Archive for Sunday, January 28, 2001

Less activist foreign policy expected

January 28, 2001


For the past eight years, the world has gotten used to an activist U.S. presidency: Bill Clinton's late-night phone calls with overseas leaders, his micromanagement of Mideast peace talks, his willingness to engage for better or worse in troubles beyond U.S. borders.

The view from abroad is that some things may be very different under George W. Bush.

Now that Bush has taken office and picked his foreign policy and security teams, analysts and officials overseas are cautiously taking stock of how the new president and his advisers will confront the globe's challenges.

They see nothing to change the impression they got from the broad foreign policy outline painted by Bush during the election campaign: a less interventionist American diplomacy, more demanding of allies to solve their own problems, less inclined to commit troops unless the U.S. stake is high and the goal is clear.

Last weekend, as he was sworn in, many of the comments from abroad harped again on his inexperience in foreign policy. "Boy George," the British author Will Self dubbed him in the Independent, a London newspaper.

At the same time, experts interviewed in various countries expect more stress on defense, including a missile defense shield that worries China and Russia as well as many of America's closest friends.

Bill Clinton came to office also looking inexperienced in world affairs; in fact he capitalized on a perception that his opponent, the previous President Bush, was so immersed in foreign policy that he neglected America's domestic problems.

Clinton's eight years saw the emergence of whole new areas to engage American diplomacy India and Pakistan going nuclear, African countries descending into genocidal civil wars, NATO bombing Yugoslavia, Islamic terrorists blowing up two U.S. embassies in East Africa minutes apart.

A decade of globalization

The 1990s also were a decade of globalization that has forced Americans to confront the outside world in nontraditional realms, from global warming and copyright piracy to the export of genetically engineered food and the price of AIDS drugs for Africa.

An example of how modern domestic politics can spill into the foreign domain came Monday when Bush, on his first workday in office, banned U.S. funding for international groups that advocate abortion rights. The European Union's social affairs chief immediately denounced it as "a step backward."

But in the conventional foreign policy area, especially on defense, the foremost expectation among analysts abroad is of a more inward-looking America and not everyone thinks that's a bad thing.

Foreign capitals look at Colin Powell, the new secretary of state, and see someone who will think long and hard before getting involved in outside crises. Europeans have taken note of Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, calling for a "new division of labor" in defending Europe.

They know Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as staunch supporters of the antimissile shield.

In Europe, these and other choices are read as meaning the Kosovos of the future will have to be handled with less of a U.S. commitment.

Many Europeans have been highly sensitive to Bush's comments suggesting a less-than-open-ended commitment to keeping America's 9,000 peacekeepers in the Balkans. They are counting on a pragmatic approach to prevail.

Mideast will pose a challenge

The Arab-Israeli conflict presents one of Bush's toughest challenges. Clinton plunged into its minutiae, only to be thwarted at the end by a violent meltdown. Should Bush pick up where Clinton left off? Analysts and officials in the region are divided.

Some Israelis bemoan the departure of a president who took such a personal interest in their troubles. "Our next prime minister can forget about frequent and friendly telephone chats late into the night with an American president," columnist Yoel Marcus wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

There are those who think too much involvement can be a bad thing.

"It's not the amount of attention," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "It's the quality of attention."

Some Arabs feel Clinton favored the Israelis, and harbor hopes of getting more out of the new White House team.

The broader Mideast picture presents other problems. Saddam Hussein of Iraq is a special symbol of defiance. The man Bush's father set out to topple in the Gulf War is still in office. He has thwarted U.N. efforts to uncover all his weapons of mass destruction, and has survived to see sanctions on his country begin to unravel. If Bush wants to tighten the screws on Saddam, he will have a hard time finding allies in a world that wants to move on and reopen trade with Iraq.

The new president also faces suspected sources of terrorism, such as Osama Bin Laden, wanted for allegedly masterminding the bombing of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Bush must also decide whether to pick up on the gesture made by the Clinton administration in lifting some sanctions on Iran. The country is split between hard-liners and reformists, and delicate diplomacy will be needed to widen the opening.

In South Asia, the issue of the moment is the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.

The most glaring difference between Clinton and Bush is that Bush has opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by the United States but rejected by the Senate. The rebuff has won praise in India and Pakistan, neither of which has signed it.

Brahma Chellany, an Indian specialist on nuclear affairs, said he expected Bush would have a more pragmatic approach and less of the "missionary zeal" of the Clinton government on nuclear issues.

"The change, even if subtle, will make a big difference to India-U.S. relations," Chellany said. "The nuclear issue was a major impediment to the development of strategic cooperation between India and the U.S."

South of the U.S. border, some are hoping that the former Texas governor's familiarity with Mexico's economic problems will mean less high-level pressure to staunch the northward flow of migrants.

"Texans tend to take a very, very low profile on that issue because, of course, for Texas ... it's always been there and it doesn't hurt their economy anymore," said Federico Estevez, political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Bush's firm support for constructing an extensive shield against missile attack causes unease abroad, especially in China. Beijing fears an extension of the shield to East Asia would blunt its threat to use force if necessary to recover Taiwan.

Taiwan proved a serious headache for Clinton, who had to send a naval armada to the region in 1996 when China threatened the island with missile test-firings.

Now Republican conservatives are urging Bush to boost military ties with Taiwan. Powell recently told the Senate that the administration intended to provide for the defense needs of Taiwan echoing assurances made by all previous administrations. He also discarded the notion that China is a strategic partner of the United States.

Making moves in Korea

In South Korea, analysts expect Bush to push for more concrete moves by communist North Korea to dismantle its weapons programs in return for closer diplomatic ties. But few expect the new president to hinder the rapprochement that began between the two Koreas last year.

In Japan, Washington's key regional ally and anchor of its Asian security strategy, Bush's victory came as a relief to many. Japan tended to feel overlooked while Clinton lavished attention on China. Bush is widely seen there as pro-Japan and less likely to get into trade disputes with Tokyo.

But Japan also expects Washington to demand that it assume a more robust security role in the region. That would anger China, which is already irked by the enhanced security guidelines signed by Japan and the Clinton administration.

Some see a greater division of the region in coming years into opposing camps, with China, North Korea and Russia on one side and the United States, Japan and South Korea on the other.

"This is a very fundamental split between two groups," said Hideshi Takesada, security expert with the Japanese Defense Agency's National Institute for Defense Studies.

New approach to Moscow

The new approach could also bring Washington into conflict with Moscow.

Yevgeny Volk heads the Moscow office of the conservative, Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "The Kremlin has been under a false impression that it would be easier to deal with the new Republican administration," he said. "In fact, relations are likely to become more tense."

Volk said Bush is likely to resent Russia's superpower ambitions and President Vladimir Putin's attempts to engage regimes in Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya.

Some Africans have pinned hopes on Colin Powell's interest in the region but the hope is cautious.

"Powell represents positive prospects for Africans to try to engage the U.S.," said Francis Kornegay, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Cape Town. "On the other hand, Africa tends to be low on the totem pole anyway, whether it's a Democratic or Republican administration."

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