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The White House & the World

It is no secret that the US electorate has little interest in the outside world. According to pre-election polls, only 2 percent of US voters were swayed by a presidential candidate’s foreign and defense policies. But for the rest of humanity the president’s external policies are all that really count. The American chief executive is the most powerful person in the world, a man who can exercise huge influence for good or ill. At this writing we do not know whether Gore or Bush will become president. But the differences between them in foreign policy should be taken very seriously.

In most respects a Gore presidency would continue in the steps of Bill Clinton. The men and women who would probably exercise the strongest influence—Richard Holbrooke in foreign policy and Laura Tyson in economic affairs, for example—were already prominent under Clinton: Holbrooke as senior troubleshooter in Africa and the Balkans and then as ambassador to the UN, and Tyson as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Gore is almost certainly more disposed than President Clinton to support humanitarian intervention overseas—but then so, in 1992, was candidate Clinton. In the event, the degree of international engagement will probably remain about the same.

For these reasons, and because he is a familiar face, well-traveled and well-informed, Al Gore would be a welcome successor in most countries.1 His well-attested commitment to the environment—not only in his writings and speeches but also in his enthusiastic endorsement of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming—marks him out from Clinton himself, who has avoided putting his head above the political parapet on this issue. If there is a downside to Gore, as seen from abroad, it is the suspicion that he has mortgaged himself to a coalition of interests—unions, farmers, old Democrats, Greens, and critics of the World Trade Organization—who may oblige him, against his better instincts, to draw back from the bipartisan commitment to free trade.

The US is currently engaged in a muted but increasingly fraught trade war with Europe, Japan, and Canada. The EU in particular accuses the US of illicitly subsidizing exports, notably through the law on foreign sales corporations that gives tax concessions to American companies registered overseas; the US countercharges that foreign governments have tacitly condoned and even favored the dumping of underpriced products, notably steel. Senator Robert Byrd’s recently passed amendment compensating domestic steel producers for cheap imports is just the latest in a series of provocative moves from all sides, following restrictions on everything from genetically modified food to unpasteurized French cheese. There are powerful constituencies—those listed above, but also the nationalist right—in Europe and the US that would not be sorry to see a return to protectionism and tariffs; a new president will need to give this growing source of friction quite urgent attention.

On this issue George W. Bush, who has taken a conventional position in favor of open borders (for goods, not people) will be preferred over Al Gore by many governments in Africa, Asia, and Europe. But in every other way his all too well documented ignorance of foreign affairs is a source of high international anxiety.2 To be sure, anxiety has its uses. The pronouncements of Bush and his adviser Condoleezza Rice on the desirability of letting Europeans police their own problems have raised hackles in Europe, with predictable reminders of shared NATO obligations: “all for one and one for all.”

In view of the near stalemate in the House and Senate, Bush is unlikely to act precipitately on these or other matters. But if the prospect of imminent US troop withdrawals under President Bush helps to concentrate the European mind, this may not be such a bad thing. Europeans are schizophrenic about the US-dominated NATO umbrella. On the one hand they would like to build up Europe’s own military capacity, and at next month’s meeting in Nice the EU may formally commit itself to a future European “rapid reaction” force of 60,000. On the other hand the US presence has given Western Europeans reassurance and security at lit-tle cost to themselves, as the smaller member states of the EU readily acknowledge. No one really wants to see it go.

In any event, neither France nor Britain nor Germany will hand foreign policy over to “Europe” in the foreseeable future. Two senior officials are concerned with European foreign policy and security matters: Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Affairs (answerable to the Commission in Brussels), and Javier Solana, a “High Representative” for external affairs who takes his authority from the fifteen member states. But neither has any executive power. There is no common European foreign policy—indeed, on everything from Israel to recognition of North Korea to sanctions against Iraq the main states of Western Europe are hopelessly at odds.

Europe spends less than one quarter of the US outlay on military research and technology, and every country favors its local arms manufacturers at the expense of any common program for equipment and purchasing. Moreover, in order to stay within the Maastricht criteria and avoid destabilizing the fragile euro, the EU member states are under pressure to hold down public expenditure. Defense budgets are a popular target for cuts. It is unclear how these contradictions, which reflect broader ambiguities in the European “project,” will be resolved.

Elsewhere, Bush would inherit a Clinton legacy about which he could do little. In Asia, the Gulf, and Central America US policy has been to manage crises and avoid disasters. How Bush would handle impending emergencies in, for example, Colombia or central Africa is an open question. In the Middle East the collapse of the peace process highlights the limits of American power—and the degree to which the US has drifted apart from its allies. Although Clinton is still trying to mediate between Barak and Arafat, and the US is still the main financial backer of both Israel and Egypt, electoral overbidding in support of Israel has distorted US commentary and rhetoric on the Israeli- Palestinian struggle to the point where most European commentators (not to speak of those in the rest of the world) despair of an incoming administration’s capacity to play an effective role in the region for years to come.

Bush is not to blame for this. But he is responsible for his own gung-ho commitment to national missile defense and his manifest unconcern for international institutions and agreements. These prejudices could prove disastrous. Some of Bush’s close advisers have spoken vaguely of localized, “boost-phase” missiles that would be sea-based and kept in or near likely theaters of conflict—in the Gulf or off the coast of North Korea—in order to intercept hostile missile attacks. But even if these weapons materialize and prove effective and secure (all such matters are still in the realm of pure speculation), they will not be installed for years to come. Meanwhile, official Republican policy is to forge ahead with a full-scale national missile defense. This would entail abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an outcome as destabilizing to America’s allies as it would be provocative to Russia.

President George W. Bush would presumably echo a Republican Congress’s disinclination to pay dues to the United Nations, sign on to an International Court, or play an active part in international agencies—at a moment when such agencies and institutions could and should play crucial roles in everything from the prosecution of war criminals to the prevention of deadly pandemics. Bush and his friends know little and care less about pollution. His recent dismissal of the Kyoto Protocol bodes ill for US policy in an era of growing international anxiety about the environment. All in all, vague commitments to a “distinctly American internationalism” will not easily counter the clear message of insouciant parochialism that was conveyed in the course of the election campaign.

Take comfort, we are told. George W. Bush is surrounded by wise and experienced counselors. They will educate him in the ways of the world. His advisers are certainly experienced (most of them worked for his father); but just how wise are they? Condoleezza Rice has already managed to upset a lot of people. It was one thing to propose a “new division of labor” within NATO and suggest that Europeans should take over the US role in the Balkans (Europeans already provide 80 percent of the peacekeeping forces and carry most of the costs). But was it really prudent to suggest that the 82nd Airborne had more important things to do than escort children to school? The implication that French and British paratroopers were better-suited to babysitting did not go down well with Europeans, whose ground troops are far more exposed and have recently taken far greater risks than their American colleagues.

Like Bush’s other senior advisers, Rice learned her trade in the late cold war years and sees the world in terms of Great Powers and Big Problems (Russia, China), with lesser crises and places unworthy of US engagement. For all Dr. Rice’s undoubted expertise, this suggests a lack of imagination and even some ignorance of the way today’s world actually works. But the truly disturbing prospect among Bush’s mentors is the likely secretary of state, Colin Powell. As a longstanding Washngton insider he may do well in the State Department, getting along with congressional committees and streamlining the making and management of policy. But for all his curious cultlike domestic status, Powell is actually the highest price that the world would pay for Bush’s victory.

Powell is responsible for today’s obsession with “force protection”—the bizarre notion that the overriding goal of American forces posted to a crisis is to ensure their own invulnerability. He seems mesmerized by “exit strategies”—the requirement that a US government take no action unless it knows in advance when and how it would extricate itself from any foreign military entanglement. Taken seriously, this means that in the real world of unpredictable risks and ambiguities no American troops would ever venture beyond their barracks. And Powell, like Rice, holds that it is the task of the US to prepare exclusively for major crises that demonstrably threaten vital national interests. What those interests are and why they, and they alone, are “vital” no one has yet explained.

In short, General Powell has the bureaucratic, action-averse outlook of many deskbound senior staff officers. This would not matter if he were working for a president with some military experience of his own and the confidence to overrule bad advice. His perspective might even be useful in a military adviser pressing caution on an overenthusiastic leader hurrying to right all the world’s wrongs. But in an all-powerful secretary of state, exercising unimpeded influence over an uncertain newcomer whose instincts are to do the minimum, Powell’s dislike of all foreign ventures could be a disaster.

Bush has told us he doesn’t think the US should go in for “nation-building” and that the US can’t be “all things to all people in the world.” But the world won’t come to a stop just because the US disengages from its troubles. US national interests today are intertwined with those of allies and admirers worldwide. Protecting those interests thus entails maintaining American international influence. That influence in turn rests not just upon the example of American laws and liberties, but also upon American backing for other nations’ rights and freedoms enshrined in international law and guaranteed in extremis by a credible threat of force. Without this, America stands for little more than McDonald’s. George W. Bush would doubtless have enough domestic troubles to keep him occupied. But like it or not he will, if he is elected, also be the leader of the world. If he wants to be effective in this role, or even merely competent, he will need to extricate himself from the embrace of his advisers, and the sooner the better.

Zagreb, November 14, 2000

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    But not everywhere. There are some, in Croatia and Bosnia for example, who feel that the Clinton-Holbrooke style—sweep in, impose an agreement, leave the details for later and hope that you won’t be around when things unravel—could be improved upon, and that Bush would bring a less glitzy, more sustained strategy to bear on intractable issues. My own view is that their optimism is misplaced.

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    In Le Monde on November 11, Olivier Duhamel wrote that George Bush represents the “crétinisation” of American democracy. Monsieur Duhamel, a professor of politics and member of the European Parliament, may be French but he is no knee-jerk anti-American. His view of the Republican presidential candidate is widely shared in Europe.

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