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American Influence Abroad May Shrink

November 12, 2000|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition."

NEW YORK — As the country awaits the outcome of the presidential election, few have had the time or the emotional energy to look down the road at the longer-term implications of one of the closest electoral contests in U.S. history. At a time when Americans were largely obsessed by the twists and turns of the domestic political soap opera, fewer still were looking at the consequences of the electoral deadlock for foreign policy.

Yet, there will be consequences, and they could be severe. The next four years are shaping up as a time of serious testing for U.S. foreign policy, and a divided Congress and a president with a weak mandate, at best, will find it extremely difficult to navigate the shoals lying ahead.

It won't be the big, obvious challenges that cause the real problems. If Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait again, the United States will once more go to the defense of the oil-rich sheikdom. If China attacks Taiwan, the United States will appropriately respond. Both parties are likely to cling to the long-standing policy of nudging the Palestinians to make a deal with Israel. And U.S. influence in Russia will remain weak.

Unfortunately, not all the challenges are this clear-cut. Take Mexico. The United States urgently needs President-elect Vicente Fox to succeed at his twin projects of modernizing the Mexican economy and solidifying Mexican democracy. Mexico is going to need more resources, more understanding and, on issues like immigration, a more generous policy from the United States. With public opinion still bitterly split over the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt's Democrats more partisan than ever in the House, coming up with a new, positive consensus policy on Mexico will be harder to do.

Then there's the Andean region, seemingly bent on disproving all the optimists who just a few years ago predicted that an era of stable democracy was dawning in Latin America. Colombian drug lords and Marxist guerrillas--from a U.S. point of view, the alliance from hell--have fought that country's corrupt and sometimes ill-disciplined armed forces to a standstill, and the violence is spilling over into Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and the home of the Panama Canal.

Peru, meanwhile, is flirting with a return to its banana-republic days, Ecuador is closer to political and social meltdown and the president of Venezuela, one of the largest sources of U.S. oil imports, is literally crooning love songs with Fidel Castro on the radio and expounding vague but, from the standpoint of foreign investors, alarming theories of what he calls a "Bolivarian revolution."

A serious crisis could flare up in this region at a moment's notice, and those who remember the controversies over Central American policy in the 1980s--and the continuing bitter battles over Cuba today--know how hard it can be for the United States to develop a political consensus concerning neighborhood policy.

Expanding NAFTA or pushing harder to establish a free trade area of the Americas are proposals most of the Washington establishment think have the best chances for stabilizing the region but, again, it is hard to see a politically enfeebled president and a divided Congress mustering the determination to move far down either road.

Trade gridlock could have repercussions beyond the Western Hemisphere. It will be harder for a weak president to make the kinds of creative concessions and compromises necessary to resolve trade disputes at the World Trade Organization, thereby increasing the risk of trade wars with partners like the European Union. Fast-track authority for new trade rounds will be difficult, if not impossible to get.

The news isn't all bleak. In some cases, Republicans and Democrats are more united than their rhetoric suggests. Candidate George W. Bush may have downplayed environmental concerns and attacked the Kyoto Protocol, but world public opinion is worried enough about global warming that, like it or not, the U.S. has to be part of diplomatic efforts to address it. Ditto on AIDS. Whether or not Bush agrees that AIDS is a "national security threat" to the United States, the humanitarian and economic consequences of the HIV-AIDS epidemic are severe enough that both common decency and self-interest will compel the U.S. to take part in international efforts to halt the spread of the disease and to treat those who suffer from it. No U.S. administration can afford to ignore the international clamor for nuclear arms control, just as it cannot ignore the domestic popularity of national missile defense.

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