Washington — There must be a better way to win friends and influence nations than walking out of conferences, denouncing treaties or sitting on your hands while the Middle East burns. But the Bush administration seems unable or unwilling to demonstrate to the world that it can find that way.
Withdrawal is rapidly becoming the leitmotif of the Bush diplomatic agenda a theme that surfaces periodically to bind disparate actions and invest them with a meaning larger than any of them possesses alone.
Images of American delegates saying "my way or the highway" on global warming, nuclear strategy, racism and other topics now overshadow President Bush's early promising efforts to engage America's European allies, revive a moribund U.S. strategy on Russia and rebalance American alliances in Asia.
It is the habit of saying no that defines to others Bush's worldview at the moment, as the consequences mount of repeating that negative act so often, so early.
Other powers scurry to fill or exploit vacuums left by a string of high-visibility U.S. rejections, and the abrasive style in which they have often been delivered. The Bush White House returns to work full-time this week seeming to fall behind the curve of world events it promised to dominate.
The foreign ministers of France and Germany and the European Union's top foreign policy spokesman were content a few months ago to describe their Middle East policies as supportive of U.S. leadership. Today they are trying to broker cease-fires and get Israelis and Palestinians talking again. They do so in desperation over Washington's inaction, not in any false sense of being able to compete with or replace the United States.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin has switched from a conciliatory tone toward Bush on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to a low-key effort to place blame on the U.S. leader for undermining the "framework of strategic stability'' through repeated vows to withdraw from the 1972 agreement.
"Putin has been on the road, selling his views on foreign policy. Being a clever operator, he pays attention to where opinion is going,'' Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told me last week shortly after returning from a fact-gathering visit to Ukraine, Georgia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Hagel, a leading internationalist Republican voice in the Senate and a strong supporter of missile defense, is concerned that "we have pushed so far so fast and so hard without clearly defining what we actually intend to do on missile defense that we are losing a lot of the important points of the debate, and allowing the opponents to gain the high ground'' at home and abroad.
Hagel's idea of congressional travel is to climb into the Georgian air force's rickety ex-Soviet helicopters and fly to remote frontier posts on the border with Chechnya. His observations do not come from an armchair.
Like Hagel, I accept that the Bush team has a strong underlying argument about the ABM Treaty's obsolescent features as it did on the Kyoto treaty, the germ warfare treaty and the Durban anti-racism conference's treatment of Israel.
But in each of these cases and many others, the administration has worked itself into a position of having to choose between just saying no of breaking diplomatic china and leaving it to others to pick up the pieces or having to accept the obviously unacceptable.
Whether by design or by failing to anticipate the cumulative impact of their actions, Bush and his foreign policy aides have created the theme of America the Absent in world affairs. They seem to ignore that old adage the one that holds that those who are absent always lose the argument.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.