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Op-Ed

Moderating Bush Foreign Policy

Bates Gill

We have now passed the half-year mark for the new
Administration in Washington. After some rough patches,
apparent indecision, and the conclusion of several policy
reviews, we now have a somewhat clearer sense of the
directions the Bush team will take on matters of international
politics, security and economics. These first six months have
been characterized by a strong unilateralist tone to start, but
this tone has since been toned down by a more moderate
understanding of the need to consult with partners, both at
home and abroad, more actively and earnestly to achieve American goals over the
longer term. As a result, it seems the Bush Administration has settled into a
loose mix dominated by unilateral effort to lead on the one hand, but tempered by
bilateral and ad hoc multilateral discussions where needed. This arrangement
seems entirely natural in a world greatly shaped by a single superpower, yet one
in which the superpower cannot expect to achieve its interests solely on its own.

Domestically, two important developments have helped
lead to this approach. First, the shift in power in the
United States Senate over to Democratic leadership in
May this year has already constrained the Bush team’s
efforts on certain foreign policy efforts. The shift is
perhaps best illustrated by the transition of power in the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee from the
conservative Jesse Helms to the moderate-to-liberal
Joseph Biden. But more broadly, the realities of
governing foreign policy in the face of a sharply divided Congress are beginning to
take root in the Bush White House. Second, it appears that the more moderate
State Department, led by the popular and widely-respected Colin Powell, have
more firmly asserted control over foreign policy matters in the past several
months. The influence of the Vice President’s office on foreign policy matters has
not gained the prominence first assumed, and the Pentagon has remained
primarily focused on more narrowly-defined military issues, such as the research
and development of missile defenses and reshaping the military’s operations,
deployments and procurement to face post-Cold War threats. Still, divides
certainly exist in the Bush Administration on many key foreign policy issues,
which would still result in a more moderate consensus on most questions.

Looking abroad, it appears the Bush team has
settled into an indentifiable pattern on foreign
policy issues, which again leads toward more
moderation than originally expected. On the
one hand, President Bush will quite naturally
try to shape international developments from
the “bully pulpit” of the White House, heading
as he does the world’s sole superpower. But on
the other hand, pragmatism dictates this be
done in a more consultative manner. We see this pragmatism at two important
levels: “Great Power” consultations and understandings, as in intensified
U.S.-Russia, U.S.-Europe, U.S.-Japan, and U.S.-China discussions; and other
key, but less formalized “ad hoc” bilateral and multilateral diplomacy efforts such
as on the Korean peninsula and in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

However, at the same time, it is apparent the new Bush Administration will not
place great emphasis on traditional, multilateral forums for the achievement of its
foreign policy objectives. For example, early on the Bush Administration
expressed its dissatisfaction with the Kyoto Protocol, and will try to convince key
bilateral players, such as Japan and China, of the need to take an alternative
approach. Similarly, the U.S. side has not supported ongoing multilateral U.N.
efforts to address the problem of small arms proliferation worldwide, and has also
walked away from the ongoing international effort to develop verification measures
to strengthen the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. On the multilateral
front, it appears the Bush team seeks maximum U.S. flexibility both for U.S.
national interests and the interests of U.S. businesses, while also flagging the
broader concern that such large, multilaterally-negotiated arrangements tend to be
“lowest common denominator” solutions. Look instead for the current U.S.
administration to place its faith in both unilateral and smaller, like-minded,
multilateral “coalitions of the willing” to meet jointly-accepted interests on the
environment, nonproliferation, and other international issues.

While it is still early, the fruits of such an approach seem to be paying off. The
President has made two major trips to Europe in the past two months, and has
worked to reassure allies there about U.S. foreign policy. A bilateral Great Power
approach with Russian President Putin holds the potential of finding a compromise
on the question of strategic offense versus strategic defense, which may assuage
concerns among European allies and in Congress. Secretary of State Powell
conducted a positive trip to China in late July, dropping the “strategic competitor”
rhetoric and placing that volatile bilateral relationship on firmer ground in the run-up
to President Bush’s trip there in October. During his recent consultations in Seoul,
Powell also expressed the Administration’s desire to restart stalled discussions
with Pyongyang, saying, “We’re prepared to meet any time and any place; we’re
ready to go now.”

The ultimate proof of this approach awaits continued follow-through and frank
discussions across a range of issues and a range of partners, large and small.
But an approach of moderated international leadership combined with serious
Great Power consultations and ad hoc multilateralism surely holds more promise
than an assertively unilateralist approach many in the world first feared six months
ago.

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