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1999 In Review: U.S. Debates Its Global Role

The last year has witnessed an intense debate in the United States over the country's proper role in the world. From Kosovo to the Middle East to America's obligations to the United Nations and its willingness to take part in international agreements, the debate has often been heated. As 1999 draws to an end, RFE/RL Correspondent Lisa McAdams reports from Washington on the major focuses of American foreign policy in the last year.

Washington, 21 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It started with Kosovo, where U.S.-led NATO airstrikes were launched to force a political compromise over the southern Serbian province seeking independence from Belgrade. But not before strong objections from Orthodox Russia -- a traditional Serb ally -- and, domestically, from the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.

President Bill Clinton's domestic critics cited what they called his failure to explain to the American people a clear U.S. interest that would warrant U.S. military action. Clinton argued that as a world leader, the U.S. could not stand idly by, as innocent men, women and children were killed or driven from their homes in what he referred to as "NATO's doorstep." "If the U.S. is to be safe, prosperous and secure," Clinton said, "Europe must be whole and free."

On March 24th, the U.S.-led NATO air campaign was launched against Serbian military targets in Yugoslavia.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the future of not only Kosovo, but NATO, was on the line.

"The NATO of the 21st Century is being tested now, before the new Century even begins. And we are determined to pass that test, using aircraft and facilities from more than a dozen countries, we are striking back hard. We are resolute, because it is in our interest and because it is right to stop the ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the other indicators of genocide that we see."

James Lindsay, a Senior Fellow on Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, tells RFE/RL it was the biggest foreign policy action of the year.

"I think the biggest highlight would be the bombing of Serbia and partial liberation of Kosovo. Clearly that was the issue that dominated the [U.S.] Administration and I think President Clinton is in a position in which he can look back on Kosovo as a victory, though at the time it seemed to border on defeat."

Lindsay says that while the Clinton Administration could perhaps claim this one success with Kosovo, he said 1999 also saw its fair share of foreign policy failures. The year's most damaging, according to Lindsay, was the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) -- a hallmark of Clinton's foreign policy agenda.

In the days leading up to the vote, opponents argued it was a bad treaty that could not be adequately verified. Albright argued otherwise. In Congressional testimony, she said ratifying the CTBT would provide a strong incentive to the rest of the world to halt their own nuclear tests. She also said failure to ratify would be a "major setback" to U.S. international leadership.

That, in essence, is what a large portion of Western commentary suggested when the CTBT was eventually rejected by the Senate.

The U.S. Administration was also stymied throughout much of the year having to fight partisan battles with the Republican-controlled Congress for what President Clinton and Secretary Albright called "adequate federal funding" for foreign policy programs. First and foremost, the Administration sought to pay off long-standing U.S. arrears to the United Nations.

At numerous points throughout 1999, but perhaps most notably during September's UN General Assembly in New York, Albright said the U.S. debt to the world body was compromising America's leadership role in the world and within the international body itself.

But many nations, like Russia, China, Iraq and Belarus among others -- vocally oppose the notion that America, the alleged "hyperpower," must take the lead and intervene wherever and whenever civilians are suffering or at risk.

Leaders of Russia, China, Iraq and Belarus argued at the UNGA that issues of human rights are in essence an "internal" affair of a country and thus should be addressed mainly by the government of that country. This division in perceptions has been seen again in Russia's recent objections to any outside role in ending what Moscow calls the "internal conflict" in breakaway Chechnya.

But in a speech to the UN General Assembly earlier this year, Clinton said countries can not assume their national sovereignty will protect them from international pressure to stop flagrant human rights abuses.

A few months later, in a keynote address at Georgetown University, Clinton showed no signs of retreating from the global theme, when he outlined an ambitious foreign policy agenda for his remaining months in office.

"We have to secure peace in the Balkans. We have to ease tensions between India and Pakistan. We have to help Russia to stabilize its economy, resolve the conflict in Chechnya, and cheer them on as they have their first democratic transfer of power ever. We have to bring China into the World Trade Organization, while continuing to speak plainly about human rights and religious freedom."

Clinton said the list goes on and includes the need to contain Iraq and restrain North Korea's missile programs, to fight terrorism around the world, and reverse the threat of global warming and climate change.

Clinton also noted that a push was needed to meet the ambitious timetable set by Israeli and Palestinian leaders for achieving a framework peace agreement. But Clinton said that in some ways the hardest task would be to build a lasting peace in the Aegean Sea region and to bridge the gulf between Europe and the Islamic World.

The Brookings Institution's Lindsay draws an analogy from the field of medicine in offering his thoughts on how the U.S. can best address so many challenging interests in the new millennium.

"Most people tend to view foreign policy hot spots and problems like broken arms: Let's send the doctor in and fix it and then once its mended let's go on our merry way. Whereas I think most foreign policy hot spots or issues are more like a chronic disease -- let's think diabetes -- where you can't fix it, where you have to find strategies to cope with it or [to minimize] the consequences."

Lindsay added that in his view, U.S. relations with Russia make clear the reality that international affairs in most problem areas are managed rather than solved. And he says anyone who expects they have a ready-made solution to dealing with Russia is, as he put it, "sadly mistaken."

As 1999 ends, it is safe to predict the debate will continue within the United States and internationally over the post Cold-War system and what America's role ought to be. And the real debate will continue to focus not so much on the issue of whether the U.S. should remain "engaged" in the world, but in the tactics its leadership chooses to use in addressing any given case.