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United States: Election Results Likely To Bring Few Foreign Policy Changes

Washington, 1 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Whether Bill Clinton or Bob Dole wins the U.S. presidential election next Tuesday, it will not make a big difference in key U.S. foreign policy goals and strategies. But some changes in style, approach and top personnel are expected.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns recently tried to squelch exaggerated expectations of what might happen after the elections, saying: "the American policy is not going to change on November 6 from November 5, our policy is constant....We don't want to encourage anyone to think that the day following an election, American foreign policy is going to fundamentally change."

As election day draws near, questions have been multiplying about possible changes in America's dealings with other nations, partly because so little has been clarified in the campaign speeches of the major presidential candidates.

With the exception of NATO and Bosnia, Dole and Clinton have hardly mentioned foreign issues.

As Dole observed to supporters in California this week "not many voters consider foreign policy when they walk into the voting booth." He said he thinks this is "a huge mistake."

Even taking into account, the customary election-year preoccupation with domestic issues, disinterest in foreign affairs seems more pronounced than usual in 1996.

Analysts attribute this to a lack of any major security threat and America's unchallenged superpower status after the end of the Cold War, as well as to the attitudes of the candidates themselves.

Clinton, Dole: What's the difference?

There are no deep and substantive differences between the philosophies of Dole and Clinton to engage the American electorate.

Both presidential candidates are internationalists, advocating free trade, and opposing neo-isolationist elements in their respective parties.

Reflecting the mainstream, centrist thinking of Democrats and Republicans, their common principles form a broad, bipartisan approach to foreign affairs that is expected to ensure a smooth transition to the next administration, no matter who wins the White House.

Richard Haas, a policy expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says that "on policy issues from NATO to China, Dole's differences with Clinton at most are of degree rather than kind."

Both Dole and Clinton have said they believe the United States must not only remain engaged in global affairs, but also exert a leadership role in international relations.

Dole says that his military service in World War II and his experience in the U.S. Senate will make him a better international leader than Clinton.

He has criticized Clinton for drift and indecision, lack of strategy and what he says was a trial-and-error approach that squandered America's prestige and influence in the world.

Dole says he would be firm and steady and more cautious than Clinton about committing U.S. forces overseas.

Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher admit mistakes were made in the first two years of Clinton's presidency largely because of a belated recognition of the importance of U.S. leadership.

Christopher said in a recent press interview that he wishes: "we had realized earlier how essential U.S. leadership is. That is something we had to learn, or have brought home to us very forcefully."

In a second term, Clinton is expected to take a greater personal interest in foreign affairs.

"You are looking for your place in history," says Kenneth Duberstein, White House chief of staff during former president Ronald Reagan's second administration in the mid-1980s.

Duberstein says a U.S. president in his second and final term of office doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected, is not as constrained by politics and can accomplish great things.

He recalls Reagan's decision to pursue disarmament in a series of summit meetings with the Soviet Union that warmed relations and led to landmark arms control agreements.

White House adviser George Stephanopoulos says Clinton now knows there is no good substitute for "hand-to-hand personal diplomacy."

He cited Russia as one area where Clinton has spared no personal effort, saying he has spent hours on the telephone with president Boris Yeltsin.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton peace accords in Bosnia, also predicts a more assertive U.S. role in global affairs.

"A more engaged foreign policy -- this will be the hallmark of a second Clinton administration," he said.

After Tuesday, Clinton will not take much time to recuperate from the gruelling schedule of the election campaign.

Unlike 1992, when he pledged to focus on domestic issues "like a laser beam," within two weeks of the 1996 election Clinton plans a major foreign trip to Asia, which includes a meeting with China's president Jiang Zemin in the Philippines.

There has also been speculation that he might attend the December summit in Lisbon of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the White House says Clinton has no plans at the moment to go to Portugal and the decision will not be made until after the election.

Priority issues are still Russia, NATO, Middle East, Bosnia, China

Analysts say the foreign policy issues of the next four years are likely to be the same ones that dominated Clinton's first term.

While Clinton supporters point to achievements in key areas, his detractors say America's relations with China and Russia continue to be problematic and the deals in Bosnia, the Middle East, and northern Ireland, as well as Haiti and North Korea, are paper thin and so shaky, they can erupt into new crises anytime.

One of the issues lingering on to the end of the century is NATO enlargement -- the only foreign policy subject Clinton chose to expand upon in a campaign speech in the ethnic-rich states of America's Midwest.

He told Polish Americans in the city of Detroit a week ago that the United States expects NATO to accept its first new members from former communist countries by the year 1999.

Dole has accused Clinton of caving in to Russian nationalists and moving too slowly on NATO expansion. But there is only a small difference in their timetables.

Dole says he wants to see Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic join the Western alliance by 1998.

Both Dole and Clinton are vague about when the Baltic states might be able to become NATO members. Both pledge support for Baltic independence and advocate integration into western organizations and closer cooperation with NATO to strengthen their security.

On Russia, Dole has accused the Clinton administration of "misguided romanticism," focusing on Russia at the cost of other countries in the region and ignoring Russian violations of arms control treaties.

Dole says he has a more realistic view of Russia and will link economic assistance to adherence to existing treaties.

Clinton is against such linkages and wants to continue untethered aid to promote democratizing and market reforms.

But lately, U.S. government officials have expressed concern about some developments, indicating that attitudes in America could harden against Russia.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, recently made a critical speech in New York assessing the situation in Russia in somber terms and warning Russian leaders they must overcome lingering distrust of America and Cold War stereotypes or risk a backlash in the United States.

"It would be bad for everyone, but particularly bad for the Russians themselves," he said.

Talbott, the architect of U.S. policy towards Russia, was unusually outspoken, departing from his customary positive and encouraging statements about Russia.

He is expected to continue to play a key role in policymaking if Clinton is elected to a second term.

A State Department official says Talbott's speech was intended to make clear to the Russians that "there are limits to U.S. flexibility."

The latest upset came over Russia's last-minute refusal to sign an agreement that has been in negotiation for three years on the testing of missile defense systems.

The U.S.official says it's not clear why the Russians backed off. But he says "the charitable interpretation is that there is a little bit of disarray in their policymaking apparatus right now" due to Yeltsin's illness.

Neither Dole nor Clinton have said a word about what their policy would be toward Russia if Boris Yeltsin ceased to be the country's leader -- partly because of uncertainty about who would replace him.

Talbott's speech emphasized only that the United States will continue to support reformers.

On Bosnia, "the issue from hell," as Christopher once described it, Dole was an early and outspoken critic of Serbian aggression and argued as U.S. Senate majority leader for the lifting of an arms embargo on the region to allow Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves.

When Clinton eventually decided to send U.S. troops to Bosnia last year, Dole overcame Republican objections and rallied Senate support for the move.

Dole's friend and adviser Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) says that if elected, Dole would re-evaluate U.S. involvement in Bosnia.

McCain says Dole "has much more reluctance to enter into areas of the world where we don't have vital issues."

When Clinton was a candidate in the 1992 presidential election, he too was an outspoken supporter of U.S. involvement to bring peace to Bosnia but retreated from his campaign rhetoric in his first years as president.

In 1995, when Clinton made the commitment to send 20,000 troops to Bosnia for 12 months, he worried about initial lukewarm public support for the move, reportedly complaining to aides that he was risking his presidency "on an obscure Balkan country of fewer than five million people."

U.S. officials insisted that the timetable would be kept and that troops would be home by this Christmas. They no longer say that but remain vague about deployment plans, saying decisions have not been taken yet.

Republican critics say Clinton's strategy with Bosnia, as with other major problems is to postpone key decisions until after the elections. The world is waiting on other matters too until after November 5.

The assurances by State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns that U.S. policy will not change after that magic date was prompted by a reporter's suggestion that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat left the unresolved peace negotiations in the Middle East to go on a European tour to delay a settlement until after the U.S. presidential election.

The assumed reason -- that the newly-elected president, no longer needing the American Jewish vote, would be tougher on Israel, perhaps forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make concessions.

U.S. officials don't encourage this view and say they have tried to demonstrate an even hand, seeking to avoid blaming either Israel or the Palestinians for the troubled peace process.

Analysts say Clinton wants to expand his role as peacemaker and is likely to pay increased attention to the Middle East in a second term.

On China, Dole has steadfastly expressed the view that Washington and Beijing can benefit from developing business interests.

Clinton initially stressed that progress on human rights must come before trade but later reversed himself saying the linkage was a mistake and that trade policy is not an effective tool for advancing human rights.

Human rights supporters in America protested the move and have maintained a spotlight on the Chinese government's abuse of human rights.

Criticism of the White House position and Clinton's forthcoming meeting with the Chinese president is likely to intensify in the wake of the harsh 11-year prison sentence handed down to former student leader Wang Dan in Beijing this week.