British Association for American Studies


Clinton’s Ghost: Bill’s Foreign Policy and What It Tells Us About a Hillary Presidency

The recent decision by the Obama administration to move towards the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Cuba marks perhaps the most significant foreign policy decision of his presidency. Indeed, of all the decisions made in the past 6 years, this is one of the few that do not relate back to policies inherited to one degree or another from the previous administration of George W. Bush. The policy implications of the War on Terror, therefore, have loomed large over the White House for the first 6 years of the Obama presidency, ensuring that only now, as he enters his final two years in office, has he found the diplomatic and political space to make such a bold move.

Obama’s efforts in this decision have been assisted by a series of factors that were not present when similar efforts were considered by previous administrations. While the full explanation as to how and why this groundbreaking initiative has been enacted are yet to be known, it is clear that several factors were of importance, including the role of the Vatican. It is also significant that Fidel Castro is no longer the point of contact within Cuba, removing the personal animus that has existed for so long. However, the domestic political dynamic is also of great importance. With his final campaign behind him, Obama is beyond the will of the electorate, but it has become commonplace for a two term administration to consider the election of their vice-president as a stamp of approval of their own time in office, ensuring that timidity often ensues in a second term.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is applauded by her husband former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, Sept. 14, 2014. Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is applauded by her husband former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, Sept. 14, 2014. Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

This, of course, did not occur under George W. Bush, as it was clear that Vice President Cheney had no desire to seek higher office. Today, there is continuing ambiguity as to the future of Vice President Biden. Despite serving as a loyal lieutenant to Barack Obama, there appears to be a distance between the two men that raises questions as to Obama’s commitment to securing his election in 2016. Biden’s thinking is also clearly distracted by the future plans of the former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Whoever secures the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016 Obama’s policy in Cuba will be of relevance, as the international ramifications impact the domestic considerations of key constituencies across the country, most notably in Florida. While historical considerations of the 2000 election address hanging chads and appeals to the Supreme Court, it is important to recall that the actions, or inactions of the Clinton administration in regard to Cuba had a telling impact on the electoral chances of Vice President Al Gore in the key swing state, which proven to be decisive in deciding the outcome of the election. Had the decision in regard to repatriating Elián González to Cuba gone the other way, or been handled better, Gore’s ascendancy to the presidency could well have been secured. Instead, the decision to send a small boy back to his father in Cuba  ensured that on Election Day, a series of farcical events ensued, leading ultimately to a Bush presidency, surely the last thing that President Clinton could have wished for as he planned his presidential legacy.

A young James Boys meets President Bill Clinton (courtesy of author)

A young James Boys meets President Bill Clinton (courtesy of author)

Since the Clinton administration left the White House on January 20, 2001 tumultuous events have occurred that have raised questions about the continued relevance of its time in office. If the end of the Cold War marked The End of History, then perhaps one could be forgiven for believing 9/11 constituted its recommencement. However, the issues that defined the Bush and Obama presidencies: terrorism, health care reform, economic boom and bust, globalization, and financial reform can be traced back to Clinton’s time in office. As such, Clinton’s Grand Strategy looms over his successors, creating a continuity of both personality and policy. Since January 1993, the same issues have dominated; the same regions have tested; and a surprisingly small number of individuals have led US Grand Strategy. Time and again, the same names, faces, and places have appeared to lead, challenge, taunt, and defend US interests around the world, in a pattern that reveals the continued relevance of Clinton’s foreign policy. While critics lament the lack of an overall approach to foreign affairs, the Clinton presidency saw remarkable continuity from campaign trail to the White House.

Clinton’s foreign policy had three core components: National Security, Prosperity Promotion and Democracy Promotion. Clinton espoused these principles in his first speech on foreign policy in December 1991 and they formed the core of his grand strategy initiatives throughout his presidency. My research directly challenges the claim by John Lewis Gaddis that there was “an absence of any grand design,” or that there was “a kind of incrementalism and ad-hocism to things” and, instead, reveals a hitherto unexplored continuity of core policies from October 1991 to January 2001.

Time Magazine cover, May 1993. Courtesy of Time

Time Magazine cover, May 1993. Courtesy of Time

Clinton’s time in office brought upheavals in Somalia and the Balkans, economic challenges in Mexico and Europe and the emergence of new entities such as the EU, NAFTA and the WTO. These events called upon the full use of the presidency powers in terms of foreign, economic and domestic policy that often brought him into conflict with members of his own party, as well as with Republican’s on Capitol Hill. Clinton’s handling of these events was crucial to the development of world politics at the dawn of the twenty-first century and only by understanding the legacy of Clinton’s presidency can we understand the strategies of his immediate successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom inherited and continued Clinton-era policies and practices in the areas of economic, domestic and foreign policy.

Obama was not the first president to consider a Pacific Pivot. The Clinton administration attempted a similar move that met with similar results. Early optimism turned to deep seated frustration and a realisation that results would be a long time coming and not necessarily be in keeping with administration expectations. Hence the decision in 1994/95 to refocus back onto the Atlantic and America’s European alliances. Indeed, the Clinton administration sought to recalibrate US foreign policy for the post-Cold War era, but the rest of the world was slow to catch up. This wasn’t helped by the poor performance of Secretary of State Warren Christopher on his trips to Europe in particular, or by the remarks of European leaders in regard to events in Bosnia for example, who initially warned the US not to get involved. The administration had a clear approach to policy, which unfortunately was never successfully conveyed: “Together when we can, alone if we must”. Pragmatism was the operational mantra of the Clinton administration and can best define its approach to global events. It is a grand strategy that continues to impact US foreign policy and which can be expected to continue to do so if Hillary Rodham Clinton assumes the office in January 2017.

Clinton’s critics have lamented a decade of lost opportunities and confused initiatives, during which the United States allegedly lacked purpose and direction. This has been exacerbated by an inability of former administration officials to explain their grand strategy initiative adequately in their memoirs. Accordingly, studies of the Clinton administration to date have failed to consider the evolution of policy and the impact of events on its formulation, ensuring that Clinton’s efforts remain misunderstood and their lasting impact under appreciated. Indeed, Clinton adopted a series of policies that certainly amount to a great deal more than “Don’t do stupid sh*t.” It is an approach to policy that there is every reason to imagine will be revived under a second President Clinton in a little over 2 years.