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Interview with Dr James D. Boys about his new book: Clinton’s Grand Startegy

Clinton’s Grand Strategy explores in detail Bill Clinton’s presidential journey, and his efforts to conceptualise and work towards strategy for the United States of America in a post-Cold War world. It covers the entire duration of Clinton’s presidential odyssey, from his 1991 Announcement Speech to his final day in office, to reveal for the first time the development and implementation of US Grand Strategy from deep within the West Wing of the Clinton White House. It explores the manner in which policy was devised and examines the actors responsible for its development, among them Madeleine Albright, Anthony Lake and Richard Holbrooke.

The Human Security Centre’s Senior Fellow, Simon Schofield, spoke to Dr. James D. Boys about his new book.

What made you write the book?

Several factors prompted me to write Clinton’s Grand Strategy. Firstly, President Clinton’s time in office coincided with historic global events following the end of the Cold War, including the collapse of Communism, 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. It is possible to conclude, therefore, that Clinton’s time in office marks the dawn of the modern geo-political era and so his handling of these events was crucial to the development of world politics at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

I was also motivate by my time working on Capitol Hill during the summer of 1995, when I was fortunate enough to be introduced to President Clinton. I later began researching Clinton’s time in office for my PhD at the University of Birmingham and gained access to a number of his advisers, whose insight has subsequently informed Clinton’s Grand Strategy. The book, therefore, is a deliberate attempt to shed light on the evolution and execution of US Grand Strategy from 1993 to 2001. It explores the manner in which policy was devised and examines the actors responsible for its development, including Bill Clinton, Anthony Lake, Samuel Berger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke. Vitally, the book examines the core components of the grand strategy (National Security, Economic Expansionism and Democratic Promotion) and how they were implemented to reveal a hitherto unexplored continuity from campaign trail to the White House.

Clinton’s Grand Strategy draws on brand new interviews and material that was being de-classified as the book was nearing completion, ensuring that it is as complete as possible in its effort to convey the true nature of Bill Clinton’s presidential odyssey and his efforts to define a grand strategy for the United States in the post-Cold War World. It covers the entire duration of Clinton’s presidential odyssey, from his 1991 Announcement Speech to his final day in office, to reveal for the first time the development and implementation of US Grand Strategy from deep within the West Wing of the Clinton White House.

What was the foreign policy environment in which Clinton first took office?

The Clinton administration inherited a world in flux. For all of George H. W. Bush’s talk of a New World Order, the new geo-political world was anything but ordered. Neither had the Bush administration successfully defined a role for the United States on the world stage or provided an adequate framework within which to structure a new post-Cold War international architecture. The Bush administration deserves a great deal of credit for what it did right, and President Bush made some brave moves to place international stability ahead of his own short-term domestic political advancement, but by the time of the 1992 election the world was still awaiting a sense of direction and leadership from the United States. The overall sense of drift in the geo-political situation was compounded by regional crises that had been allowed to simmer during the election year, in Haiti, Somalia, Iraq and the Balkans, so the incoming Clinton team had a great deal on their plate before they could begin to consider a grand strategy framework to address the wider international community.

How successful was Clinton at developing a ‘Grand Strategy’?

It is always interesting to me that so many believe that the Clinton administration ‘didn’t have a grand strategy’ or that the president ‘wasn’t interested in foreign policy,’ because neither statement is even remotely true. Bill Clinton had attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, served on the staff of Senator Fulbright, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. These are not the actions of someone disinterested in the outside world. However, his tenure as governor of Arkansas and requisite focus on domestic affairs left him vulnerable to the charge of being unqualified to preside over a challenging period in global history. Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals such thinking to be fundamentally flawed.

Clinton brought an appreciation of Globalization to the presidency, long before the concept became somewhat clichéd. His focus on the domestic economy contributed to the decision to place US economic security at the heart of Clinton’s Grand Strategy, and this was a key example of blending Clinton’s own priorities with national security related concepts, which in turn became an accepted maxim for the new era.

The Clinton administration attempted to make it very clear, very early that it did not believe the US had fought the Cold War merely to emerge as a Global Policeman. Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals the extent to which this shift in the US position in the first days of the administration caused so much tension and confusion. The administration was attempting 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 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’s failure to adequately convey this sentiment was a major stumbling block.

What were Clinton’s greatest foreign policy successes?

Clinton’s Grand Strategy had three core components: National Security, Prosperity Promotion and Democracy Promotion. Critics lament the lack of an overall approach to foreign policy, but this book challenges this directly and reveals a hitherto unexplored continuity from campaign trail to the White House. 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 president. The book details the importance of considering this trinity not in isolation, but as a combined approach to an evolving geo-political era.

The combined approach to policy led to a series of vital developments that have been overlooked by historians and ignored by critics of the administration, leading the likes of John Lewis Gaddis to suggest that there was “an absence of any grand design,” or that there was “a kind of incrementalism and ad-hocism to things.” Clinton’s Grand Strategy directly challenges such claims and reveals a hitherto unexplored continuity of core policies from October 1991 to January 2001.

Overlooked, but of tremendous importance, for example, was the securing of the vast amounts of nuclear materials that posed such a threat at the end of the Cold War. It is virtually forgotten now, but the threat of the ‘Loose Nukes’ scenario was very real and became a common plotline in thrillers and movies of the time. The quiet and efficient manner in which this was dealt with was a major achievement that has gone unrecognized for far too long. This was not only the work of the administration, but of key Senators such as Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, but the combined efforts proved to be particularly effective and deserve greater recognition than has so far been afforded.

Less overlooked, but equally unrecognized by international prize awarding bodies, was the tremendous efforts to secure peace in key regions of the world, particularly Bosnia and Northern Ireland. When one considers the Nobel Peace Prizes that have been awarded over the past 20 years to those directly involved in conflicts, it is remarkable to me that those who worked to bring the parties together have not been better recognized for their efforts. Had this been the case, President Clinton would certainly deserve serious consideration for his efforts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and in the Balkans. In all three regions he and his administration worked tirelessly to reduce suffering, end conflict and restore harmony. The efforts were not universally successful and setbacks have occurred, but the efforts of the Clinton White House certainly saved lives and made those regions better than they were, notwithstanding events that have occurred subsequently in the Middle East. It is also important to note the role of Richard Holbrooke, who, along with the president, was also overlooked by the Nobel commission for his work at Dayton, Ohio that did so much to stem the bloodshed in Bosnia.

Thirdly, it is important to note the administration’s successful dealing with Russia and the manner in which President Clinton, the supposed foreign policy naïve, managed to deal so successfully with Boris Yeltsin and move the US-Russian relationship forward at such a potentially dangerous time in history. This was accompanied by the forth major achievement, which was the successful expansion of NATO into central and eastern Europe, a move that locked in the former communist nations and started moves towards their integration into the European community. This move encapsulated the administration’s grand strategy initiative, of blending National Security, Democratic Promotion and Prosperity Promotion to ensure increased stability, security, and economic opportunity. It was a combination of policies that far too few recognized or were prepared to consider.

Clinton’s Grand Strategy examines the relationship between these policies to reveal the true nature of US Grand Strategy in the 1990s. Too little consideration has so far been paid to the interconnectivity of Clinton’s policy initiatives, which redefined the direction of US Grand Strategy in the 1990s. Instead, 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. Clinton’s Grand Strategy seeks to address this over-sight.

What were Clinton’s greatest foreign policy failures?

Notwithstanding the successes of the Clinton administration, there were clearly setbacks. Firstly, there were failures in appointments. Warren Christopher was a poor choice as Secretary of State, and he reflected both Bill Clinton’s insecurity in the area of foreign policy as well as the weak bench-strength of the Democratic Party. In 1992 the party had been out of power for all but 4 of the past 24 years, leaving few candidates with previous executive branch experience qualified to serve at the highest levels. Christopher’s ineffectualness did much to hinder the development of grand strategy in the first years of the administration. Whilst Christopher should not have been hired, Richard Holbrooke should have been brought in at a far more senior level from the start and not left hanging in Germany as ambassador. Likewise, Michael Mandelbaum, who advised the campaign in 1992 should have been accommodated with a position suiting his status, rather than being made to feel sidelined. This would have enabled a far broader political input and prevented the publication of his paper, ‘Foreign Policy as Social Work,’ which was a devastating critique of the administration’s approach to foreign policy.

Communications were also a major problem, something that Clinton’s Grand Strategy addresses directly and draws upon materials from the National Security Council that were being declassified in the months and weeks before the book went to print, in an example of the book’s contemporary nature. Not only was there an inability to adequately communicate an agreed upon strategy, there was major internal tensions about what strategy had actually been agreed upon to communicate!

Perhaps the gravest error that occurred was in Somalia, which Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals to be a woefully misunderstood chapter in US history. The deaths of US service personnel proved to be a body blow to the administration’s developing confidence in foreign affairs and ended its early commitment to what Madeleine Albright termed Assertive Multilateralism, a perfectly reasonable policy that was bizarrely contorted by critics to suggest an enfeebled attempt to farm out foreign policy to the UN. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but again, poor communications compounded the situation.

Ignoring the benefit of hindsight, do you think Clinton’s approach to Counterterrorism and Osama Bin Laden was right?

The administration’s Counterterrorism policy is the subject of my continuing research and I will be expanding on this in the coming months in a series of papers and an eventual book that I anticipate announcing more details of shortly. However, Clinton’s Grand Strategy does address this vital component of US foreign policy in the 1990s and portrays the efforts to address the developing tide of political violence that was targeted against the United States at that time. The events of September 2001 clearly mark a new phase in the history of US Counterterrorism and it is vital to observe the obvious reality, which is that Clinton governed prior to this event, when the public threat perception of such an event occurring was non-existent and in a time of wealth and disengagement from foreign policy. This was also an administration that was not looking to fight dragons overseas, but rather, to shore up the domestic economy and reposition the US on the world stage in the post-Cold War era.

Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals the extent to which the administration was engaged in a war on terrorism during its time in office, the focus of its efforts and the bureaucratic resistance it faced from the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill in its attempt to address the growing threat from overseas. The administration developed policies and strategies to address terrorist threats and indeed, foiled spectacular efforts to attack the infrastructure in Manhattan and to stage an assault on the airline industry on Millennium Eve. The administration noted the growing threat from bin Laden’s network but, correctly, did not attempt to exacerbate this threat by defining his efforts in terms of a super-secret organisation, akin to Spectre in the James Bond books. The approach to Counterterrorism was in keeping with the threat level as it existed at the time and would doubtless have changed had a catastrophic event occurred on its watch. That, alas, is all too often the nature of grand strategy, which is all too reactive to events due to the bureaucratic nature of the system in which it is devised.

Was Clinton’s use of Tomahawk cruise missiles in response to a number of foreign policy challenges a correct one? To what degree do you think this influenced Bush and Obama’s use of drones?

Just as the US policy towards Counterterrorism changed dramatically shortly after Clinton left office, so too did the tools used to combat such threats. Drone use had developed considerably during Clinton’s time in office and they were deployed in a concerted effort to find and eliminate bin Laden, several years before 2001. However, at that time, they were only used as a surveillance platform, designed to send images back to a command post that could, following authorisation from the president, initiate a missile strike on a confirmed position. The move to arm drones with Hellfire missiles came about shortly after Clinton left office, as I understand it. Therefore, the advances in technology that have enabled Clinton’s successors to engage in targeted strikes at minimal financial outlay was not available to Clinton and his failure to kill bin Laden was one of his greatest regrets, as he revealed to President Elect Bush during the transition of 2000/2001.

What was Clinton’s foreign policy legacy? 

Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals that the issues which have 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 Grand Strategy.

The strategies and approaches to grand strategy that evolved throughout the Clinton administration had a direct bearing on its interaction with the world, on the way in which the United States was perceived, and on the legacy that was bequeathed to future occupants of the White House. Issues of globalization, international trade, the rise of China, and the emergence of the European Union were all addressed by the Clinton administration as part of an evolving grand strategy. All had consequences for Clinton and his successors as the United States sought to recalibrate America’s global focus in the aftermath of the Cold War. Only by understanding Clinton’s Grand Strategy 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.

Dr James D. Boys is a political historian specialising in the United States and its place in the world. He has a special interest in the study of the United States’ presidency and specifically in the administration of Bill Clinton. James is an Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University (London) and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College.

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