Looking through Dr James D. Boys’ resume you can’t help feeling simultaneously impressed and intimidated. Since completing his PhD – The Evolution & Execution of Engagement & Enlargement: The Clinton Doctrine 1993-1997 – at the University of Birmingham in the early noughties, he has published in excess of seventy articles, presented over twenty papers, and holds the position of Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University. Not to mention, of course, his breadth of broadcasting experience with Sky News, Aljazeera English, the BBC, and The Voice of Russia, to name but a few. His continued interest in the Clinton administration is evident in the title of his forthcoming book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2014). My American Studies was fortunate enough to ask Dr Boys all about it…
…Firstly, thank you for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedule to talk to MAS. What are the intentions behind your book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World?
President Clinton’s time in office coincided with historic global events following the end of the Cold War. Thus far, the administration’s response to them has been poorly analysed in any meaningful manner. Clinton’s Grand Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World is a deliberate attempt to redress this.
This book considers the development of policy on the Clinton presidential campaign and the manner in which this was enacted in office as US Grand Strategy between January 1993 and January 2001. It addresses the development of Clinton’s Grand Strategy and the manner in which this was influenced by the individuals who devised it and the events that helped to shape it. This, therefore, is a political history of the effort to devise and implement US Grand Strategy in the post-Cold War world and of the individuals responsible for this. It provides an insight into the previously under appreciated coherence that underpinned US Grand Strategy in the 1990s; what it was, how it worked, what and who drove it, and what it sought to achieve.
Clinton’s Grand Strategy addresses a number of key areas: first, the administration’s commitment to a series of key principles that were extolled on the campaign trail and implemented in office; secondly, the importance of personality and bureaucratic sensibilities in the formulation of policy; finally, it notes that regardless of well-intended ideas, global events have a habit of making a mockery of well-laid plans.
Clinton’s Grand Strategy draws extensively on primary material, including speeches by the principals, National Security Strategy Reports, documentation from the National Security Council, Presidential Decision Directives, Presidential Review Documents, as well as newly declassified materials from the Clinton Presidential Library. Interviews with senior members of the administration have been conducted, revealing the development and implementation of policy from deep within the West Wing of the Clinton White House. These new commentaries provide an insight into the nature of the interpersonal politics of the Clinton White House, as former members of the administration reflect not only on the policy they devised, but also on the reaction to it and the manner in which it was implemented.
What would you say are the markers of Clinton’s Grand Strategy?
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.
Clinton’s Grand Strategy 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. It examines the relationship between them 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.
How did Clinton’s more considered interest in domestic politics affect his attitude towards foreign policy?
Bill Clinton had a natural inclination toward domestic politics, but this did not mean he was disinterested in world affairs. He 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, notwithstanding his education, Bill Clinton’s 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 following the end of the Cold War. Those who lament President Clinton’s apparent disengagement with foreign affairs and the supposed absence of a discernable Clinton Doctrine exacerbate this sentiment. In their view, there is all too little to study and too few reasons to do so, except perhaps as a cautionary tale. Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals such thinking to be fundamentally flawed.
As a state governor, Clinton had been responsible for engaging with foreign delegations and promoting overseas trade opportunities for Arkansas business, as well as seeking inward investment. He brought an appreciation of Globalization to the presidency, long before the concept became somewhat clichéd. It is true that he relied upon his key advisors for guidance and suggestions, but all have noted how quick he caught onto concepts and ideas and was quick to address such issues on the campaign, when his opponents were refusing to divert attention away from economic issues. There is no doubt that as president he sought to adhere to his campaign promise, and ‘focus like a laser beam’ on the economy, on the basis that a strong foreign policy required a strong economic performance. This was, perhaps, what Clinton drew most from the collapse of the USSR.
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.
If Clinton held Presidency during 9/11 would his response have differentiated from the Bush administration’s?
Whoever had been president, 9/11 represented a body blow to the emerging consensus that the US was a global Hegemon in a uni-polar moment, about to enjoy either an American Millennium or a Second American Century. The Clinton administration had been engaged in a battle against international terrorism for its entire time in office; the first attempt to destroy the twin towers occurred shortly after it took office. Had Clinton been president, with his track record and with the experience of office behind him, I believe that he would have highlighted those believed to be responsible and gone after them, drawing upon the international support that emerged in the aftermath of the attack and forging a strong working coalition to address the threat. This, of course, is what President Bush did, to an extent, but Clinton had a way of phrasing things and engaging with the world that foreigners generally found agreeable, in stark contrast to Bush, whose approach tended to alienate, rather than draw support. Vitally, Clinton would not have gone into Iraq as he had steadfastly refused to prioritise Saddam during his time in office. Doubtless mistakes would have been made, but they would have been different mistakes than Bush made, and without the invasion of Iraq, potentially less costly.
What is your view of the 1998 cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan? Many believe it was a calculated distraction from Clinton’s impeachment…
This is a charge that has long been levelled at the administration; compounded by the movie, Wag the Dog. I’m not convinced by the charge, which is ill supported by any documentation. Indeed, it could easily be charged that Clinton could have cancelled the strikes for the same reason, which would potentially have been far worse. Imagine the claims we would be hearing now if it emerged that the administration had not struck at a suspected target due to the president’s impeachment crisis? It would be seen as a vital, lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11. Clinton’s Grand Strategy addresses the White House approach to terrorism in an effort to shed light on this area of the administration and place 9/11 in a wider historical context.
To what extent did Vietnam Syndrome play in Clinton’s political strategies?
The Vietnam Syndrome affected all of Clinton’s entourage in my opinion, but in different ways. Clinton was affected directly; having avoided the draft his relationship with the military was problematic from the start and his dealings with Colin Powell were far from perfect. His dealings with the Pentagon improved as he replaced his first Secretary of State with Bill Perry and moved in his own man as Chairman of the Joint chiefs. His National Security Advisor saw the divisions that Vietnam had caused within the Democratic Party and attempted to use policy to deal with these. Generally speaking, the incoming team had an aversion to armed intervention on a large scale that took two years to overcome, something that Clinton’s Grand Strategy deals in a series of interviews with key members of the national security council.
During Clinton’s incumbency was America the world’s policeman or the reluctant Sheriff?
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 he 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.
Does the ‘Grand Strategy’ have any legacy in a post-9/11 Presidency?
The Clinton administration left the White House on January 20, 2001. Since then, tumultuous events have occurred that have raised questions about the continued relevance of its time in office. The attacks of September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as domestic clashes over healthcare and the economy raise doubts about the continued relevance of Clinton’s time in office and imply that if the end of the Cold War marked The End of History, then perhaps 9/11 constituted its recommencement.
However, Clinton’s Grand Strategy reveals that 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 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 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.
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. 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 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.
With thanks to Dr James D. Boys.
You can pre-order your copy of Clinton’s Grand Strategy here.