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SUNDAY REPORT

Goodwill Toward U.S. Is Dwindling Globally

The nation's prominence as the world's sole superpower leaves even allies uneasy. They fear that Washington has lost its longtime commitment to international order.

March 26, 2000|TYLER MARSHALL and JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — America's dominant shadow has long been welcome in much of the world as a shield from tyranny, a beacon of goodwill, an inspiration of unique values.

But 10 years after communism's collapse in the Soviet Union left the United States to pursue its interests without a world rival, that shadow is assuming a darker character. The preponderance of America's power--economic, political, military and cultural--is fast becoming a liability.

In State Department meeting rooms it's called the "hegemony problem," a fancy way of describing the same resentment that children harbor for the biggest, toughest and smartest kid in school.

While there always have been those who resented America's power, influence and priorities, even allies have grown queasy in the waning years of the Clinton administration. They are unsettled by fears that, in its hour of triumph, the United States seems to have lost its commitment to the global community and the international order it helped create from the ashes of World War II. The sentiment is mounting that no single country--however benevolent or well intentioned--should hold such a monopoly.

The complaint abroad is not that America is withdrawing into an isolationist shell, as it has so often in the past. Rather, foreigners diagnose America as suffering from a bad case of "me first."

Free of the need to contain the Soviet Union, a goal that guided foreign policy for nearly half a century, the United States during the Clinton years has focused on new objectives: pressing American commercial interests in the global economy, championing democracy and intervening militarily to protect human rights.

These goals concern foreign leaders less than the manner in which they have been pursued--a manner that appears inconsistent, sporadic and occasionally capricious. With communism vanquished, American political leaders appear to have tossed aside their inhibitions against using their foreign policy differences as an arena for partisan bickering.

Last year's rejection by the Senate of a treaty banning nuclear weapons testing is a case in point. America's allies and adversaries alike interpreted the move not as a judgment of the treaty's merits but as part of a Republican vendetta against President Clinton.

While the damage is not necessarily irreversible, it strains old friendships and diminishes America's ability to rally support. It risks depriving the U.S. of the goodwill that has been a priceless asset for decades--in building the post-World War II order, winning the Cold War and setting the international agenda.

"It's a very big issue," acknowledged Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

The backlash is global:

* In the Persian Gulf, where the United States rallied 38 nations to its cause to fight Iraq in 1991, only Britain answers the call to strike the same nation seven years later.

* At a retreat deep in the French countryside, the presidents of America's oldest ally (France) and Washington's fast-emerging Asian adversary (China) spent much of their time mulling a common problem: the enormity of American power.

* In New Delhi well before Clinton's recent visit, the Russian prime minister suggested that India, China and Russia form a partnership as a counterweight to the United States.

* In Tokyo, the Japanese government announced plans to develop its own intelligence-gathering satellites, a sign of its desire to build an independent military capability.

* In Brussels, the European Union's drive for a common foreign and security policy is propelled in part by the conviction among America's closest friends that they can no longer rely on the United States to "be there" to the extent that they could during the Cold War. Even in NATO's U.S.-led intervention in Kosovo, one of the chief U.S. objectives was to avoid casualties.

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington points to a "shrinking circle of governments who see their interests coinciding with those of the United States." He says the consistent 4-1 American majority of earlier years among the five permanent U.N. Security Council members (the United States, Britain, France and China against the Soviet Union) has degenerated into a potential standoff, with the U.S. and Britain siding against Russia and China, and with France holding a swing vote.

A recent example: When Russia objected to the U.S.-sponsored nomination of Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus to lead U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq, it was quickly joined by both France and China, dooming America's candidate.

"We've lost the sense of what we're really good at: getting people to join us," Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor during the Reagan and Bush administrations, said in an interview. "We don't think as much about the effects of our actions on other people. We don't consult, we don't ask ahead of time. We behave to much of the world like a latter-day colonial power. It's a very dangerous thing that's happening."

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