The Clinton administration took office in 1993 with a distinctive vision of post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy: that its purpose should be to promote American values by saving lives in such places as Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. Instead of basing foreign policy on American national interests and spelling out clearly what those interests now are, the administration tried "to turn American foreign policy into a branch of social work," contends Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (and a 1992 Clinton supporter).
Three "failed military interventions" in the administration’s first nine months "set the tone and established much of the agenda" for Clinton’s foreign policy, Mandelbaum says. The plan "to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia’s Muslims and bomb the Bosnian Serbs" failed. In Somalia, an effort at nation building was abandoned when 18 U.S. Army Rangers died at the hands of a mob in Mogadishu. Then a U.S. ship carrying military trainers to Haiti turned back in response to demonstrations in Port-au-Prince.
Each of these abortive interventions, Mandelbaum notes, "involved small, poor, weak countries far from the crucial centers that had dominated foreign policy during the Cold War." The goals were noble, but their connection to U.S. interests was strained at best. The American public simply would not support them. (The public might, however, have been persuaded to back intervention in Haiti, he says, had it been presented simply as a U.S. "good deed in the neighborhood at manageable cost.")
Despite occasional administration claims to the contrary, Mandelbaum argues, it remains possible to clearly define America’s national interests after the Cold War: maintain the military balance in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region, prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and encourage free trade—"the one [goal] the administration [has] best promoted and explained."
Hoffmann, a Harvard historian, is also critical of the Clinton administration but disputes Mandelbaum’s central argument. The distinction between interests and values "is largely fallacious," Hoffmann maintains. A great power has "an ‘interest’ in world order that goes beyond strict national security concerns," and its "values" largely shape its definition of "order." Unfortunately, he says, the Clinton administration "has been much too timid in defining and defending a foreign policy based on values and other requirements of world order," in Haiti and elsewhere.
Some "carefully selected interventions in foreign domestic crises" are justified, Hoffmann contends. When there is a chance of stopping "genocide or war crimes on a colossal scale," there is a "moral duty" to act, and breakdowns [are] too dangerous to world certain "political, economic, and social order to be ignored."