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.
By TYLER MARSHALL, 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
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."
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who served as chairman of the
House International Relations Committee, says the distance
between America and the world it dominates is particularly evident
at the United Nations.
"I don't want to blow this into a major crisis," said Hamilton,
who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Institute, a
Washington-based think tank. "But I put it in the category of
His concern grew when Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) warned the U.N. in January that
the United States would pull out if the world body did not serve
American interests. The crusty lawmaker's message wasn't entirely
new, but delivering it in person gave it additional oomph, and even
the ambassadors of America's closest allies resented his threatening
In a world filled with skepticism and stifling bureaucratic
barriers, America has stood out as a special place: an unlikely
melting pot of immigrants, fresh ideas and freedom that people
everywhere aspire to, whether their governments agreed with U.S.
policy or not; a powerful nation promoting universal values but not
pushing for new land. Any erosion of this feeling would directly
affect America's global influence.
"If you don't have it, you need a gendarme on every corner,"
said Charles William Maynes, director of the Washington-based
Eurasia Foundation. "Society internationally, just as domestically,
depends on deference--deference to tradition, to authority, to law,
to treaty commitments. If you lose that, the only thing you can back
it up with is force, and there isn't enough force to go around.
"There's still a reservoir of goodwill for America, but we're
Contributing mightily to this concern was the way in which the
Senate voted last year to kill the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban
Treaty, not on its merits but largely as a tactical ploy by
Republicans in a game of domestic political "gotcha" with Clinton.
Such casual dismissal of a treaty widely viewed outside the
United States as a cornerstone of a safer world seriously wounded
America's stock as the global superpower. "It's had a profound
effect," said former Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
Some European commentators equate the vote with the
Senate's 1920 rejection of the Versailles Treaty establishing the
League of Nations--one step down the path that eventually led to
World War II.
"It was similar to 1920, but with hubris and nukes thrown in,"
said French defense analyst Francois Heisbourg.
"The impression is one of complete disregard for the rest of the
world," said Denis Lacorne, a specialist on transatlantic relations at
the Center for International Studies in Paris. "If you are as
multicultural as you claim to be, how can you show such little
interest in the outside world?"
Beyond the test ban treaty, critics point to a host of other
American deeds, misdeeds and nondeeds.
In 1997, powerful U.S. lawmakers declared an international
agreement to control so-called greenhouse gases "dead on arrival"
in the Senate. The Clinton administration declined to join more than
130 other nations in signing a treaty banning the use of land mines,
insisting that the United States is a special case.
Likewise, the United States refused to join more than 90
countries establishing an International Criminal Court in 1998 after
unsuccessfully insisting on immunity from prosecution for American
soldiers and diplomats--but not those of other countries. Delegates
to the founding conference for the court cheered the defeat of a
U.S. attempt to exempt American soldiers.
The United States, which in the 1960s threatened action against
nations that were late in their dues payments to the U.N. and other
world organizations, has itself become a major deadbeat.
For nearly two years, the U.S. withheld $1 billion in dues to the
U.N. while the White House and the Republican Congress wrestled
over whether to allow any of that money to be spent on abortion.
And the U.S. has fallen behind in its dues to the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization of American
States and an array of others.
Countless little things also contribute to the view that America
considers itself not only special but detached.
Former German opposition leader Wolfgang Schaeuble, viewed
as the likely next chancellor of Europe's economic behemoth until
his party's recent political scandal, was forced to cancel a planned
trip to Washington last year because the senior policymakers he
wanted to see had no time for him.
Many expect the distance between America and its friends to
Pressure from Congress for a new national missile defense
system that would protect America--and America alone--against a
limited attack looms as the next issue. Allies fear that a decision to
go ahead would not just add to worries about America's isolation
but also touch off the first arms race in defensive weapons.
Some foreign affairs specialists argue that an American missile
defense system would be in the allies' interest because the United
States cannot preserve peace in the world or project its force if it
feels under threat. But they admit that the administration must work
harder to get its message across.
Festering trade frictions, especially with America's traditional
friends in Europe, are a special concern because they so quickly
become explosive political issues.
At last fall's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the
American hosts found themselves so out of touch with so many
nations that they were forced to suspend business without reaching
any agreements at all. The result was a major embarrassment for
the United States, especially because such events are normally
scripted in advance to assure at least some kind of agreement.
Critics accused the U.S. of failing to consult with other participants
in advance, out of the arrogant assumption that particularly the
smaller nations would naturally follow its lead.
"This worries me more than any one thing," said Sen. Charles
Hagel (R-Neb.), one of a new generation of internationalists in the
Senate. "It worries me first because most of us are not picking this
up on our radar--this sense that we don't care about what our
trading partners or our allies . . . think. It's going to come back and
snap us in some ways that are very bad for this country."
The complaint of lack of consultation reaches well beyond trade
issues. In 1998, U.S. officials declared that funding for North
Korea's civilian nuclear reactors--more than 80% of which is
coming from Japan--could go ahead despite North Korea's
test-firing of a medium-range missile over Japan.
"The Japanese were not included in any way in these
negotiations," said Michael Green, a Japan scholar at the Council
on Foreign Relations. "They were absolutely furious."
Why has the United States become so aloof? Analysts point to
four major causes:
* A president who engages only episodically on the international
issues and too often has failed to use either the personal prestige or
the power of his office to pursue key foreign policy goals.
* A Congress that cares little about foreign affairs in the wake of
the Cold War and seems to understand even less.
* A relationship between the two branches of government that is
so poisonous in the wake of Clinton's impeachment that a simple
political vendetta can trump the national interest. When the Berlin
Wall collapsed more than a decade ago, so too did the long-held
tradition that partisan politics ends at the water's edge.
* An American public generally receptive to an active global
role for the United States, but inattentive to world affairs and
confused by partisan backbiting now that its principal reference
point--the evil of communism--has all but vanished as a major
While opinion polls during the run-up to last October's nuclear
test ban treaty vote in the Senate found that 80% of the public said
they supported treaty ratification, surveys taken after the vote found
that less than half even knew that it had been defeated.
"It's a familiar pattern of public support for foreign affairs in this
country--a mile wide and an inch deep," noted Alton Frye, who
tracks how foreign affairs issues are handled with Congress for the
Council on Foreign Relations. "The country is . . . ready to follow a
lead, but when the president and Congress disagree, the public is
In Congress, interest in foreign affairs has plummeted as much
as a result of changing priorities as of public apathy. The absence of
any visible threat to the nation's security also helps reduce
international issues to just one more arena for partisan politics.
"Congress, the Senate specifically, is peopled by individuals
who arrived here with . . . a blank slate on notions relating to
foreign policy and America's power in the world," said Sen. Joseph
R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking minority member of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee. "I'd bet that in the last eight to 10
years, not 1% of those who come here talked about foreign policy
during their campaigns."
Interest in foreign affairs is so low among Senate Republicans
that they have struggled to fill the party's 10 slots on the Foreign
Relations Committee. Last year, they considered--but put off--a
proposal to downgrade the committee's importance. Senators may
sit on just one high-level committee; demoting Foreign Relations
might encourage some to select it as a second choice.
But political analysts say it is wrong to blame Congress alone.
They trace much of the problem to a failure of presidential
"We've got a president who's not interested in foreign policy, so
domestic lobbies are decisive when foreign policy issues arise," said
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter.
For instance, domestic political concerns last spring led to
Clinton's failure to agree with China on the terms of Beijing's entry
into the World Trade Organization and to his determination to
avoid American casualties during the Kosovo bombing campaign,
The damage does not appear permanent. Some analysts are
convinced that, if a new, involved president takes office next
January, accompanied by a clear-sighted staff and decent relations
with Congress, that would go a long way. It remains unclear,
however, whether either Al Gore or George W. Bush, who have
their parties' presidential nominations all but locked up, would come
to office with such a favorable constellation.
Richard Haass, a foreign affairs specialist at the Brookings
Institution in Washington, also hopes for a more actively engaged
business community and a new emphasis on foreign affairs by
"It can't be fixed overnight," he said. "You just hope it doesn't
take events to fix it--because if it does, it's going to be a disaster
that focuses the mind."
Hagel says that American business will push foreign affairs back
toward the top of the national agenda as the country's $2.2 trillion
in total international trade binds American prosperity ever tighter to
the world at large. "This is starting to build," he said.
Others are counting on the younger generation to reverse
America's go-it-alone tendencies. "We've got an entire generation
who see the world in very different terms than we did," Biden said.
"You tell them we can do everything on our own in this
interconnected world, and they'll tell you you're crazy."
Until then, analysts prescribe a measure of humility for the
world's only surviving superpower.
"Triumphalism is hard to control," said Maynes of the Eurasia
Foundation. "We have to be conscious of the shadow we cast."
* * *
A World of Troubles
Unhappiness with U.S. dominance is building around the globe,
among both America's traditional allies and its longtime adversaries.
European Union: Reflexive pro-Americanism is waning among
leaders who cut their teeth on anti-American protests of the 1960s,
not on American aid packages in the 1940s.
* * *
Russia: Disillusionment with what Russians see as second-rate
treatment by the U.S. and anger with American condemnation of
Moscow's assault on Chechnya are sinking relations to lowest point
since Cold War.
* * *
China: Political wounds still fester in the wake of U.S. bombing
of Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia last spring, proposed legislation
boosting aid to Taiwan and official allegations that China infiltrated
American nuclear installations.
* * *
Latin America: Resentment toward U.S. trade policies that are
viewed as protectionist is driving South and Central America to
regard the European Union as the role model for greater economic
* * *
South Asia: Washington's efforts to coax India and Pakistan to
sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, especially after
the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty, have diminished U.S.
* * *
Japan: Anger over casual U.S. response to recent North
Korean missile test and U.S. flirtation with China is fueling a drive
to establish a military capacity independent of the United States.