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HONOLULU — Call me a cynic, but I’ve long believed that one of the greatest foreign-policy advantages the United States has enjoyed is the ineptness of the governments it has confronted. It’s always good to have right on your side, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Nor is might the answer: The reality of the post-Cold War diplomatic world is that unilateralism just isn’t tenable, even for the world’s remaining superpower. Washington’s decision to pursue Iraq through the United Nations is proof of that.

Marketing matters. Often, winning international support for U.S. policy has been a “gimme” because “the bad guys” have been so bad. Invasions and sponsorship of terrorists are casus belli. Brinkmanship may make diplomatic sense, but it doesn’t score public-opinion points.

Take North Korea. Although Washington loathes the North Korean regime and has no desire to discuss key issues with it, for nearly a year and a half the U.S. held its nose and said that it was willing to talk to Pyongyang, “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions.” It was betting that the North wouldn’t call the bluff. It was a smart move. The North Korean government could have forced the Bush administration’s hand by agreeing to negotiate; instead it denounced U.S. hostility and kept its distance. While that may have been designed to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Seoul, it allowed the U.S. to take the high ground and made Pyongyang look unreasonable.

There is a similar phenomenon when dealing with China. Discuss Japan and one typically hears talking points about Japan’s rising militarism and its threat to regional security. When the subject turns to relations with the U.S., China invariably only responds to American initiatives. Although China claims to be “a peace-loving nation,” Beijing hasn’t been inclined to put proposals on the table.

In the Chinese case, however, things appear to be changing. In recent discussions, Chinese foreign-policy analysts seem more confident and sophisticated. The remarks are still prepared, but they don’t come across as stiff-necked apparatchiks.

They’ve learned to give the impression that they are sharing confidences. In short, their style has been transformed. The same is true of their thinking. For example, some Chinese analysts have concluded that the chief threat from Japan comes from its weakness, rather than its strength. Of course, they worry about the same result — Japanese militarism — but their logic can no longer be dismissed out of hand. President Jiang Zemin’s reported offer to U.S. President George W. Bush to cap Chinese missile deployments opposite Taiwan is a similarly calculated gambit. The U.S. downplayed the move, but it was a shrewd proposal by Jiang. It made China look like a peacemaker and put the burden on the U.S. to respond.

It’s an impressive transformation and one that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Even if the objectives of Beijing’s foreign policy have not changed, the new style could alter perceptions of China’s behavior. The U.S. has to respond in kind; I hope Washington is up to the task.

The difficulties are compounded by a recent survey of international opinion. The Pew Global Attitudes Project interviewed more than 38,000 people in 44 countries and the results are worrying.

* The U.S. and its citizens are still regarded “favorably in 35 of the 42 countries in which the question was asked, but the U.S. is viewed only somewhat favorably in virtually all of these countries. Moreover, negative opinions of the U.S. have increased in most of the nations. . . .”

* The U.S. image is positive among close allies — more than 70 percent in Britain, Canada and Italy, and about 60 percent in France and Germany — but “relatively few people in these countries have strongly positive feelings toward the U.S. and favorable opinion has diminished in three of four major U.S. allies in Western Europe.”

* In the Mideast and Central Asia, the U.S. image is “overwhelmingly negative.”

* Asians have a positive image of the U.S. Only in Bangladesh were there more people who viewed the U.S. unfavorably than favorably. In the light of last week’s election, it is troubling that 44 percent of South Koreans have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S.

Even more worrisome is the growing perception that U.S. policy is unilateral, and does not take into account the views and interests of other nations. The report’s authors note that “with the exception of Germany, majorities in these countries (U.S. allies) believe the U.S. fails to take into account the interests of their country when making international policy decisions.”

Many of those decisions were preordained, however. It is hard to imagine that any U.S. president would have won Senate approval of the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But the way that the U.S. rejected those international agreements is important. The art of diplomacy is saying “no” in ways that don’t end discussions. The U.S. has made little attempt to hone that skill.

The perception of U.S. unilateralism has been compounded by President George W. Bush’s management style. He lets subordinates sound off and wage their bureaucratic wars through leaks to the press. The hardliners take the initiative, scare the bejesus out of everyone else until cooler heads get the president to take the reins and steer policy back to the middle. Unfortunately, the damage has been done and perceptions of U.S. policy are invariably tinted by the hardline rhetoric.

There is room for hope: The goals of U.S. policy are supported by allies in Canada, Europe and Asia. Only in South Korea do majorities oppose the U.S.-led war on terrorism and feel that the U.S. doesn’t consider their interests.

The report’s authors conclude “in general, antipathy toward the U.S. is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically.”

That makes me optimistic. Sympathy for U.S. views offers traction for U.S. diplomacy. When Washington realizes that support for its policies has to be won rather than assumed, it can put together the coalitions that legitimize its actions. Understanding what voters want and then selling policies to them has become an art form in Washington. There is no reason why those same skills can’t be put to work overseas. Or maybe I am just being naive.

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