Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Clinton Tops Frequent Flier Club

Presidential trip No. 27 on Monday takes Clinton to Canada. Does travel equal good policy?

President Clinton, who once derided George Bush for his foreign policy forays, is becoming the Cal Ripken Jr. of presidential travelers.

With 26 trips to 66 countries since 1993, Mr. Clinton has now surpassed Mr. Bush's record for overseas excursions. And if Clinton's itinerary for the coming months is any indication, it will be tough for future presidents to log as many miles on Air Force One.

About these ads

Clinton's stepped-up travel pace signals a shift in priorities by a president who spent much of his first term dedicated to domestic-policy issues. The shift is fueled in part by a desire to improve his foreign policy legacy, say White House officials.

Historically, a second-term president tires of the legislative battles as his agenda runs into roadblocks on Capitol Hill, a wanderlust develops. There's a tendency to turn to international issues that generally require less congressional approval to move ahead.

"It is far easier to establish a legacy in foreign policy because of the absence of congressional constraints," says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.

Of course, even some of Clinton's foreign policy efforts have run into hurdles set up by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The president hoped to have fast-track trade authority in his back pocket by this Monday when he flies to Vancouver, Canada for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum which will focus on Southeast Asia's financial crisis. But fast track failed. And Clinton also won't be able to deliver $3.5 billion as apart of an International Monetary Fund stabilization package because Congress voted it down.

But that hasn't dimmed Clinton's ambitions abroad.

In the coming year, the White House has publicly committed to trips to China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Then there is the Summit of the Americas in Chile. He will also attend the Group of Seven summit when it meets in Birmingham, England. "There may be others. He hopes to go to Africa too," reveals a White House aide.

About these ads

The irony of Clinton's travels is not lost on his Bush administration predecessors, vanquished in the 1992 campaign. Mr. Bush's 25 trips to 60 countries taken from 1989 through 1993 became an attack point.

"It is time for us to have a president who cares more about Littleton, N.H., than about Liechtenstein; more about Manchester than Micronesia," candidate Clinton said during the campaign when recession had his Republican opponent on the ropes.

Clinton won office with promises to stay at home and put America's house in order. During his first term, he had some successes (the Dayton peace accord and Haiti). But he was criticized for a lack of attention to the Middle East peace process and human rights issues in China.

Post cold-war imperative

But today, with the economy pumping strongly, unemployment at historic lows, and major portions of his domestic agenda on autopilot or blocked by Congress, Clinton is seeking to wipe away residual criticism of his inability on the foreign policy front.

There is also a greater fundamental need to travel these days, the administration argues. In the post cold-war era, the importance of a broader range of international friends and allies has intensified as trade and commerce emerges as the measure of modern day might.

"Since the cold war, there is a broader definition of national security and a merging of domestic interests and international interests," observes a White House aide. "In this day and age its hard to differentiate the two."

And nothing secures those relationships like a handshake, according to presidential watchers. "You see how they talk, how they laugh ... if they laugh," observes Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, who has researched Clinton's domestic and foreign travel.

Smoke-screen travel?

Nevertheless critics have derided Clinton's excursions as a smoke-screen, diverting attention from embarrassments that include the Paula Jones case and ongoing investigations of his administration for wrong doing.

While travel abroad provides a president with positive photo opportunities that convey power and importance, they no longer offer the kind of overwhelming coverage capable of obscuring serious domestic problems.

When presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon traveled, coverage was extensive. Those trips were laden with protocol, elegant state receptions, and treaty signings. Modern excursions abroad by the nation's chief executive are more likely to appear on Page 5, not Page 1.

But a handful of the upcoming trips have headline grabbing potential. His trip to India, the first for a US president since Jimmy Carter, could achieve meaningful agreements on nonproliferation issues.

In what could be the most watched trip of his presidential career, the visit to China could go a long way to nudging the Chinese toward systemic human rights improvements if handled properly.

Ultimately, however, more travel doesn't necessarily mean better foreign policy. Clinton can devote more attention overseas, but that may not earn him a place in history as a statesman.

"Why did it take so long for him to pay attention to China when China has been such a problem for the US?" questions Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a historian at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

"I think a statesman recognizes the inherent importance of foreign issues over a period of time," she adds.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.