Washington Slamming a mule with a two-by-four gets the animal's attention. But it can also get you a dead mule, or an enraged one. And there is no heavier piece of political lumber today than George W. Bush's determined campaign to challenge the existing standards and procedures of international cooperation.
In six months the Bush administration has rejected, in aggressively stated fashion, half-a-dozen important global treaties and negotiations strongly favored by the rest of the world. Bush leaves a first impression that while his government is not deliberately isolationist, it is comfortable with being isolated.
Isolationism lite may have something to be said for it: There were glaring flaws in the Kyoto protocol on global warming, in the draft enforcement pact on germ warfare scuttled last week and in a proposed International Criminal Court.
But the Bush promises to put forward clear alternatives to these and other international agreements that are under U.S. assault will be hard to fulfill. The sweeping objections presented to the rejected agreements and to the way in which they were reached handicap the chances of Washington and its partners agreeing on viable alternatives.
The mule may now devote all its attention to thwarting the farmer. The concern among Bush's peers in the world leadership club goes beyond the accords being sunk by U.S. diplomatic torpedoes. Other nations fear the impact of Bush's rejectionism on the overall system of international agreements and negotiations that has grown up since World War II.
This fear is most pronounced in Germany, where postwar independence and reunification are widely seen as being based on the international treaty system. Bush foreign policy risks becoming deeply unpopular among centrist voters who decide elections in Germany, and not only in Germany.
That is a huge problem created by the stunning consistency of purpose that Bush's foreign policy has shown thus far: The rest of the world seems to exist primarily for the Bush team to help amass votes for Bush's re-election campaign in 2004.
It is hard to recall an American president who has been this open and unapologetic about mixing domestic political needs with foreign policy initiatives.
Bill Clinton was strongly guided by opinion polls and domestic lobbies on foreign policy; but he sought to cover it beneath pious protestations of nobler goals. When the Bush administration undercut United Nations efforts to regulate the global small arms trade, it tipped its hat to the National Rifle Assn.
The gun stand, and the hyperventilation over urgent needs for a national missile defense, are as much a part of the 2004 campaign strategy as are the multiple (and generally worthwhile) Bush initiatives toward Mexico that are intended to influence Hispanic voters in the United States.
One moment last week captured this still uncertain mix of qualified engagement and assertive unilateralism in early Bush foreign policy. It came in Kosovo, where the president ended his second official trip to Europe this year by visiting American soldiers at Camp Bondsteel.
His chatty speech included a ringing condemnation of those who use ethnic differences as "a license for murder." But Bush could not resist ending what was intended to be a powerful statement of U.S. commitment to the Balkans by touting his huge domestic tax cut to his professionally obedient audience.
All this may not shock you senseless. Politicians survive by getting votes. The notion that politics ends at the water's edge is usually overdone. And those foreign leaders who condemn American arrogance and selfishness so vigorously study their national polls as avidly as do Bush and Karl Rove.
But a subtle danger arises from an American president downplaying or manipulating international cooperation so aggressively. That approach does not inspire other leaders to pursue their domestic political needs at the expense of internationalism: They already do that. But it does help justify their putting home matters first, second and third on the agenda, and it projects anti-Americanism into democratic political campaigns abroad.
France and Germany hold national elections in 2002. Their politicians now gain by distancing themselves from Bush policies. Junichiro Koizumi skillfully used the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto protocol to leverage a better deal for Japan on global warming and strengthen his hand in his July 29 Upper House elections.
As the Group of Eight meeting in Genoa showed, the world's most important leaders, spurred by the American president, today put national objectives above all and marginalize the task of building international consensus and confidence. Many more blows and that mule will not be left standing.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.