Wednesday, February 20, 2002

The “hyperpower” is back. After a brief respite brought on by the shock of September 11, European fears of American unilateralism are back with a vengeance. While the Russians and the Chinese seem to have dealt quite well with the shift in U.S. foreign policy that has taken place, Europeans are aghast.

If they are not aghast about the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo, they are aghast that Mr. Bush had the audacity to employ the word “axis,” as in “axis of evil.” They are aghast that the United States might actually take military action to effect regime change in Iraq, a goal to which their own politicians pay lip service. They are even more aghast that President Bush is not inclined to allow them veto power over American military decisions.

European diplomats will rattle off the long list of multilateral institutions on which the United States has turned its back. There is the International Criminal Court, the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Treaty to name a few. American “simplism” is creating waves of indignation in Paris, Brussels and Bonn. (London is still holding, though.)

Rather than deny that American and European interests around the world are diverging, some might be tempted to say, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that they are and accept the consequences. In the fight against terrorism, which is correctly perceived by the Bush administration as a fight for the life of the nation, the United States will have little room for compromise. Is this arrogance? Or the realities of power laid bare?

Instead of fighting the label “hyperpower” as famously applied by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine it may be time for the United States to embrace it. But what does that mean? It has been said that when looking for examples, Mr. Bush is looking to Ronald Reagan for what to do and his father for not to do.

In this vein, taking out Saddam Hussein would be the Reaganesque thing to do. Mr. Reagan was not afraid to confront the root of evil, the Soviet Union, and, in the Middle East, Saddam represents “a loaded gun,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman memorably put it. Leaving Saddam in power, as Mr. Bush’s father did when persuaded by former chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, is decidedly not the thing to do. The mistake of the first President Bush, coupled with the ineptitude of the Clinton administration, ensured that this menace now faces the second President Bush.

As the current Bush administration becomes more internationally engaged, which seems an inevitability, there are plenty of pitfalls to be avoided. Many of them will continue to revolve around the problems of multilateralism, which will have to be a tool used carefully and sparingly. One model which the Bush administration should by all means avoid is the one presented by its predecessor, the Clinton administration, which wantonly drifted into foreign engagements much like the president drifted in and out of the arms of Washington beauties. As in many other venues of political life, Mr. Clinton managed to give otherwise perfectly legitimate foreign policy tools a bad name.

Take nation-building. The fact is that the United States has in the past seen some notable successes. Massive U.S. investment and engagement helped rebuild Europe, particularly Germany, and Japan after World War II. In fact, the Marshall Plan was eagerly promoted as the model not just for restoring Eastern Europe, but the Soviet Union. Yet, realities never matched the rhetoric not could they have. The famous Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (named after the U.S. vice president and the Russian prime minister) in retrospect produced nothing but piles of paper. And the anticipation of massive U.S. handouts only created resentment born of dashed expectations.

In Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, the Clinton administration committed itself half-heartedly to some fairly hopeless cases. Two of these ventures can today be classified as abject failures. The third remains an open-ended commitment of 4,000 U.S. troops, and if there is a promise of success, it will only be over the very long term.

Yet, there is no doubt that the Bush administration will have to engage in nation-building on some level, whether it is so designated or not. Nor is there any doubt that unilateralism in military affairs will have to coexist with multilateralism in trade and the tracking of terrorist financing. How to engage, but just enough, that will be the question for the “hyperpower.”

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