In contrast to George H. W. Bush, William Jefferson Clinton relegated foreign policy to a secondary concern when he took office in 1993. As he put it, he focused "like a razor beam" on domestic issues—reviving the sluggish American economy, balancing the budget, and proposing a sweeping reform of the health care system. He delegated foreign policy to two veterans—Warren Christopher, the secretary of state, who favored a cautious, lawyerly approach to world affairs, working harmoniously with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, a former aide to Henry Kissinger who had resigned in protest during the Vietnam War.
Two other foreign policy advisers came to play an important part in the Clinton administration. The first was Strobe Talbott, a journalist and expert on the Soviet Union, who had close personal ties with Clinton, his Rhodes Scholar roommate at Oxford. After brief service as ambassador-at-large to the countries of the former Soviet Union, Talbott became deputy secretary of state and oversaw the administration's efforts to support Boris Yeltsin's leadership of Russia. Talbott supervised the granting of $2.5 billion in economic aid as well as the Clinton administration's efforts to promote free market reforms and democracy in Russia.
Richard Holbrooke, another veteran of the Carter administration, emerged as a key player in the most critical foreign policy problem confronting the Clinton presidency—the civil war in Bosnia. Although Clinton had criticized Bush for failing to halt the bloodshed in this former Yugoslavian territory, the new president proved equally reluctant to intervene militarily to stop the fighting. In 1995, however, Clinton finally approved U.S. participation in North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes designed to halt Bosnian Serb shelling of the Muslim city of Sarajevo. Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, carried out the difficult task of negotiating a cease-fire among the ethnic rivals in Bosnia—Croats, Serbs, and Muslims. The accords that he succeeded in getting representatives of the three groups to sign in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 ended the fighting in Bosnia and led to a fragile but viable political settlement.
The ethnic tensions in the Balkans continued to create difficulty for Christopher's successor, Madeleine Albright, who became secretary of state at the start of Clinton's second term in 1997. The first woman to hold the office, Albright, the daughter of a Czech diplomat, had taught international affairs at Georgetown University and served as ambassador to the UN from 1993 to 1996. More activist than Christopher, she was a firm believer in democracy and was willing to use force to achieve American goals abroad. When Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic began terrorizing the majority Albanian population in Kosovo, Albright was determined to halt his ethnic cleansing. After Holbrooke's efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement had failed by early 1999, Albright helped persuade Clinton to intervene militarily to protect the Kosovars. For nearly three months, from March to June 1999, NATO aircraft bombed Serbia in an effort to halt Milosevic's attempt to drive all the Albanians out of Kosovo. The secretary of state defended this policy against fierce criticism and she and Clinton were vindicated when the air offensive began to target the infrastructure of Serbia (bridges, power plants, TV stations), finally forcing Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. Remarkably, not a single American life was lost in this military campaign. The outcome in Kosovo, however, was ambiguous—the territory was still nominally Serbian but only the presence of NATO troops kept an uneasy peace between the returning Kosovars and the minority Serbs.
Inevitably, foreign policy came to occupy more of Clinton's attention during his second term in office. The failure of his health care reform and the Republican control of Congress after 1994 limited his freedom of action on domestic matters. He became personally involved in two difficult efforts at mediation—trying to broker peace between the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland and attempting to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian rivalry in the Middle East. Although he relied on advisers in both cases (former Senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland and troubleshooter Dennis Ross in Israel), Clinton took an active personal role, most notably in negotiating the Wye River Accord between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat in Maryland in 1998. By the time he left office, Clinton had traveled to nearly every part of the world and felt much more confident, and less dependent on his advisers, than when he had entered the White House.