No. 4 — February 2, 1996


Weekly Review

--- by Christopher B. Johnstone

Foreign policy issues — many of which are beyond the everyday concern of ordinary Americans — only rarely occupy a central place in the president's annual State of the Union address, and this year was no exception. As the title of the speech suggests, the event allows the White House to offer its assessment of the challenges and the dilemmas confronting Americans and the ways in which Washington can — or cannot — address them. President Clinton's decision in his January 23 address to concentrate on the most pressing issues of the day — the partisan battles surrounding the federal budget — thus hardly was surprising. Nevertheless, portions of the Japanese media were quick to criticize Mr. Clinton's domestic focus, in which many saw — perhaps unreasonably — a message of America's alleged retreat from the world stage.

Of the seven challenges outlined by Mr. Clinton in his address six featured a clear domestic orientation and offered both common ground with the Republican-controlled Congress and fighting ground for future legislative battles. The six domestic areas of concern were: strengthening the American family, expanding educational opportunities, improving "economic security" for working people, fighting crime, preserving the environment and "reinventing" government.

The seventh challenge — actually the sixth in order on his list — was "to maintain America's leadership in the fight for freedom and peace throughout the world." Although certainly not the longest portion of his address, Mr. Clinton's discussion of his administration's foreign policy achievements touched on a wide range of issues — from progress toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and in northern Ireland to more than 80 "tougher trade deals for America." While admitting that "we can't be everywhere," Mr. Clinton asserted that "where our interests and our values are at stake ... America must lead. We must not be isolationist." The president further called on the Senate to ratify quickly the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia as well as a "truly comprehensive" nuclear test ban treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Despite the broad theme of maintaining America's global leadership — the second line of the president's address was a message of thanks to "our men and women in uniform around the world, and especially those helping peace take root in Bosnia" — Mr. Clinton fell short of satisfying some foreign policy analysts in the Japanese media. Some of them noted that Mr. Clinton directly mentioned Japan only once and that was during a general discussion of the strengths of the U.S. economy when he commented that "America is selling more cars than Japan for the first time since the 1970s." Japanese commentators, in fact, appeared broadly concerned by what they considered to be a lack of attention to foreign policy issues.

Asahi Shimbun, for example, noted that Mr. Clinton said "not even one word" on Washington's relations with the People's Republic of China and the recent tensions in bilateral ties that have emerged over American policy toward Taiwan. Nor did the president comment on the increasingly tenuous prospects for economic and political reform in Russia, the newspaper also stated. The Asahi also pointed out that Mr. Clinton offered no new initiatives aimed at strengthening ties with Japan. Bilateral relations have been strained recently by the rape of an Okinawan girl allegedly by three American servicemen (see JEI Report No. 36B, September 29, 1995) and ensuing local protests about the continued use of Okinawa for U.S. air and naval bases. In seeking to explain the relative lack of attention to foreign policy issues in Mr. Clinton's address Asahi commented that "in a presidential election year foreign policy tends to be controlled by the election campaign's strategy and schedule."

Other editorial writers and journalists went further in their criticism of the speech. Asserting that "the State of the Union address is also an annual message from this superpower to the world," a Nihon Keizai Shimbun reporter characterized Mr. Clinton's speech as "lacking in content" and suggested that it conveyed only the sense of a "contracting America." According to the article, Mr. Clinton had less to say this year on foreign policy issues than in his last address — and far less to say than his Republican predecessors in the White House. The Nikkei article went on to assert that Mr. Clinton offered "almost nothing" about American policy toward Asia and stated that "apparently only other countries" are paying close attention to developments in Russia and China. While acknowledging that domestic issues have assumed priority across much of the globe in the post-Cold War era and that during an election year a particularly strong appeal to voters might be expected, the economic daily asserted that the speech "conveyed the impression of an America that is losing its ability to lead the world."

The criticism of Mr. Clinton's address is somewhat curious, given the policy issues that have dominated political discourse in the United States over the last year. After all, when the Republicans took control of the House and the Senate in November 1994 they offered an overwhelmingly domestic agenda. That Mr. Clinton — who also ran on a domestic policy agenda four years ago — continued to focus on conditions at home is a situation for which the GOP shares at least equal responsibility. Further, a number of important domestic issues received even less attention in the speech than foreign policy. For example, in a year in which the American media was consumed by the murder trial of former football star O. J. Simpson some observers expressed surprise that the president offered virtually no discussion of race relations in the United States.

To interpret the president's failure to discuss particular issues as indicative of a lack of concern consequently is unfair at best and at worst misleading. The State of the Union address is only a relatively brief event, a rare opportunity to reach a large number of Americans at the same time; that the message often is targeted on a few, select themes is to be expected. While election-year politics undeniably affect American foreign policy, that fact arguably had little to do with the speech; for the president to dedicate any more time to foreign policy issues during a period of intense partisan conflict in Washington might have been unseemly. Ultimately, as one observer pointed out, the annual speech is not intended to be a state of the world message. Comparing across time the relative weight given to foreign policy issues in the address is a tricky business, especially given the very different international environments that can prevail in any one year. Political analysts in Washington therefore suggest that, rather than being an indication of declining American power in the world, this year's speech simply highlighted the issues that most prominently describe the state of the union — just as the framers of the constitution intended it to do.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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