- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

If I thought the most important issue in election 2004 was indeed rebuilding relations with our European allies, I would be voting for Sen. John Kerry. And if I were European and my views were anything but eccentrically pro-American, I would be rooting for Mr. Kerry to win.But whilerelations with our European partners are of immense importance, they are not the most important issue. While I respect the conclusionof most Europeansthat they would prefer Mr. Kerry, this is a question that presents itself differently depending on which side of the Atlantic is home.

Let’s start by clearing away some underbrush. Yes, the United States has allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, including numerous European countries. And yes, when Mr. Kerry talks about the Bush administration’s unwillingness to work with other nations, he is indeed belittling the contributions and sacrifices of those that have chosen to go along with the United States.

But he is surely not wrong in his general characterization. Yes, we have many countries with us in Iraq. But no, in virtually all cases, it is fair to say that these countries probably would have preferred not to have to make a choice about whether to be with the United States. And even if this is not true of the political leaders of certain countries, it is certainly true of publicopinionandofrival politicians aspiring to take charge themselves.

Mr. Kerry was surely reckless earlier this year to claim that many foreign leaders are rooting for him, since a reasonable amount of foresight should have led him to anticipate the rejoinder: Name one. He can’t, of course. But that’s not because many or most foreign leaders, especially in Europe, are not in fact rooting for him. They are. They are just not at liberty to say so.

Well, I hear the faux-naif reply, if these other countries don’t really like our policy in Iraq, why don’t they act with the courage of their conviction and oppose us, as France and Germany did? And if their leaders are rooting for Mr. Kerry, why don’t they have the nerve to say so?

Well, because one way or another, the United States is the 800-pound gorilla internationally, and these countries have to do business with us no matter who is in the White House. There is, in fact, a radical asymmetry at work in the calculus here: For an extraordinarily large number of countries around the world, the most important issue in foreign affairs is relations with the United States, and for those countries for which the preceding proposition does not hold true, relations with the United States rank near the top. Yet for the United States, the top foreign policy issue is the war on terror (however one chooses to characterize it), followed by a host of structural issues relating to other U.S. security responsibilities, and only then the series of bilateral relations with other countries.

This is a mutually reinforcing tendency, I think, in that people in many other countries, again especially in Europe, rightly take themselves to be personally affected by decisions made in Washington — decisions over which they think they have little sway and certainly not the capability to force an outcome to their liking. This in turn reinforces their sense of urgency with respect to what the Americans are up to.

I think this phenomenon is largely structural and that the tensions it produces will persist in kind regardless of who is in charge in Washington or in European capitals. But I forgive Europeans the hope that it is really more a matter of personalities and of policy preferences — whether a new administration in Washington might not be willing to act more multilaterally.

Moreover, I certainly hope that the next administration, regardless of who wins the election, takes the view that allies are good to have; that they should be frequently consulted, listened to carefully and respected even in disagreement; and that all of this costs the United States little and offers significant potential for benefit. Certainly, it does not follow from the fact (in my view) that there are structural reasons for our disagreements that we should therefore do everything we can to exacerbate them. A second Bush administration, if there is one, will have on its hands a mess that is in significant part of its own making and should get busy working to clean it up.

But this cleanup effort is not job No. 1 of U.S. foreign policy, even if it is understandable why Europeans would like it to be. Job No. 1 remains Islamist terrorist organizations, with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction close behind.

I don’t say allies are only a means to an end. In fact, belief in that proposition underlies a number of the currentadministration’s difficulties. The NATO alliance, for example, is certainly valuable as an end in itself.

But it is not the highest end. And to the extent Mr. Kerry portrays it as such, his priorities are misplaced.

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