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HONOLULU — The controversy swirling around President George W. Bush’s foreign policy is remarkable for two things. The first is the consensus regarding its content. Observers generally agree that the Bush foreign policy is muscular, unilateralist and dominated by political realists who practice power politics. Under the Bush administration, the United States is acting like real superpower — perhaps even an imperial power.

But “realism” has a second, more conventional meaning, and in this context it is every bit as important as the first. Despite that image, the truth is many of the foreign policy decisions that the Bush team has made are no different from those any other U.S. administration would have been forced to make.

It is unlikely that any president would have gotten Senate ratification of the Kyoto protocol. Winning approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the treaty that established the International Criminal Court would have tested any president’s mettle and political courage.

Thus, the second key point about the Bush foreign policy debate is that much of the criticism has missed the point. Foreign policy content has changed on the margins; the real problem is the way the administration has managed foreign relations, not the policies themselves.

Consider four key issues that have surfaced during the first year and a half of the Bush administration.

* China. The Bush administration came to office determined to look hard at relations with China. The idea of a strategic partnership that was mooted by the Clinton administration was abandoned, and instead Beijing was viewed as a competitor and potential threat to U.S. supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. Fears crystallized in April 2001, when a crisis followed the collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter. Yet, since then, the U.S. has tried to create a “constructive and cooperative relationship” with China and has, especially in the wake of Sept. 11, largely succeeded. Bush has met three times with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and has invited him to his Texas ranch.

* Koreas. The first foreign policy fiasco of the new administration was the summit with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in March 2001. There are plenty of explanations for the mishandled meeting, but they all miss the real point: Bush endorsed Kim’s “sunshine policy” and continued engagement with North Korea. The U.S. then embarked on a “review” of policy toward Pyongyang, but it concluded that there was no alternative to the present course and the U.S. has stuck to that line. The rhetoric has been harsh and the enthusiasm diminished, but Washington and Pyongyang continue to talk.

Warnings of an “anticipatory breach” have not been matched by action, although new revelations that North Korea has a covert nuclear weapons program could change this.

* National Security Strategy. The newly released “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” has been condemned for enshrining international supremacy as the stated objective of U.S. policy and for endorsing the doctrine of pre-emption. In fact, maintaining U.S. supremacy has been the goal of every administration since the end of the Cold War; controversy over that position first erupted in 1991.

Pre-emption has always been a strategic option. The debate should be over the conditions under which it is appropriate, not whether it should be used. More to the point, the report mentions pre-emption just twice, and only in connection with weapons of mass destruction.

* Iraq. The Bush administration has made no attempt to hide its desire for “regime change” in Baghdad. Remember, however, that the Clinton administration had the same goal. More important, despite all its seeming readiness to launch a war against Iraq, the administration has held off, gone to the United Nations and demanded that the world body act to restore its credibility. It may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but Hussein has done more damage to U.N. authority than has the U.S. After all, Iraq has continually flouted the United Nations and made no secret of its contempt for the organization. Bush has threatened to act unilaterally, but has not done so. Thus his logic is straightforward: If Iraq is going to ignore the U.N. without penalty, then the U.S. will do so as well.

If there is such continuity to U.S. foreign policy, then why the near universal concern about the Bush administration’s approach to international relations? Blame the management style of the president and public diplomacy of the administration. As a “corporate style” president, Bush was inclined to let underlings argue publicly about topics on which he did not have a fixed view. That might work for companies, but it is a recipe for disaster when the CEO is the U.S. president.

The battle for public opinion has been played out in typical Washington fashion, via leaks and talk shows. When the rhetoric went too far, the president was forced to step in. The extreme language may have captured public attention, but it also focused on the most hawkish positions.

The damage has been compounded by the way the administration has handled policy. Not only has the president been slow to intervene in internal debates but the Bush team has been so focused on the war on terrorism that it has let other issues fester until they demand attention.

Finally, there is the way the Bush administration has implemented policies. From the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to the call to the U.N. to take action against Iraq, the administration has been perceived as heavy-handed. There is a way to say no to allies and partners that does not entail a slap in the face.

Diplomacy is the art of disagreeing without closing the door to discussion. Diplomacy is the art of disagreeing without closing the door to discussion. The Bush team seems to have little interest in extended dialogue. When the U.S. turns to international institutions, the preceding debate makes that effort look reluctant, if not begrudging.

The administration’s failure to better manage foreign relations might be even more troubling than the chorus of complaints about the content of its policies, if only because better management of foreign policy would have minimized the harm done by those policies.

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