In his nearly hourlong acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, Clinton devoted all of one minute to foreign affairs. During his first year in office, he held no regularly scheduled meetings with his foreign policy team, headed by the terse and phlegmatic secretary of state Warren M. Christopher. Global issues were often regarded by the White House as undesirable interruptions of the domestic business at hand rather than the essential burden of the leader of the free world.
All the same, foreign policy imposed itself on the Clinton administration and, despite typical periods of disarray and contradiction, he scored more diplomatic successes than failures as he matured in office.
Clinton was not, as his critics charged, unknowledgeable in foreign affairs. He had graduated near the top of his class at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, studied European political systems while at Oxford, and spent two years reading documents and monographs as a clerk to the Senate Foreign Affairs committee. Even as governor of presumably provincial Arkansas, he visited Europe and the Far East twelve times on trade missions.
But even such preparation was hardly adequate to handle the problems of a new, post-cold war era dawning in the world when Clinton entered office. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, unimaginable ten years earlier, there was no longer a clear enemy in opposition to which the United States could define itself and its position in international affairs. The United States and its allies struggled to establish the "New World Order" foreseen but not realized by the Bush administration, without the benefit of clear rules of engagement. It was, as some described it, a period of international deregulation.
In an effort to place the Clinton foreign policy in a cohesive framework, his advisers struck on the theme of a doctrine of "enlargement" to replace the cold war-era doctrine of containment. The goal of enlargement would be to spread democracy and free markets around the world. The doctrine embraced free trade as a tool of foreign policy, and stressed multilateral peacekeeping efforts and international alliances in which the United States would play an important but not singular role. At a time, however, when nationalist and isolationist factions were growing in both political parties, implementing the new doctrine was easier said than done.
There were crises on every continent during Clinton's first term. In Europe, Russia's president Boris Yeltsin, the United States' choice as the best hope for stability and democracy in that country, moved aggressively against nationalist movements in neighboring states of the Commonwealth of Independent States that had succeeded the old Soviet Union. Moreover, he challenged American support of the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe by the enlistment of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia into its ranks. This move converted the old anti-Soviet alliance into one with a broader mission of guaranteeing peace and representative government throughout Europe. Carrying out the change over Yeltsin's opposition while keeping him "onboard" as America's friend was a tricky, but successfully executed, mission.
In Somalia, U.S. troops on a humanitarian mission to combat famine were ambushed in 1993 and 1994 by warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid's gangs, who dragged the bodies of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. In Haiti, leaders of a military dictatorship refused to step aside and reinstate democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom they had ousted in 1991. They relented only on the eve of an American invasion, succumbing to the diplomatic persuasion of former president Jimmy Carter, who seemed for a time to be a semiofficial, one-man State Department. Carter also helped Clinton to move toward an agreement with North Korea to freeze activities that indicated possible progress by the little nation, still a totalitarian state defined as "rogue" by the major powers, toward building nuclear weapons.
But it was the bloody war in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian aggression in Bosnia, that dominated the foreign policy arena during the 1993–1996 period, and Clinton's handling of it showed both his initial ambiguity in the international arena and his evolution into a world leader.
He started as a hard-liner, at least rhetorically. During the spring and summer of 1992, as Bosnian Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, driving Muslims from their homes and towns, Clinton accused President Bush of "turning his back" on basic human rights by not taking strong action in defense of the overmatched Muslims. When he was president, Clinton said, he would push the United Nations, with military support from the United States, to do "whatever it takes" to end the slaughter.
Four months into his presidency, Clinton attempted to persuade America's allies in Europe to agree to provide arms to the Bosnian Moslems, lifting an arms embargo that had been placed on all sides in the dispute, and to carry on air strikes against the Serb positions in the Bosnian hills around Sarajevo. The Europeans balked, fearful that such action would escalate the war and further endanger UN troops there. Clinton receded, unwilling to take uni-lateral action, but grew increasingly frustrated as the war dragged on for two years, with the Bosnian Serbs overrunning three of the UN-protected "safe areas," Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Zepa.
The sight of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees fleeing the Serbs sent what one official called "a jolt of electricity" through the White House. Clinton, persuaded that all previous policies were failures, took a new tack. He began attending Bosnia policy review meetings for the first time and fought off congressional pressure to lift the arms embargo, having changed his mind and considering it "the wrong step at the wrong time." Instead, he pressed a twofold plan of military and diplomatic pressure. He pushed NATO to begin major bombing attacks on the Serb positions until they pulled back their artillery. On 8 September 1995, Serb and Bosnian foreign ministers met in Geneva, joined by officials from neighboring Croatia, a third force in the war which actually helped the peace initiative by weakening the Serbs.
In their first meeting in two years, the parties discussed an American plan to apportion territory based on what was called "objective reality." Two months later, the adversaries were brought to the United States for peace talks held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio. After three weeks of intense discussions brokered by deputy secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, all sides agreed on a compromise that called for a unified capital of Sarajevo, a national Bosnian government, and ethnic substates within it. As part of the agreement, the Clinton administration promised to send a substantial force of American troops to Bosnia to help keep the peace. This part of the deal was challenged by Clinton's political opponents in Congress, who argued that Bosnia was both too dangerous and too peripheral a place for American forces to be stationed. But Clinton prevailed, with some bipartisan support from the Republican Senate majority leader, Robert Dole.
The naysayers proved wrong. The peace held, however tenuously, and the American presence there was so quiet that it went almost unreported after the first few weeks. Bosnia was barely part of the debate during the 1996 election, and it returned as an issue only very briefly afterward, when Clinton announced that he would not be pulling out the American troops after one year, as he had at first promised.