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What in the World?

We still deal with impact from Bill Clinton’s foreign policy strategy

Oct 26, 2022

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Decades after leaving office, Bill Clinton’s approach to foreign policy remains influential on present-day matters on the global stage. The 42nd president of the United States, who was recently hospitalized for an infection, did not have a natural enemy like the Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era. That led to a more scattered approach to global affairs that proved popular at the time with Americans, but has had unintended consequences. Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan says we are still feeling the impact of President Clinton’s foreign policy strategy.

Excerpted from Peter’s Oct. 26 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

For all of Bill Clinton’s considerable intelligence, bouts of intense curiosity and ability to make dazzle a room of even his opponents, there was not a lot of deep domestic or international policy crafting during his presidency. His focus on topics tended to follow polls and his own episodic interest. Good for his own approval polling, but in the end the inability to commit would take its toll. But part of the reason his approval ratings stayed so high was the fact that his presidency overlapped a sort of halcyon age for Americans (according to Gallup, Clinton’s final presidential approval polls are the highest of any president going back to Harry S. Truman). But just because he got away with it doesn’t mean his leadership style didn’t cast a long shadow. We are still dealing directly with foreign policy decisions he made – and chose not to make – in the present day..

If you were to describe Clinton in one word, it would probably be manic. He was probably the most intelligent leader the United States had had since Jefferson. But he was relatively easily distracted. He would have ideas at like one in the morning, he would call in all the staff from wherever they were to…bounce ideas around. That led to a lot of intellectual dynamism. But it didn’t necessarily translate into policy. 

Because his second big quality was that he was kind of like Angela Merkel, and he led from behind. Now with Merkel, when something controversial would pop up, she’d allow someone else to kind of take point even if they were a political rival. Especially if they were a political rival. And they’d have their moment in the sun. And then if something went sideways, it was their fault and she would just step back and the public furor would close in around them and they’d be removed from the scene. 

She did this over and over and over in her decade-plus time, and it meant that German policy wasn’t particularly dynamic, but it became more and more cohesive as time went on. And for Merkel’s terms, they were basically living in a golden age, but they avoided dealing with the really big problems. And that’s led to the problems Germany has today. 

With Bill Clinton, it was somewhat similar, but instead of letting rivals take lead, he basically followed the opinion polls. And since the United States was in an era in the 1990s where we didn’t really care about foreign policy, that means foreign policy was almost nonexistent. 

Hey everybody, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from the Washington Monument. We’re going to continue our leadership series today. And with that in the background, I thought it’d be a great time to talk about Bill Clinton. Just seemed appropriate.

If you were to describe Clinton in one word, it would probably be manic. He was probably the most intelligent leader the United States had had since Jefferson. But he was relatively easily distracted. He would have ideas at like one in the morning, he would call in all the staff from wherever they were to…bounce ideas around. That led to a lot of intellectual dynamism. But it didn’t necessarily translate into policy. 

Because his second big quality was that he was kind of like Angela Merkel, and he led from behind. Now with Merkel, when something controversial would pop up, she’d allow someone else to kind of take point even if they were a political rival. Especially if they were a political rival. And they’d have their moment in the sun. And then if something went sideways, it was their fault and she would just step back and the public furor would close in around them and they’d be removed from the scene. 

She did this over and over and over in her decade-plus time, and it meant that German policy wasn’t particularly dynamic, but it became more and more cohesive as time went on. And for Merkel’s terms, they were basically living in a golden age, but they avoided dealing with the really big problems. And that’s led to the problems Germany has today. 

With Bill Clinton, it was somewhat similar, but instead of letting rivals take lead, he basically followed the opinion polls. And since the United States was in an era in the 1990s where we didn’t really care about foreign policy, that means foreign policy was almost non-existent. He was smart, so he would kind of cram for the test whenever we had a summit, and he was great at working a room; great in small group settings. He could connect with anyone, even enemies. 

But there wasn’t a lot of follow-up because the American people really weren’t interested. And so for eight years, our foreign policy was static to calm, and that eventually contributed to the world that we are in today. All right, that’s it on Bill. Next up? W.

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