Reprinted by permission of The Weekly Standard, November 4, 1996

Not all that long ago, revelations about an American president's shady financial entanglements with an Indonesian businessman would have stirred up a debate about more than campaign finance. During the Cold War, liberal Democrats and left-wing activists would have made a big fuss over the administration's increasingly cozy relationship with the corrupt, thirty-year- old authoritarian dictatorship of President Suharto. And conservative Republicans would have responded, a la Jeane Kirkpatrick, that the liberals were hypocrites with a "double standard," favoring warmer ties with anti-American Communist dictatorships in Cuba, Vietnam, and China, but not with " friendly" dictators like Suharto.

But these days there are no more double standards about dictatorships. If they're big "emerging markets" for American exports, we love them all. Republicans nowadays welcome closer trading ties with Communist tyrannies in China and Vietnam. If conservatives once decried the (liberal) idea that trading with the Soviets or Cubans would lead to political reforms, today they find such notions unusually persuasive, especially when it means big Chinese contracts for Boeing and General Electric. Democrats, meanwhile, make no complaint about their president's chumminess with the Suhartos of this world. True, twenty years ago liberals condemned such relationships when they were justified on the grounds of anti-Communist containment. But today they find them perfectly justifiable if they mean more jobs for American workers.

In the world after the Cold War, the moral dilemmas and difficult political and strategic judgments that used to bedevil American foreign policy in our dealings with unsavory governments are melting away in the solvent of narrow economic interests. In place of those old qualms, a remarkably powerful consensus has formed in both parties, a conviction that the business of American foreign policy should be, simply, business.

There is, as usual, intellectual buttress for reducing American foreign policy to a simple matter of dollars and cents. We live, it is alleged, in the era of "geo-economics," a time when, as Martin Walker cheerfully reports in the New Yorker, "the new virility symbols are exports and productivity and growth rates, and the great international encounters are the trade pacts of the economic superpowers." In such a world, national power is less important than the power of corporations. The nation-state itself is an anachronism. What will ensure "America's global leadership into the 21st century," Owen Harries argues, is not the State Department or the Pentagon but America's "great economic companies, its universities, its Silicon Valleys and its cultural and mass-entertainment industry." The job of government in the age of geo-economics is merely to assist these institutions in their quests, to wield American power and influence in the service of American corporations.

That is what the Clinton administration has been doing for the past four years, more than any other administration in recent memory, in places like Indonesia and China and anywhere else a market can be found for American goods and services. And if gaining a niche for American exporters means sacrificing America's traditional support for universal, inalienable rights, then so be it. In this new era, foreign policy is made by the Commerce Department and the U.S. trade representative, and their job is to pry open markets, not societies.

In places like Indonesia, you can't do both. American firms want access to the Indonesian market, but President Suharto is the Indonesian market. He, his children, and his grandchildren maintain a vast business empire of their own, and nobody does business in Indonesia without the dictator's approval. Gaining access to Indonesia's market, therefore, means gaining access to Suharto. And you can't do that and demand reform of his repressive rule at the same time, as President Clinton has learned.

In 1992, candidate Clinton attacked Suharto's government for its brutal repression of East Timor, the former Portuguese colony invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975. He denounced the "unconscionable" indifference of previous U.S. administrations to Suharto's human-rights record. In March 1993, his administration supported a U.N. resolution criticizing Indonesia for abuses in East Timor, including the 1991 army massacre of civilians in the East Timorese capital, Dili.

But Clinton's assault on Suharto's domestic policies didn't last much longer than the president's early hard line against the dictatorship in Beijing. His reversal of the Bush administration's see-no-evil policy annoyed and worried Suharto. Indonesia's foreign minister denounced the intrusion into Indonesia's internal affairs, employing the Chinese defense -- cultural relativism. A government's treatment of its citizens, he insisted, had to be viewed in the context of the "different economic, social and cultural realities and the unique value systems prevailing in each country." Suharto, meanwhile, began taking steps to improve his relationship with Clinton. He sent an emissary to Washington to propose a summit between the two leaders -- a mission aided by Indonesian businessmen, like the now-infamous James Riady, who subtly reminded the Clinton administration that contracts for American corporations, and jobs for American workers, were at stake.

As the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations have reported, the Clinton administration quickly changed course. The Commerce Department designated Indonesia one of ten "big emerging markets" in the developing world, which entitled the Suharto government to all kinds of special favors, both economic and diplomatic. In May 1993, the president, declaring that "we have enormous opportunities" in Indonesia, announced he would meet with Suharto on the margins of the G-7 summit in Tokyo later in the year.

It would be a juicy scandal, indeed, if it turned out that Clinton agreed to meet with Suharto as a favor to his old buddy Riady in return for Riady's large contributions to the Democratic National Committee's campaign coffers. And it would be juicier still if the Riady connection were responsible for the Clinton administration's other friendly actions toward Indonesia over the succeeding months, like U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor's decision to halt a review of Indonesia's repressive labor practices in return for a written pledge by the Suharto government to change them. Or like Suharto's private visit to the White House last year, when he met with vice president Al Gore, secretary of state Warren Christopher, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili, Mickey Kantor, and then-commerce secretary Ron Brown. "No one used to treat the Indonesians like this," a senior U.S. official told the New York Times. Suharto's special handling "said a lot about how our priorities in the world have changed."

It was these shifting priorities, not Riady's generous donations, that best explain Clinton's turnabout on Indonesia. After flirting briefly with the archaic idea of advancing American principles abroad, the Clinton administration had simply embraced its role as the servant of American business. "Riady may have been a factor" in the decision to end the review of Indonesia's treatment of workers, one labor-rights advocate told the Washington Post, but any Indonesians hoping to influence the administration "would have had to get in line behind U.S. corporate money." As another human-rights activist told the New York Times, American companies were afraid that there would be retaliation, and that big contracts would go to the Europeans and the Japanese. And that's how you really get this administration's attention."

The truth is, the Clinton administration has not been afraid to put pressure on Indonesia, but it only does so on behalf of American business interests seeking access to Suharto's market. Clinton officials have slapped Indonesia's wrist for permitting the pirating of "intellectual property" like American computer software and movies. They're threatening to bring Indonesia before the World Trade Organization for discriminating against foreign automakers in favor of the national car business run by -- you guessed it -- Suharto's son. And Indonesian businessmen have begun complaining of rough treatment by the United States.

But Suharto doesn't have to worry about similar rough treatment in response to his repression of Indonesians and East Timorese alike. The "driving dynamic" behind U.S. policy, one senior official told the Washington Post, has been the desire "not to totally screw up the trade relationship" while keeping up demands for a better human rights performance. In practice, that means Clinton and his advisers "raise" human-rights issues whenever they meet with Suharto and his ministers. One can imagine how much force these private admonitions must carry when the administration's hunger for access to the Indonesian market is trumpeted so much more loudly and frequently. "Quiet diplomacy" didn't work for the Bush administration in China. Even former Secretary of State James Baker admits that four years of subtle warnings in Beijing left the administration "[treading] water." The same lack of success can be expected in Indonesia, and for the same reason. To paraphrase and update George Will, American governments these days love commerce more than they hate communism, or authoritarianism -- and the dictators know it.

There's nothing wrong with promoting American business abroad, of course. Presidents have been doing it in one form or another, and bragging about it, for more than a hundred years. Revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams and his many disciples once argued that all of American foreign policy, from the time of McKinley right through to the Vietnam War, could be understood primarily as a search for markets and the promotion of American corporate interests. They were wrong, at least about the period before the end of the Cold War. Throughout the past century, the pursuit of economic interests was always balanced by, and most of the time subordinated to, the pursuit of other, broader national interests, both strategic and ideological. Indeed, had the United States just been doing business all those years, it could not have risen to its present position of world leadership.

That leadership has been moral and ideological as well as economic and geopolitical. America outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War not just by getting rich, but through the strength of its military and the strength of its commitment to democratic governance. In the 1980s, the United States pressured even reliable allied dictators like Ferdinand Marcos to hold elections and allow a transition to democratic rule. We did the same in South Korea, in South Africa, and in Central America. Didn't these transitions toward greater democracy, undertaken even in the dangerous strategic circumstances of the Cold War, ultimately accrue to our benefit? Now, when the world is a much safer place, we can well afford to push for similar changes in places like Indonesia, even if it costs us the chance to sell some cars.