Around the World for Votes
Taking his campaign overseas, Clinton mends fences in East Asia and declares a nuclear peace dividend in Russia
By George J. Church
(TIME, April 29) -- That Bill Clinton would campaign for re-election by traveling overseas would have seemed wildly unlikely four years ago. But lately the President has discovered something surprising about foreign policy: after a stumbling start, he is getting good at it. He can even claim a recent string of successes--in Haiti, Bosnia, Ireland, the Middle East--as a big reason voters should give him another four years in the White House. But he is not past the danger that some foreign hot spots, like Korea and Russia, might blow up disastrously before the November vote. Nor is he yet safe from Republican criticism that he has too often followed a wishy-washy line. What better way, then, to spend a spring week than by doing his best to defuse both threats?
To be sure, Clinton, on his eight-day jaunt to South Korea, Japan and Russia, was also pursuing objectives that are valid from a purely foreign-policy standpoint. On the South Korean island of Cheju, he unfurled a proposal for a four-power conference (North and South Korea, the U.S. and China) to draft a peace treaty replacing the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War. Whether or not such a conference ever begins, the mere proposal serves a number of purposes. It allays the perpetual South Korean fear that the U.S. will strike a deal with Pyongyang behind its back. Simultaneously it warns the North that it cannot scare Washington into such a deal by sending troops on forays into the Demilitarized Zone.
Further, the proposal has some chance of demonstrating that Clinton can win Chinese cooperation on an important project, despite the many disputes between the two Pacific powers. The President also illustrated a paradoxical strength in overseas relations: the total absorption in politics that makes his acts and motives suspect to many Americans strikes a responsive chord in foreign leaders, themselves politicians, who appreciate his expertise in building coalitions and surviving tough elections. The proposal for four-power talks was primarily a U.S. idea, but Clinton graciously gave all the credit to South Korean President Kim Young Sam, supplying a needed boast to Kim's popularity at home.
In Tokyo too Clinton did some adroit and necessary fence mending. Earlier he had emphasized bitter confrontations about trade even more than the U.S.-Japanese security alliance. Last week he switched just about all the way back. He announced that the U.S. would keep its 100,000 troops in the Pacific to help guarantee stability. For its part, Japan has agreed to provide more help--possibly with food, fuel and the use of its own bases--to the 47,000 U.S. troops there.
There was an unspoken but unmistakable message from Clinton to both East Asian nations and Republican critics: See, I am not soft on China. I know its military buildup is worrying neighbors that need us to stay there as a counterweight. And we can't take a firm line with China or North Korea without cementing our Japanese alliance. Trade? Clinton mentioned it only to claim credit for some encouraging trends. U.S. exports to Japan are up 85% in sectors such as cellular phones, where the Administration applied pressure. But the overall increase of 35% owes much to economic forces beyond government control.
It was in Russia that Clinton faced his trickiest challenge. A communist victory in the June presidential election could be a disaster for Russia, the world and Clinton. It would inevitably touch off Republican charges of "losing Russia." Yet what could Clinton do to help President Boris Yeltsin, who is still in a tight race with communist Gennadi Zyuganov? Not much. Clinton had to avoid any overt meddling in the election. He nonetheless missed no opportunity to demonstrate that Russia under Yeltsin is still a member of the Big Powers Club, contrary to communist accusations that Yeltsin has reduced the country from superpower to international beggar.
Clinton also declared a peace dividend following a pact by the world's seven wealthiest industrial nations plus Russia to seek a ban on nuclear testing by September. The same Moscow summit produced agreement on joint efforts to contain trafficking in nuclear materials. "Today we took yet another step back from the nuclear precipice," said the President. But environmental groups sharply criticized the summit for its failure to deal with a score of issues, including the shutdown of aging, Soviet-designed nuclear reactors. Meanwhile Russia reaffirmed its decision to sell nuclear-energy technology to Iran despite the Administration's protests.
At a bilateral meeting with Yeltsin on Sunday, and a round-table discussion the same day with a group of regional and opposition leaders, including Zyuganov, Clinton planned to take a businesslike tone. He was set to emphasize what the U.S. meant in supporting Russian reform: market economics, fiscal and monetary responsibility, free elections, the rule of law, respect for neighbors' sovereignty. No mention of the candidates, but it would be difficult for Russians to see that list as anything but a nonendorsement endorsement of Yeltsin. That could backfire and reinforce some Russian voters' image of Yeltsin as a toady to the West. But Clinton, with his own voters to worry about, cannot afford to stay away. Moscow is a necessary stop on the road to November. --Reported by Edward W. Desmond and Irene M. Kunii/Tokyo and J.F.O. McAllister with Clinton
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