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Has Bush Gone Multilateral?

The following opinion was originally posted at the America Abroad weblog on TPM Café. All past posts may be found at America Abroad – A Blog on Current Affairs on this website, or at TPM Café.

A consensus seems to be emerging, at least in the mainstream media, that Bush has given up on the unilateralism of his first term and is now firmly committed to a multilateralist foreign policy. The New York Times has analyzed the apparent shift from strong rhetoric to urging patience. This week’s Time cover story declares the end of “cowboy diplomacy.” And the latest Foreign Affairs magazine has an article by my Brookings colleague Phil Gordon proclaiming “The End of the Bush Revolution.” Meanwhile, conservatives are in an uproar about Bush turning Teddy Roosevelt on his head by talking loudly and carrying a little stick.

But how much of this change is real? While there has been a shift in foreign policy during Bush’s second term (one Jim Lindsay and I wrote about here some 9 months ago), it’s not so much a shift from unilateralism to multilateralism as it is a shift from relying on the use of force to doing nothing.

The big change in the second term is that Bush has abandoned one of the defining characteristics of his first term foreign policy: the reliance on unilateral force as a means to change a regime’s policies, if not the actual regime itself. It was this combination of unilateralism, preemptive force, and regime change that made Bush’s foreign policy revolutionary. Abandon the idea of preemptive force, and you’re left with nothing more than hoping for change. And hope, as Colin Powell was wont to say, is not much of a strategy.

Instead of force, Bush and Co. now emphasize the importance of “diplomacy” — whence the belief of many that the administration has embraced multilateralism almost to a fault. But what the administration is doing isn’t diplomacy — defined by the great British diplomat and historian, Harold Nicholson, “as the art of negotiating documents in a ratifiable and therefore dependable form.” Rather, what Bush is doing is just talk (or talking about talk). But diplomacy “is by no means the art of conversation,” Nicolson noted. “Diplomacy, if it is ever to be effective, should be a disagreeable business. And one recorded in hard print.”

Bush isn’t about to get into such disagreeable business. Whence the constant refrain that just sitting down with North Koreans, or Iranians, or even Iraqi insurgents would be a concession or reward or, worse, legitimize the interlocutor, rather than a means to solving problems. Whence, too, the insistence on talking to adversaries only in the company of others (be it Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan in the sixth party talks, or the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in the proposed talks with Iran). For Bush, negotiations are the weapon of the weak. The strong don’t negotiate with the weak; they defeat it. Unfortunately, the Iraq debacle, and a more sober appreciation of the cost and consequences of using force against Iran and North Korea, has put military defeat beyond even America’s reach.

With neither force nor diplomacy, Bush is pursuing a foreign policy of empty gestures. Strong words here; a soothing telephone call and hasty meetings there. But no control of events or any clear sense of direction. Bush is left with trying to kick the proverbial can down the road — far enough so the next president can deal with it — even thought we’re now talking about a trash can rather a soup can.

The drift that characterizes Bush’s current foreign policy is ironic, for it was candidate George W. Bush who blasted the Clinton administration for pursuing a foreign policy that had led “our nation to move from crisis to crisis like a cork in a current.” The lesson, Bush then declared, was clear: “Unless a president sets his own priorities, his priorities will be set by others — by adversaries, or the crisis of the moment, live on CNN. American policy can become random and reactive — untethered to the interests of our country.”

That’s as good a definition of where Bush’s misplaced priorities has gotten us as any.

Posted at TPM Café on July 11, 2006 — 8:21 PM Eastern Time

America Abroad – A Blog on Current Affairs  

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