Home / Issue 16 / David Tiedemann reviews ‘Clinton’s Grand Strategy’ by James D. Boys

David Tiedemann reviews ‘Clinton’s Grand Strategy’ by James D. Boys

Clinton's Grand StrategyWhat separates grand foreign policy strategy from simple opportunism?  This is the question that Clinton’s Grand Strategy, US Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World, by James D. Boys, struggles with.  The book attempts to defend the Clinton Administration from charges by critics that the president’s foreign policy was ad-hoc, and without an ideological grounding.  While the author is willing to explain Bill Clinton’s policy failures along with the successes, uncertainty remains about whether pragmatism, at times as with Rwanda a pragmatism that was unfeelingly cruel (we learn in the book that Central Africa was simply without strategic importance), was a strategy or if it was mere opportunism, and defence of the status quo.  This uncertainty about the division between strategy and opportunism is the problem with Clinton’s Grand Strategy.

Boys separates his vision of Clinton’s grand strategy into three distinct policies; democracy, and economic prosperity promotion, and the enhancement of national security.  Dealing with only democracy promotion as an example, Clinton’s Grand Strategy does not make a great case for either the novelty, or strategic thinking of the administration’s policy.  The promotion of democracy and American democratic ideals has been a hallmark of American foreign policy thinking since the founding of the nation, to extend it is almost a banality.  Even Ronald Reagan couched his morally bankrupt policy on Central America in democratic terms; he knew that kind of rhetoric, to this day, plays well the American people. To borrow a line from Bob Dylan, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” for a president with a lack of foreign policy experience clinging to a staple of American foreign policy represents a no-brainer and not any kind of deep thinking.  If Clinton was at all successful in this policy then that might represent some strategy but instead the book bizarrely records a number of failures.  Boys describes Clinton as “pragmatic” on human rights, which is a strange word use in that context.  Human rights are both universal and distinctly un-pragmatic, or they are non-existent.  Taking advantage of who was in power in Russia upon his election, Clinton stuck with Boris Yeltsin through the possibly stolen 1996 election, the destruction of Chechnya, the rise of the oligarchs, and finally his resignation in favour of Vladimir Putin.  On humanitarianism there is of course the Rwandan tragedy, but also one sees in the book that even with his greatest success: Bosnia, Clinton’s actions were forced by his European allies, and the massacre at Srebrenica.  The book’s overarching theme then is that Clinton took advantage of the status quo and tried not to make waves, only acting when made too by others. These polices did not represent strategy but mere opportunism

This criticism is not to say that Clinton’s Grand Strategy is poorly researched, and for that matter it is also well written.  Boys knows his policy documents, and how the administration functioned.  His descriptions of the interior workings of Clinton’s foreign policy team are the most interesting parts of the book.  Clinton’s Grand Strategy would be, I am sure, a great pleasure to any policy wonk (if the Americanism can be excused).  Even if the conclusions of the book are fuzzy, Boys portrays well a president that he obviously likes personally.  Whether Clinton was commander or opportunist in chief remains to be seen though.

Clinton’s Grand Strategy is available to buy now.


About David Tiedemann

David is a PhD candidate at UCL where he specialises in Anglo-Amercian relations during the second half of the 19th Century. He can be found on Twitter here - @hanstiedles.

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