WASHINGTON — Completely unnoticed by most Americans, the Washington elite has become ensnared in a yet another false, narcissistic foreign policy debate. Yet when French President Jacques Chirac stood side-by-side with Chinese President Jiang Zemin recently and denounced U.S. nuclear and antiballistic missile treaty policies, it hinted at troubling questions raised by unintended U.S. imperiousness and strategic incoherence: Is the U.S. the steward of global order or a rogue superpower?

The Clinton administration clearly sees it as the former. In the aftermath of Congress’ rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Clinton administration launched a partisan campaign against its invented straw man: the “new isolationists,” who, inveighed National Security Counsel adviser Samuel Berger in a major policy speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, “believe in a survivalist foreign policy — build a fortified fence around America and retreat behind it.”

This school of thought, a “dominant minority” in Congress, according to Berger, purportedly opposes any international treaties; refuses to bear any burden for maintaining world order or to intervene to stop slaughter in peripheral foreign conflicts; believes great powers need great adversaries and seeks to turn China and Russia into new enemies.

Clinton and Berger’s description of neoisolationists is a gross caricature of legitimate criticism of the deeply flawed, legalistic and reactive foreign policy of a president who has squandered credibility.

Six former secretaries of defense, two former CIA chiefs, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and tried and tested internationalists in the Senate like Richard Lugar and John McCain all opposed the test-ban treaty. Are they new isolationists, or is this legitimate debate about the virtues of the CTBT?

Nonetheless, the fate of the CTBT appears to be part of a recurring pattern, troubling to allies and others abroad, of which most Americans seem unaware. The CTBT, the International Criminal Court, the land-mine treaty, the Kyoto climate-change treaty, are all international laws the administration helped craft, yet which the U.S. refused to ratify. Add to that unilateral sanctions that have in the past few years been applied to nearly two-thirds of the world’s population at one time or another, including the extra-territorial application of U.S. law, not to mention war against Yugoslavia without a United Nations mandate.

The result is France calling the U.S. a “hyperpower,” and China calling the United States a “rogue state.” China is hardly one to preach about international norms. Still, there is an obvious disconnect between the U.S. self-image as the beacon for rule of law governing international relations and its actual behavior.

The U.S., as the most powerful economic, military and political actor, the only one able to project force to any corner of the globe, has special responsibilities. In its pre-eminent position, the U.S. cannot help but generate some degree of resentment either for doing too much or not enough. But does being a lone superpower mean never having to say sorry?

The trail of unratified treaties reflects the culture of lawyers that has been the hallmark of Clintonism. This legalistic political culture emphasizes process over results. Thus, a foreign policy defined by the vacuous term “engagement.” At times it is also marked by a fuzzy utopianism that too often confuses power and law. International rules tend to work when they reflect the interests of the major powers who are thus inclined to put their weight behind enforcing them. It is power that gives life to norms, not signed pieces of paper.

Arguably, among the the treaties the U.S. has not embraced, some may not have been in the best U.S. national interest. The scientific case on global warming may be compelling. But a treaty that leaves out two of the biggest polluters (China and India) is a nonstarter. The land-mine treaty and International Criminal Court of justice arguably constrain the U.S. in ways that may be unwise. The current controversy over freshly disclosed U.S. military behavior during the Korean War hints at the risk to a global power frequently involved in military actions. The CTBT, its proponents argued, locked in U.S. strategic advantage and curbed China, Russia and India’s nuclear possibilities. Critics questioned its verifiability, enforcement and impact on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It was a legitimate debate.

But the lack of consensus on these treaties left the U.S. looking rather imperious and confused. In fact, the administration’s halfhearted efforts at ratification of the test-ban treaty suggest it was not heartbroken at having it as an election campaign issue. Similarly, it knew the Congress would never ratify the Kyoto accord. This cynical political tactic allows Clinton to have it both ways: posture as being on the side of the angels and blame the “bad old” Congress.

Unfortunately this presidential style, one more of campaigning than governing, not only creates a poisonous political atmosphere, it also erodes the possibilities of bipartisanship needed for foreign policy to work and projects an image of unreliability to the world. What results is a debate pitting excessive unilateralism in response to the excessive multilateralism of the administration.

It is tempting to argue that all this matters little in a world of overwhelming U.S. power and influence. Yet actions have consequences. The U.S. global advantage is impermanent. Over the next quarter century, the role of other powers, the Europeans, China, and perhaps even Russia, will increase. The U.S. challenge is to husband its advantage wisely. That means fostering a global structure of relations that advance U.S. interests over the long term, one in which other major players feel they have more of a stake in cooperating with than in obstructing. The message we seem to be sending others is less one of norms and rules than of arbitrary power.

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