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While the World Erupts, U.S. Policy Stands Still

June 11, 1989|Alan Tonelson | Alan Tonelson is writing a book for the Twentieth Century Fund on redefining U.S. foreign policy interests

WASHINGTON — Such all-star talent. Suck lackluster performance. Such grumblings from George Bush even as he clings to a failed management style. After six months, the Bush Administration foreign-policy team is shaping up as the New York Yankees of world affairs.

To its credit, the Administration has managed to avoid disaster since January. No U.S. Marines are guarding the Beirut airport. No one is flying Bibles, birthday cakes and missiles to Tehran. But Bush's veteran diplomatic crew--widely hailed as the most competent, experienced of foreign-policy group to hit Washington in more than a decade--has already managed to convey the impression of blowing a chance to turn a once-in-a-lifetime period of global ferment to U.S. advantage, and transform the Cold War into something closer to a genuine peace.

The Administration still hasn't staffed many key levels of the foreign-policy bureaucracy. Its vaunted strategic review took half a year to reach the conclusion that U.S. strategy should stay the course. After Willie Hortoning its way into the White House, it complained that Mikhail S. Gorbachev was turning East-West relations into a publicity contest.

The Bush foreign-policy team has watched the outbreak of democracy in China, Poland and Hungary with all the apparent enthusiasm of a debutante at a mud-wrestling match. It had to be reminded by the commerce secretary that the nation can no longer afford to give advanced technology away to the Japanese. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the consummate Washington wheeler-dealer, was snookered by a West German chancellor no one mistakes for Otto von Bismarck.

Team Bush finally seemed to hit its stride with a flurry of arms-control and diplomatic proposals at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 40th anniversary summit. But the very next week, its surreal initial reactions to the Beijing massacre and its hasty rejection of any overtures to post-Khomeini Iran reinforced impressions of a presidency out of its league.

Explanations for immobility abound. The President, most observers agree, simply is not a visionary. Ditto for his leading foreign-policy advisers--Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger. The latter two served ably during the tumultuous early and mid-1970s, but were essentially spear-carriers. Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger handled the globe-twirling.

Bush defenders insist the President does have a strategy: hang tough; U.S. firmness has produced the recent favorable turns in world events. Yet this argument was belied by the Administration's last-minute rush to out-Gorbachev Gorbachev at the NATO summit.

At the same time, Administration foreign-policy problems go beyond personnel or even lack of vision. They reflect a basic contradiction that has plagued GOP moderates in foreign policy since the Nixon years. On one hand, their pragmatic temperaments incline them to be pessimistic about what any country's foreign policy can achieve in an anarchic world. On the other, they are committed to the international leadership role that America has claimed since Pearl Harbor--a role that requires not only the promise but the reality of foreign-policy spectaculars.

America's 20th-Century emergence as a world power has been rooted in the belief that all kinds of wonderful things are possible in world affairs--whether the "civilizing" of backward areas, the Wilsonian vision of a League of Nations or the United Nations and Bretton Woods economic system that this vision produced. And in 1945, determined to avoid the isolationist mistakes of the inter-war years, Americans leaped to assume the responsibility of leading the international order they created.

World leadership has long had immense appeal for Bush's Republican forebears, from progressive patricians like Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Henry L. Stimson and John Foster Dulles to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Arthur H. Vandenberg and Nixon. But these leaders generally took a dim view of utopianism, and moderate Republican internationalism has usually been tempered by a belief that man's baser instincts would place strict limits on international cooperation.

The limits to U.S. power revealed by Vietnam brought out these tensions in moderate GOP thinking. Nixon and Kissinger (a Nelson A. Rockefeller protege) painstakingly tried to lower public expectations of foreign policy. The world is and always will be a complex and dangerous place, they emphasized. Global problems cannot be solved once and for all. America could only hope for a minimum of stability and order.

Had Nixon and Kissinger developed a policy to match these lowered expectations, the intellectual revolution they tried to launch might have succeeded. But, as indicated by Nixon's fanatical resolve that the United States not turn into "a pitiful, helpless giant," they were as wholeheartedly committed to U.S. world leadership as any Kennedy-Johnson Democrat.

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