At the Lyon summit meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, French President Jacques Chirac loaded the guest list with the four horsemen of every America-Firster's apocalypse: the heads of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the U.N. The host fulsomely praised the multilateral organizations.
But Chirac's real intent was not to boost the egos of these global civil servants. It was to contrast Europe's unselfish support of such institutions with maverick U.S. policies, including Washington's belligerent trade negotiations and its loud complaints about U.N. finances. The message: Team players like the French will make the world run smoothly and in unison, but those bullying Americans will do just what they want.
VITAL ROLE. Chirac's craftily planned piece of political drama, however, was upstaged by the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. soldiers. President Bill Clinton refocused the confab on his antiterrorism agenda, stepped into a leadership role, and claimed his place as the summit's dominant player.
As Clinton took center stage, the French propaganda effort on multilateralism was almost entirely lost, and with good reason. In almost every international issue--fighting terrorism, prying open closed trading systems, or leading the charge against villains such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic--the need for American leadership isn't going away. Nor should it. A lesson of Bosnia, for example, is that Western Europe cannot execute an effective foreign policy unless the U.S. takes charge.
Yet even though U.S. leadership is badly needed, Washington policymakers have some learning of their own to do. They must come to grips with the growing importance of global and regional organizations. It's time for the U.S. to lead these institutions through persuasion as well as pressure.
That means anticipating objections to American plans and persuading opponents to follow the U.S. willingly. EU officials recently bristled at U.S. efforts to extend a bilateral agreement with Tokyo on access to Japan's semiconductor market. So in June, they offered a trilateral semiconductor agreement to replace the deal when it runs out in July. Clinton successfully lobbied Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in Lyon to rebuff these offers. It was the right move: Only Japan and the U.S. ought to talk until Europe brings its semiconductor tariffs down to U.S. and Japanese levels. But the endrun risks alienating the Europeans in future negotiations. Now, it might be tougher to persuade the Europeans to lower their tariffs.
The temptation will always be there for Washington to act alone in global diplomacy, especially with Europeans criticizing the American position so often. U.S. leaders should resist that temptation: Going it alone may be good politics at home, but it's not sound policy abroad.