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The Price of Provincialism

July 12, 1998

It's disturbing as well as ironic that many of those in Congress who most loudly proclaim their unflagging devotion to maintaining America's status as a superpower are also among those least ready to accept the responsibilities that go with that role. The only determinant of global influence they think worth caring about is military power: So long as the United States has more missiles, warheads and ships than anyone else, national security is assured and international respect must follow. The costs of such a narrow and self-deluding outlook are becoming steadily more apparent.

Nowhere is confusion and dismay over this lack of vision more keenly felt than among America's oldest and closest allies in Europe. As Times correspondent Tyler Marshall reported recently, Europeans today tend to see the United States as "increasingly unpredictable, detached and self-absorbed," indifferent to Europe's interests and unaware or uncaring about the tensions raised by this aloofness.

To be sure, many Europeans have long been envious of U.S. wealth, power and influence, their resentment deepened by the fact that on three occasions in this century, as Winston Churchill once put it, the new world had to come to the rescue of the old. The current disparities between the U.S. economy and the national economies of major European states add to these jealousies and bolster Europe's sense of the United States as arrogant and domineering. That said, the accuracy of much of what Europeans as well as other friends complain about has to be acknowledged.

It has been decades since any Congress has been so apparently uninformed about the complex nature of global challenges or so indifferent to the constant need to cultivate international political understanding and support for U.S. policies and objectives. Time after time, in its politics-driven zeal to punish other nations with economic sanctions, Congress has subordinated major foreign policy interests to special interest domestic pressures. Time after time, Congress has bumbled into new ways to undermine U.S. claims to global leadership.

The world's richest nation cannot seriously expect to command the respect of others when its legislators stubbornly refuse to pay the arrears owed the United Nations. The United States has an enormous stake in the interrelated global economy, affecting its trade, overseas investments and domestic jobs. A Congress blind to these economic realities has no problem finding reasons to refuse to raise the lending capacity of the International Monetary Fund in a time of economic crisis in Asia. It simply makes no sense.

What's happening in Congress is not neo-isolationism. To describe it as such, as one perceptive European observer notes, would be to imply a coherent policy that plainly does not exist. What we are seeing instead is a provincialism that is more the product of ignorance and indifference than design. That it is almost accidental in no way lessens the damage it is doing the country in global affairs.

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