Ever since flunking his infamous pop quiz, George W. Bush has struggled to demonstrate his foreign policy competence. In a speech last month, he allayed some concerns by identifying America’s international priorities.
But foreign policy competence requires more than knowing facts and having priorities. It also requires, as Bush himself noted in last week’s New Hampshire candidate forum, “judgment and leadership.” Both of these qualities assume an ability to choose among priorities when they conflict. Unfortunately, Bush has yet to give us insight into how he would make these tough choices, thus leaving unclear what his administration’s foreign policy would actually look like.
The most welcome aspect of Bush’s recent comments on foreign policy is his firm embrace of free trade and American engagement abroad. By criticizing the temptation “to build a proud tower of protectionism and isolation,” he has made it clear that his administration would not retreat from the world’s many challenges.
Equally significant, he has emphasized that America’s foreign policy must promote both its values and its interests. This is a refreshing departure from the cold realism prominent in many parts of the GOP, which posits a false choice between honoring values and defending interests.
Bush has also correctly focused on the big issues—pointing both to the many opportunities and the many challenges that lie ahead. He has emphasized the importance of China, Russia and our allies in the conduct of foreign policy. He has noted the dangers of weapons proliferation, and he has recognized the opportunities afforded by India’s emergence as a major world power.
But in identifying his foreign policy priorities, Bush has left important questions unanswered. Governance is as much about recognizing the need to make hard choices as it is about clearly defining your aspirations. Bush has been silent about how he would achieve his goals—and about how he would choose when they conflict, as they inevitably will.
On China, Bush seeks to differentiate himself from the Clinton administration by terming Beijing a “strategic competitor” rather than strategic partner. Yet he has been strangely silent about both the nature of the threat China poses—is it regional or global, imminent or distant, military or political—and what the United States should do to counter it.
The governor has also vowed that during his presidency Beijing will know that “our advocacy of human freedom is not a formality of diplomacy.” Bill Clinton made much the same pledge in 1992 and discovered that it was easier said than done.
On Russia, Bush expresses justifiable concern about the increasing danger of loose nukes. He calls for substantially increasing foreign aid to help Russia account for and safeguard its nuclear weapons and materials.
Yet, his proposals to cut international aid to Russia for its actions in Chechnya, to increase U.S. defense spending and to build a national missile defense in the United States make it less likely that Moscow will cooperate in achieving this important goal.
With respect to our allies, Bush correctly stresses that our friends in Europe and Asia are partners rather than satellites. But partners have their own priorities. And our allies disagree with the governor on the most important issues. They strongly support the ban on nuclear testing that Bush excoriates.
They oppose his proposal to deploy missile defenses if it means abandoning the ABM Treaty. And they reject a policy of confrontation with China
Finally, in insisting that his administration will focus on the big priorities—Russia and China, India and allies, weapons proliferation and loose nukes—Bush fails to recognize that agendas are set not only by a president’s desires but also by what others do.
In today’s world, presidents will invariably confront large-scale humanitarian crises—be it tens of thousands of refugees streaming across Florida’s shores, hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Rwanda, or millions forcefully expelled in the Balkans. While deploring the multiplication of “missions without end,” Bush has said nothing about how he would deal with these challenges.
A successful foreign policy requires a president who is willing to lead America abroad. Bush says he will do just that. At the same time, an effective foreign policy requires more than having good advisers and passing a basic knowledge test.
It demands a president who recognizes that priorities conflict and that strategies involve choices. It’s not enough to be able to make decisions, you need to know how to make the right decisions. Bush’s challenge in the next few months is to assure the American people that he knows the difference.