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The Path From Crises to Triumph

Bush could earn historic dividends with a new emphasis on diplomacy and global institutions

June 13, 2003|James Goodby and Kenneth Weisbrode | James Goodby is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Kenneth Weisbrode is a member of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

History is full of missed turning points, incandescent moments when a unique conjunction of people and events made a complete transformation in international affairs seem tantalizingly close, only to flicker out.

Moving into the final third of his presidential term, George W. Bush can claim to have set off the sparks of a new world order.

He has put relations with China and Russia back on a positive track via quiet diplomacy. His military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have removed harsh and hostile regimes and opened the door to democracy in those countries. He has tied up loose ends from the 1990s and cleared the deck in the Middle East, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, agreeing to withdraw most U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and convening the Aqaba summit. In Europe, he has helped to redefine NATO's role and, perhaps without intending to, he has laid the basis for a Euro-Atlantic security community in which the European Union and Russia become major players. He has mobilized a major offensive against global terrorism.

But Bush must know that these achievements are short-term fixes at best. Unless he creates a foundation for order-building diplomacy, the last 30 months will go down as one of those failed opportunities to restructure global affairs.

Imagine what would have happened if Harry Truman, George Marshall and Dean Acheson had thrown down the gauntlet to the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War but put nothing in place to project their vision into the future?

It could have happened that way. Acheson wrote that "only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the 19th century was gone."

What if there had been no NATO, no international financial institutions, no support for the nascent European community, no overarching doctrine of containment? What if they had said in 1949, "The mission determines the coalition"?

Bush is in danger of becoming a Truman without consequences. The administration's rhetoric and actions flit between crises and visions, between short-term reactions and long-term proclamation of strategic goals. Like his predecessor, Bush has favored the urgent (or what he has said was urgent) over the important.

What is needed is less emphasis on public posturing -- jawboning -- and more stress on, in the president's words, a "patient accumulation of success." Bush and his advisors must dispel the widespread impression that they are deeply, almost pathologically, impatient with diplomacy.

That means a quiet but serious resumption of traditional American support for international institutions, multilateral cooperation and the rule of law. Small steps could begin the process: Bush could urge the U.N. Security Council to make fuller use of the nuclear experts in the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to halt weapons proliferation. In the Middle East, talks could resume on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, including both Iran and Israel. A less hostile attitude toward the formation of an international criminal court could be adopted, and a real alternative to the Kyoto environmental agreement could be proposed.

Combined with the creation of new regional and global institutions, or the reinforcement of existing ones, such small steps could lead to lasting results. Truman, Marshall and Acheson saw this clearly; the international order they built endured beyond their lifetimes.

President Reagan saw it as well. Like Bush, he understood how to use force. But he and his secretary of State, George Shultz, ultimately turned to laws, organizations and alliances to translate turmoil into triumph. Reagan's second administration revised its hawkish policy toward the Soviet Union and set about, using such tools, to negotiate an end to the Cold War.

Now it is the turn of the Bush administration. Unless it too follows the lead of Truman and Reagan, history will record that all its successes were built on shifting sands, leaving little behind.

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