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A Bullish Diplomacy

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
March 18, 2002
Los Angeles Times

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America's war on terrorism is scaring the world silly. From President Bush's phrase "axis of evil" to Pentagon plans for disinformation and nuclear targeting, to U.S. determination to get Saddam Hussein out of power to deploying troops from Yemen to the Philippines, U.S. foreign policy has pundits and politicians worldwide reaching for words like "unilateral" and "simplistic." With the global chattering classes in revolt against U.S. policy, even the stiff upper lip of a staunch ally like Britain is quivering, and some Americans are wondering whether the world and the U.S. will part company over the war.

We should all take a couple of deep breaths and relax. Relations between the U.S. and its allies are nowhere near as bad as they appear to be. The U.S. isn't about to go off on an irresponsible tear of cowboy diplomacy, and our key allies aren't going to leave us in the lurch. While the world press is hyperventilating about splits in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a crisis in relations between the United States and the other great powers, the underlying logic of America's strategic approach to the war on terrorism will win increasing support as other countries think matters through. This is an old pattern in the Western alliance. From the decision to rearm West Germany to the introduction of short-range missiles in Europe, from President Harry S. Truman's intervention in Korea to President Ronald Reagan's denunciation of the Soviet Union as an evil empire, virtually every U.S. strategic initiative in the Cold War set off cries about cowboy diplomacy and simplistic unilateralism. Tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of anti-American students marched in the streets; famous intellectuals wrote eloquent manifestoes; political parties adopted pacifistic planks in their platforms; pundits wrote long articles about the new crisis in the alliance.

In the end, the alliance held together. The Americans weren't always right (think Vietnam), and the Europeans didn't always fall in line (they still don't, for example, support the economic embargo against Cuba). Nevertheless, when push came to shove, the United States and its key allies stuck together for more than 50 years— and this latest crisis is almost certainly going to end the same way. Relations in the alliance have been especially strained this time because the war on terrorism pushes all the allied buttons in the wrong way. Change, strong U.S. leadership and war: These are the three things our allies hate most, and the war on terrorism involves them all.

Still, it is more likely than not that when and if U.S. forces go into Iraq, they will have a reasonable degree of support from a reasonable number of our key allies. It won't be unanimous, and it won't all be ungrudging or unlimited, but that is the way it should be. The United States maintains networks of alliances; it does not govern an empire. Our allies are and should be free to chart their own international courses. After all, the United States and its allies share the same basic goals. With Hussein out of the way, U.S. troops can leave Saudi Arabia. Israel, freed from its fear of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, will undoubtedly find it easier to compromise with the Palestinians. Palestinian radicals and Arab rejectionists will lose much support and prestige with a new demonstration of U.S. power and will, strengthening the hands of those within the Palestinian leadership who are ready to deal seriously for peace.

In other words, by dealing with Iraq, the U.S. will be doing exactly what the allies keep telling the U.S. they wish it would do— attack the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East.

There is something else the world has not yet come to grips with. Although the U.S. is widely accused of unilateralism, the whole purpose of getting rid of Hussein is to support the most important goal of multilateral diplomacy today: preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Hussein is not only defying the United Nations Security Council by refusing to admit arms inspectors into Iraq; he is flagrantly violating international treaty obligations about nuclear nonproliferation.

His defiance presents the international community with a clear choice. If nothing is done, the whole system of international arms control and nonproliferation will become a dead letter. That is what happened to the League of Nations, predecessor to the U.N., when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini defied it by attacking Ethiopia in 1935. If Hussein's defiance of his treaty and cease-fire obligations stands, international agreements on any subject (the environment, human rights, labor standards) also become weak, if not worthless. As the American public loses faith in the power of international agreements, U.S. foreign policy will become

increasingly unilateral.

Ironically, the Bush administration's hawkishness on Iraq is the last, best hope of all who believe that verifiable international treaties are the world's best defense against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There are two reasons why U.S. opinion is ahead of the curve on these issues. First, the shock of Sept. 11 created a wartime atmosphere in the United States. Second, the experience of leading the Cold War alliances makes U.S. opinion more comfortable with strategic thinking and hard military options.

As U.S. officials spend time with their counterparts abroad, the Western alliance is beginning to move closer to the U.S. view. Already, some governments are looking at how to prepare their publics to support participation in the next phase of the war on terrorism. The Bush administration can accelerate the formation of a new alliance consensus by paying more attention to the international effects of its rhetoric. Bush's "axis of evil" phrase, for example, was technically accurate but politically unwise. The three countries linked to the axis of evil— Iraq, Iran and North Korea— have long records of support for international terrorism, and they are all trying to develop nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction.

So far, so good. But many people (at least some of whom should have known better) thought that by lumping these countries in one basket, the president was saying that the U.S. had the same policy toward all three. Much of world's public genuinely fear that the U.S. intends to put the same kind of pressures on Iran and North Korea that it proposes for Iraq. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but two months after Bush first uttered the phrase, Americans abroad are still scrambling to explain what the president meant.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has done a good job formulating U.S. response to the unprecedented and dangerous international situation. Now it needs to communicate its policies more effectively to an anxious but still open-minded international audience. As it does so, the allies that have rallied to our side in every great international crisis of the last 60 years will join us once again in the common effort to make the world safe and free.


Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed, the World."

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