The United States of America, supposedly one of the most powerful states in the world today, is undergoing a change in leadership this year and to great deal of ordinary people around the globe it doesn’t mean much. Especially in Europe where we tend to be blinded by our own current issues American politics can feel a world away. It may be that even the Americans themselves would have trouble understanding why should the world care or even dare to have an opinion on the matter. After all it is their own country and they can do as they please. Despite such assumption we should be interested and we should have an opinion since on so many occasions in the past it was the U.S. Administration that had the most profound effect on our lives.
The starkest example of what a political change can do to foreign policy was the period of late Clinton administration and the subsequent shift to George W. Bush administration and the Congress controlled by the Republican Party. Speaking broadly and as will be demonstrated on examples the Clinton administration could be characterized as preferring compromise. It was sometimes also called the “doctrine of enlargement”
[i] , which means “…based on the idea of expanding the community of market democracies around the world, embraced free trade, multilateral peacekeeping efforts and international alliances, and a commitment to intervene in world crisis situations when practical … and morally defendable.”[ii] On the other hand the post 9/11 situation forced George W. Bush to assume a role of rather a
Commander-in-chief than a president through taking on immense emergency powers and therefore it required employment of rather assertive foreign policy.
One of the clearest examples of how such shift it policy-making can destabilize the situation was the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. President Clinton stated in 1994 that through this agreement “North Korea has agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program and to accept international inspection of all existing facilities”[iii] Furthermore, North Korean regime agreed to switching to less dangerous light-water reactors in exchange for significant financial and political concessions from the United States. Unfortunately shortly after signing the treaty the power in the Congress switched to the Republican Party, which, over time, diminished its importance and did not uphold its part of the deal by reducing financial backing that was ratified by the treaty. In the end, North Korea withdrew from the Agreement Framework and in January 2003 also withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, during Bush administration, and kept escalating its nuclear program to the point it is today, when North Korea is claiming to have detonated an alleged hydrogen bomb.
Another, possibly even more important, apple of discord between Clinton and Bush administrations was the relation with Iran. For years under presidents Carter and Reagan the policy towards Iran could be considered as ambiguous. President Clinton inherited the past issues and enacted a policy of discouragement from terrorism, as it happened in 1996 after the attack on US barracks in Khobar in Saudi Arabia, where “The White House refrained from military retaliation but signalled that additional terrorism could lead to conflict”[iv] and policy of rapprochement of civilizations, as through the famed wrestling match in 1998, when official government-to-government contact was not possible due to Iran’s internal disunity. Despite a positive start Bush administration decided not to take the process further because it understood Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami’s “ lack of a sustained positive response”[v] as “evidence that he was either unable or unwilling to deliver.”[vi] The two governments were still trying to cooperate on issues concerning Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iran’s undeniable involvement in supporting terrorism was making the dialog significantly more complicated. From Iran’s point of view as a great blow to diplomatic relations came the State of the Union speech from 2002 where President Bush described Iran as one of the members of “Axis of Evil”. In spite of the setbacks and criticism the Bush administration did try to make a progress on the nuclear issue with Iran. The United States actively engaged in talks between Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency and several European countries (Germany, France, United Kingdom). The process eventually led to signing the Paris Agreement in 2004. Unfortunately even this effort proved vain when Iran disregarded the treaty in 2006 and resumed its nuclear program. Overall the Bush administration can be attributed with creating an international framework for dealing with support of terrorism and countries like Iran, but in the end made no real progress with pushing Iran to agreements.
The real issue that arose in indirect interactions of Clinton and Bush administrations was the war in Iraq. In aftermath of 9/11 attacks the political, diplomatic and public discourse in the United States was greatly overheated. It probably is understandable that the Bush administration felt like it needed to take a firm stance. Even more so when this administration and many people in it were connected to the previous republican administration led by George H.W. Bush, father of George W. Bush and legacy of Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991. Iraq, especially in the light of in the least inflated reports of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, surely felt like an imminent threat. Saddam Hussein’s own track record involving aggression towards Iran, Kuwait and abysmal human rights record did not help. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, but the question is whether it invaded in the right way or at least if it was the only way it could be done. If we assume for a moment that the war was inadvertent and necessary would the Clinton administration perform differently had it been in power? The leadership in Iran was more than willing to provide intelligence and cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition as it did in 2001 during operations in Afghanistan. “Let’s repeat the Afghanistan experience in Iraq”[vii] were the exact words of Iran’s President Khatami, but the proposal ended up being sidelined when the White House decided to singlehandedly (albeit leading the western coalition including UK’s Tony Blair) get rid of Iraq’s dictator. When considering the surrounding situation and common history of Iran and Iraq one must come across a thought that the subsequent occupation might have gone better if Iran and other neighbouring nations were allowed to actively participate. After all the two countries in majority adhere to Shia type of Islam and great deal of history. Looking back at Clinton’s politics of compromise and regional cooperation I must state a conviction that had his administration been in power the political vacuum and general state of disarray that currently controls the region could have been prevented or at least lessened.
To not think that changes in political views and discords between administrations apply only to the United States one must also briefly look at one of the prevalent issues within the European Union itself. As presented by The Economist in an article called “Stop the Music”[viii] European system of countries acting as presidents with each country reigning only 6 months has grown grossly impractical. When the Union had but just a few members the rotating presidency might have made sense, but currently it only contributes to the general confusion when countries use their terms to uproot each other policies as in the Spanish case (Spain allegedly caused delays in discussions on banking supervision to avoid exposing flaws in its own banking system)[ix]
After examining progress, setbacks and influences that the Clinton and Bush administrations underwent, a clear connection between “us” and “them” remains to be made. As the famous Edward Lorenz’s butterfly effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can change the weather on the other side of the world, the war in Iraq may still have a profound influence even on things so seemingly unrelated as possible toppling of Angela Merkel in Germany or the thoughts United Kingdom has had about exiting the European Union. The destabilization of Iraq has likely caused the destabilization of the whole region and subsequently ignited the wave of refugees fleeting from the region towards better pastures in Europe from not just war-related, but also economic reasons. In just few months this wave sparked ferocious debates about the very foundation of the Union and other systems like the Schengen system. In 2003 when reading the news about the inauguration of George W. Bush Angela Merkel surely did not think that it might be something that could threaten her own political existence. Not only the citizens of the United States of America, but we, the citizens of Europe, and the globe should care and have an opinion on who sits in the Oval Office, because it matters who is in charge.
[i] ‘Bill Clinton: Foreign Affairs’, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. [website] (Accessed 4 February 2016), http://millercenter.org/president/biography/clinton-foreign-affairs
[ii] ‘Bill Clinton: Foreign Affairs’, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. [website] (Accessed 4 February 2016), http://millercenter.org/president/biography/clinton-foreign-affairs
[iii] William J. Clinton, ‘Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States’, Bk.2, 1994, p. 1795
[iv] Bruce O. Riedel, ‘The Clinton Administration’, The Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace [website], http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/clinton-administration (accessed 4 February 2016)
[v] Stephen J. Hadley, ‘The George W. Bush Administration’, The Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace [website], http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/george-w-bush-administration (accessed on 4 February 2016)
[vi] Stephen J. Hadley, ‘The George W. Bush Administration’, The Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace [website], http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/george-w-bush-administration (accessed on 4 February 2016)