While it is early days yet for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, the broad outlines of his foreign policy are becoming clear. His statements during the campaign hinted at a departure from traditional U.S. policies, and they caused some alarm among America’s allies. Mr. Bush’s foreign-policy team is designed to quell some of the concern he might have caused, as well as that raised by his lack of experience in the field. Doubts will persist, however, until the new administration is tested. Unfortunately, that is likely to happen soon.
During the campaign, Mr. Bush made clear that his foreign and defense policies would put U.S. national-security concerns above all others. While his statement that the U.S. should be less arrogant when dealing with other nations is welcome, there was also the uncomfortable implication that his government would be less involved in the “entangling alliances” against which founding President George Washington warned. Mr. Bush’s support for national missile defense also revealed a willingness to ignore concerns about regional stability when it conflicts with narrowly defined U.S. national interests. That is a troubling policy for the world’s remaining superpower.
As a first sign, the new administration seems to be backing away from the intense involvement of its predecessor in the Middle East. The U.S. State Department has said that there are no plans to send a special envoy to peace talks under way in Egypt between Israel and the Palestinians.
There have been doubts about the wisdom of former President Bill Clinton’s involvement in the talks. Some distance is necessary if the U.S. is to maintain its role as neutral arbiter, as well as its power to influence negotiations. While the problems of the region need to be solved by the parties directly involved, the U.S. cannot afford to keep too far away — especially when the U.S. is so close to one country. At the very least, Mr. Bush should ensure that he does not make a bad situation worse. If he makes good on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he will do just that.
The new president pledged to give higher priority to his country’s neighbors. That is not idle talk: Mr. Bush’s first presidential visit outside the U.S. will be to Mexico. Relations between the two countries are ready for a shift with new administrations in both capitals. As the former governor of Texas, Mr. Bush knows well Mexico’s problems and how intertwined the two countries’ interests are. He hopes to build on the success of the North American Free Trade Agreement to create a Free Trade Area throughout the Americas.
In Asia, the Bush administration appears set on taking a harder line toward China and to be more supportive of Taiwan. If not handled with care, this could arouse anger in Beijing with little commensurate gain for the U.S. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated U.S. commitments to Taiwan’s defense and told China’s ambassador to the U.S. that Beijing should show more tolerance and respect for the rule of law. A firm and consistent policy is needed. Needless posturing is not. As Mr. Powell has noted, the surest way to make an enemy of China is to treat it like one.
While the new administration’s renewed appreciation of traditional U.S. allies in the region — Japan and South Korea — is welcome, there is concern that gratuitous attempts to stand up to China or North Korea will be counterproductive. There are Cabinet members who served during the Cold War. They may be hawkish, but it is overly simplistic to say that they are Cold Warriors. Nonetheless, the situation in Asia has changed during the last decade. The new government must acknowledge as much and work from there.
Much will depend on the skills of the new president. Mr. Clinton had a cozy, respectful relationship with many European leaders. That reflected his personal experience, his political leanings and his love of detail. Mr. Bush cannot match his predecessor on any of those counts, but he reportedly is, like former President Ronald Reagan, capable of creating personal rapport. During the campaign, Mr. Bush talked tough; his attacks on the Clinton policy toward Russia were especially harsh. That may have been campaign rhetoric, but it also creates a legacy that must be addressed. That, too, will test Mr. Bush’s reputedly considerable personal skills.
Mr. Bush said he intends to change U.S. foreign policy. He will soon discover that that is easier said than done. Presidents change, national interests endure. The other certainty is that there will be surprises. The questions are when and where. They will have more influence on the new administration’s foreign policy than any campaign promises or Cabinet selections.
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