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The Clinton Administration

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The Clinton administration entered office at a time of great opportunity and challenge. The end of the cold war meant that the new administration had the rare opportunity to craft a foreign policy for a new age. The defining U.S.-Soviet rivalry was gone and the United States had emerged as a uniquely powerful state. The question - and the challenge - then was how the United States would use its power and for what purposes. What were the new threats in the new world?

Among the challenges that the new administration identified were the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and the vulnerability of civilian and military infrastructure to cyberattack, and the rise of internal conflicts with potentially huge humanitarian costs. But the new era also offered great opportunities, not least by advancing democracy and economic prosperity. Therefore, U.S. foreign policy would increasingly have to take account of economic policy. The Clinton administration structured its National Security Council staff to reflect these priorities. It created new directorates - including the first ever dedicated to nonproliferation and export controls, as well as a directorate addressing global issues and multilateral affairs, with responsibility for managing the growing challenges and opportunities in an increasingly globalized world (ranging from drug trafficking and counterterrorism to peacekeeping, humanitarian affairs and the promotion of democracy). It also established the National Economic Council to integrate domestic and international economic policy. The NEC staff dealing with the latter set of issues was dual-hatted, reporting to heads of both the NEC and the NSC.

Another innovation of the Clinton NSC was the creation of a communications and press component. Traditionally considered a function of the White House press staff, the new administration began to see the need to more effectively articulate its foreign policy in the wake of crises in Somalia and Haiti. The emphasis placed on an effective communication was not without controversy, however, as the administration as a whole was criticized for placing too much emphasis on style rather than substance.

This is the seventh in a series of roundtables held by the NSC Project, which is cosponsored by the Center for International and Security Studies at the Maryland School of Public Affairs and the Foreign Policy Studies program of the Brookings Institution. Transcripts of five previous roundtables on the Nixon NSC, the role of the NSC in international economic policymaking, the Bush NSC, the role of the national security adviser, and the role of the NSC in arms control policy have already been published and are available on the Brookings website at nsc.htm. A sixth transcript on the NSC and U.S. policy toward China will be published in the near future. These seminars have been conducted for their own independent value. They also provided useful insight for "A New NSC for a New Administration," a policy brief published by the Brookings Institution in November 2000 (also available on the Brookings website at and a book to be published in 2002.

We are grateful to the participants for coming and talking with candor and insight. We are also particularly grateful to Karla Nieting for her help in organizing the roundtable, editing the transcript, and working with the participants in bringing this edited version of the proceedings to publication. Responsibility for any remaining errors rests with us.

I.M. "Mac" Destler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. 

Ivo Daalder is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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