Washington When Hans Blix visited the White House last autumn to discuss putting U.N. inspectors into Iraq, U.S. officials urged him to double or triple their number. No can do, the Swedish treaty lawyer responded: I can't find enough qualified people and I certainly can't organize that number in a few months.
The idea of tripling the number of inspectors has surfaced again in the desperate search by France and Germany for gimmicks to block the impending American assault on Iraq. But Blix gave the same response to reporters in Athens on Monday. Instant expansion is even more of a nonstarter today.
It is puzzling that two major European powers that benefited from American protection and leadership in the Cold War would today challenge Washington with such a transparently flimsy scheme. Paris and Berlin dawdled for months and allowed this to become an on-the-brink and deeply personal argument with President Bush, in which alternatives to war and the political center that has long dominated allied security policy are both rapidly disappearing.
In Asia, similar disputes with American diplomatic partners are building over North Korea's determined drive to acquire a nuclear arsenal. China has rebuffed repeated and direct requests from Bush to apply pressure to North Korea. South Korea's political leadership is openly taking its distance from Washington's assessment of the North Korean threat.
It is neither accident nor paradox that an unprecedented din of argument, dissent and open disrespect for America's policies and its current leaders rises from around the globe at a moment when U.S. power is at its zenith. These arguments and defiance are not just about Iraq or North Korea. They are now about the scope and nature of American leadership in global affairs.
This is not just another spate of whither-NATO debates over Soviet gas pipelines or Pershing missiles. Those disputes were about tangibles and tactics needed to confront a common identifiable threat. The trans-Atlantic vitriol could be quietly swallowed as events or time provided solutions.
Today's disputes are about the direction of history. They rise from a failing common understanding of global security and the American role in providing it. They will not easily go away if, as now appears likely, the United States, Britain, Australia, Turkey and other nations go ahead with military action in Iraq in the face of broad opposition from other traditional allies.
The Bush administration has contributed to this dangerous temptation to turn specific cases into abstract principles. The rhetoric of pre-emption muddied the clear legal framework that exists to force Iraq to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions on disarmament. The administration's failure to merge its confrontational approach to North Korea into a workable regional strategy now encourages China to balk and Japan to take a powder as tough choices loom.
"Bush came to office worrying about China's action on the world stage, but today it is China's inaction that is the problem," a South Korean visitor to Washington recently observed with tart accuracy. Beijing has ducked Washington's increasingly public appeals to apply economic and political pressure to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear saber rattling.
China stood by last week while North Korea rejected an innovative attempt, fully supported by the Bush administration, to get negotiations started involving both Koreas, Australia, Japan, the European Union and the five permanent members of the Security Council.
"That is the way to talk," a senior administration official said of the so-called 5 plus 5 proposal. "That is the way to put everything on the table," including security guarantees and economic help for North Korea. Instead, Pyongyang "prefers to demand talks with the United States alone, so they can continue to blame us for everything and try to split us off from our friends and partners in the region," added another official.
China's foreign ministry on Tuesday publicly endorsed Pyongyang's demand for talks only with the United States. Astonishingly, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy spokesman and a genuine advocate of strong trans-Atlantic ties, chimed in during the same Beijing news conference to say that "the most important thing at this point is direct dialogue" between Washington and Pyongyang.
We are deep into confusion and turmoil when Solana, the Chinese and the South Koreans (for different reasons) misread Washington's intentions on North Korea so badly, and the leaderships of France and Germany (more deliberately and spitefully) do the same on Iraq.
The Bush administration must urgently review its diplomacy and provide new strategic clarity for American leadership in world affairs as it deals with the real challenges that Iraq and North Korea represent. Relying on overwhelming strength to get through the tectonic shifts in world politics that are now under way will not long suffice.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.