty the U.S. regards as a key to further disarmament.

And there is U.S. irritation with some Russian arms sales policies, as well as Primakov's position on Iraq and other international issues -- but not in public.

The U.S. State Department was moved to assert Tuesday that "relations with Primakov are excellent," that both countries are committed to the same basic goals of peace and democracy despite some natural differences in their views on tactics and goals in international affairs.

Iraq remains a challenge that the U.S. will have to deal with in 1998. Despite the U.S. military build-up in the region, experts say diplomacy is still Washington's preferred solution and U.S. attack on Baghdad is unlikely.

The real danger in 1998 is expected to come from Asian stock markets and failed banks in South Korea, requiring massive infusions of international loans.

Analysts warn that the full impact of the Asian turmoil has not hit yet. They say watch for the ripple effect on the economies of the U.S., as well as Russia and Eastern Europe where Asians have been large investors.