Huntington Theatre Company's production of Hedda Gabler, at the BU Theatre, through Jan. 28

Vol. IV No. 18   ·   12 January 2001 


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Cooperation and openness keys to successful foreign policy, says poli sci prof

By David J. Craig

Human rights activists and American trade unions decried the passage of a U.S. bill last year that normalized trade with China for fear the United States would lose its leverage in stopping human rights abuses in China and lose American jobs to that country.

  Walter Clemens says the United States reaps long-term benefits by dealing cooperatively and honestly with other nations. Photo by Albert L'Étoile

But according to Walter Clemens, a CAS political science professor, by pushing for trade normalization, President Clinton likely made strides toward improving human rights in China. "The heavy demands the United States had been putting on China to improve its human rights record produced few positive gains," says Clemens. "Opening up China to the rest of the world by trade and other exchanges, however, will probably be good for human rights as well as economic development."

If the United States and China are able to resolve their differences regarding Taiwan and avoid an all-out power struggle, Clemens believes, the nations may "collaborate for mutual gain" in the future, as their "economies are complementary in many ways."

That sort of cooperation is a major theme in Clemens' new book, America and the World, 1898-2025: Achievements, Failures, Alternative Futures (St. Martin's, 2000). In it, Clemens argues that even when dealing with powerful adversaries, the United States best advances its interests not by exploiting the weaknesses of other nations, but by pursuing "mutual gain" policies that assume the United States and other nations can both benefit by cooperating openly and honestly -- so long as the United States' good faith is reciprocated. By comparison, a "zero-sum" approach to negotiating, which assumes that only one negotiating party can benefit, often brings only short-term gains to the party that is more opportunistic in its dealings.

When the United States extended $14 billion in loans and credits to Western European nations in the wake of World War II, for instance, it did so in the spirit of international cooperation. The Marshall Plan, according to Clemens, helped to halt Soviet expansion as well as helped Europe prosper, making the plan the "most successful U.S. foreign policy ever."

As evidence of the wisdom of the mutual gain approach, Clemens points out in his book that Moscow's postwar exploitation of its Eastern Europe nations -- from 1945 to 1956 the Kremlin took from East Germany and its neighbors plants, products, and raw materials valued at $20 billion -- caused those nations to become "impoverished and resentful," and inspired them eventually to rebel.

Clemens' analyses are a product of his own research and the responses of more than 50 diplomats, ambassadors, and other U.S. foreign policy experts to lengthy, open-ended questionnaires that he has administered over the past 25 years.

Clemens also argues in his book that foreign policies devised in an open manner have a better chance of succeeding than those formulated in secret. "Policies openly
debated at home and abroad have a better chance of succeeding than those formulated behind closed doors," he says. "The reasons for limiting ballistic missile defense and banning nuclear tests were debated for years before treaties were signed."

America's foreign policy blunders, on the other hand, "usually arose from an arrogant unilateralism that took little notice of others' interests, intentions or capabilities; often, one that ignored others' nationalist aspirations or visions of justice," Clemens writes. "This tendency helps explain both America's sometime passivity and its bouts of [military] hyperactivity."

Perhaps none of the United States' failures loom as large as the Vietnam War, Clemens believes, where the U.S. demonstrated an "excess of crusading zeal.

"We're still paying for the Vietnam War," he says. "The bills for veterans' benefits, health care, and pensions cost more than the war. And since Vietnam, the United States vacillates all the time about whether or not to intervene. We've been conditioned so much by Vietnam that it makes it harder to take a sort of rational position on when to intervene and when not to.

"General Colin Powell may still be suffering from the Vietnam syndrome," Clemens continues. "He was reluctant to use force against Saddam Hussein, and wanting to avoid another Vietnam, he seemed gun-shy about intervening in places like Bosnia or Kosovo."

And when policies are not formulated openly, trouble often lurks. Few U.S. military interventions in the first half of the 20th century, in places like Cuba or the Philippines, did much "to promote avowed U.S. objectives of local self-government and economic stability," he writes, but primarily "benefited some investors in overseas markets and boosted career opportunities for naval officers and missionaries."

A recent U.S. policy that Clemens considers to have been driven by hidden motives is the expansion of NATO to include East European countries. The policy has needlessly antagonized Russia, he believes.

"The White House said that it wanted to promote democracy in the Czech Republic," he says. "But what does joining a military alliance have to do with democracy in the Czech Republic? Absolutely nothing. I think the real agenda was to win votes in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago, and maybe to win contributions from Lockheed."


17 January 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations