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Bill Clinton: World Cop

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In a major foreign-policy address delivered a few months back in San Francisco, President Bill Clinton solemnly affirmed that everything everywhere in the world is the business of the United States. If you ever entertained the thought that we Americans should be free just to live our lives, raise our families, and participate voluntarily in our communities — forget it. The president of the United States has plans for us and our money.

“Today,” Mr. Clinton said, “we must embrace the inexorable logic of globalization — that everything, from the strength of our economy to the safety of our cities, to the health of our people, depends on events not only within our borders, but half a world away.”

Let’s pause here to let this sink in. That is truly an extraordinary statement. “Everything depends on events half a world away.” Really?

Lest you think Clinton has an unrealistic agenda in mind, he added, “We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so. And we must remember that the real challenge of foreign policy is to deal with problems before they harm our national interest.”

Where are “our interests” not at stake? Where can’t we make a difference? Henry Kissinger once said that the United States had to respond to any and every challenge because to fail to do so would erode the nation’s credibility and lead to other more serious challenges. I suspect Clinton would agree.

In his speech, Clinton quoted President William McKinley, who said in 1899, “Isolation is no longer possible. No nation can longer be indifferent to any other.”

I’m not sure McKinley is the best authority. It was he, after all, who put the American republic on the road to global empire with his “splendid little war” with Spain at the end of the last century.

Why must everyone’s business be our business? What is this “inexorable logic of globalization” to which Clinton appeals?

It is certainly true that we live in a global economy. The division of labor, which makes ever higher living standards possible, spans nearly the entire world. We think nothing of using products made of components that originated in a dozen countries. World trade is not free, and Clinton sure sounds like a protectionist these days — recall the little trade war he was provoking with Europe over bananas. But goods, services, and capital do flow across borders, helping to make everyone richer. In that sense, the people of the world are increasingly interdependent. We’d hate to lose access to Asian autos and electronic goods, Swiss watches, French wines, and the rest of the things we take for granted.

But it is a mistake to turn world trade into a justification for U.S. global political and military intervention. Both Clinton and perennial presidential aspirant Patrick Buchanan are trafficking in the same false package deal. Both believe that world trade requires an official U.S. presence virtually everywhere. Consequently Clinton wants intervention because he believes it’s essential to trade; Buchanan, on the other hand, rejects trade because it necessitates intervention.

Contrary to both, however, it’s free trade and nonintervention that go together. Individual freedom means freedom to trade and freedom from government impositions, whether of the domestic or foreign variety.

The great free-trade advocates of the 19th century — Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Frederic Bastiat — understood that principle. They opposed trade barriers and military-political intervention. They realized that trade barriers were a form of intervention. For them, government intervention of any kind was the enemy.

This gives the lie to Clinton’s position that staying out of foreign quarrels constitutes isolationism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Americans as private citizens should be free to be fully engaged with the rest of the world. That will primarily be through trade. But a variety of voluntary organizations with a worldwide focus also exist.

Clinton has something different in mind. He, like his predecessors, wants access to the American people’s lives and fortunes for his grand plan to remake the world. Acknowledging that “there is no overriding threat to our survival or our freedom,” he nevertheless says the United States has “the opportunity and, I would argue, the solemn responsibility to shape a more peaceful, prosperous, democratic world in the 21st century.”

This is doubly fallacious. First, Americans have always helped shape the world, privately through their civil institutions, ingenuity, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Our earlier dedication to liberty has been an example to the world. Our culture has changed all parts of the globe. Our productivity has raised the living standards of nearly everyone. America is the envy of people everywhere.

Second, what Clinton has in mind is impossible. He will be no more able to engineer a remake of the world than he’s been able to remake American society. Some things are actually beyond even this man’s control. The vastly complex societies that make up the world are not amenable to anyone’s attempt to reshape them. We Americans can be a good example by maintaining our freedom and prosperity. But that is all we can do. That’s what John Quincy Adams meant when he said, as secretary of state in 1821, that America wished others well but looked after only its own freedom. “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he said, adding that such a foolish policy would trap the United States “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”

Adams was on target. Clinton is just the latest chief executive to foolishly believe that American power and what is laughingly called leadership can resolve ancient conflicts and bring civility to people who have been slashing each other’s throats for ages. As analysts Alan Tonelson and Ted Galen Carpenter have pointed out, Clinton has involved American forces in several bloody disputes and has only huge bills and open-ended commitments to show for it. He may boast about the peace he brought to Bosnia, but he knows full well that the day American forces leave, the fighting will resume. That’s why there is no date certain for their exit. Similarly, Somalia and Haiti, American state-building notwithstanding, have yet to start down the road to civil peace, freedom, and prosperity. Meanwhile, at last report Saddam Hussein was still running Iraq, while the U.S.-led embargo starves Iraqi kids and U.S. air power wages low-level war against that country.

On the basis of that sterling record, Clinton has dragged us into the Kosovo problem. Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia. The majority Albanian ethnics there want a separation from Yugoslavia, something the dominant Serbs refuse to allow. The United States and NATO supports something less than independence: autonomy. Their plan was to pressure the Kosovars to accept autonomy, then bomb the Serbs if they refused to agree.

This used to be called meddling in the internal affairs of another nation. American presidents disliked it when the old Soviet Union and its agents did it. But it is apparently all right when the United States does it. Clinton will say that we do it to prevent chaos from spreading and to bring about a better world. The Soviets used to say more or less the same thing. Suffice it to say that Mr. Clinton’s dark prediction about the danger to the American people if we don’t get entangled in Kosovo is the oldest political trick in the book. It’s long been observed that governments can prosper by keeping their people in perpetual agitation about foreign threats. The citizens’ unfortunate inclination to trust the state causes them to grant the government great leeway in the name of national security. That is exactly what is happening now. The Republicans, of course, have raised little opposition.

Lumbering into other people’s ethnic and political conflicts is dangerous and foolhardy. It puts American (and other) civilians, as well as soldiers, at risk. The recent murders of Americans and other Westerners in Uganda are just the latest examples of how meddling can have deadly consequences.

George Washington’s advice is still sound: commercial relations with all, but little or no political connections. That’s the recipe for limited government, individual liberty, security, and prosperity.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.