Commentary: Despite the Griping, Support for the U.S. Runs Deep

Bush must overcome the perception that Washington couldn't care less what the rest of the world thinks

It began as a principled battle of civilization against the forces of barbarism. Is it now turning into the U.S. vs. the rest of the world? That extraordinary, almost suspended-in-time quality of the immediate post-September 11 world seems very far away now: The pro-American candlelight vigils in Tehran. The French flags flying at half-mast along the Seine in Paris. Chinese President Jiang Zemin telling George W. Bush that his nation was on the side of the American people. "If ever there was an exercise in squandering instinctive support, this has been it," says former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, now president of Brussels-based International Crisis Group, a private organization working on conflict prevention.

From Paris to Moscow and Beijing to Brasilia, genuine sympathy with America seems to have been transformed into a groundswell of unease about the nature of American power and how it is being projected. It began, perhaps, with the offhanded way the Bush Administration dismissed the Kyoto Treaty on global warming shortly after entering office. It picked up steam with Washington's protectionist moves to impose tariffs on imported steel, a slap in the face of European and Asian trading partners.

Then came last May's refusal to ratify the International Criminal Court, designed to prosecute war crimes and other crimes against humanity. Days later, it was the $190 billion farm bill, which hurt Third World producers and undercut efforts by the Europeans to curb their own agricultural subsidies. And Washington's single-minded foreign policy focus on terrorism is leaving Latin Americans feeling shortchanged--just when they thought the Bush Administration would turn Latin relations into the pillar of U.S. foreign policy. "The people around Bush are obsessed with terrorism, and Latin Americans can't understand why Washington isn't paying attention to other important priorities," says Rafael Fernandez de Castro, dean of the international affairs department at Mexico's Autonomous Technological Institute.

Now, of course, it's the Churchillian rumblings from Administration hawks that the U.S. will go it alone in Iraq if necessary. Not surprisingly, friends new and old are fretting. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is scoring points in his tough reelection campaign by appealing to anti-American and antiwar attitudes among Germans by attacking U.S. intentions toward Iraq. The Russian Establishment, despite the links that developed in the months after September 11, is showing its unease. "The U.S. should step down from its position of unilateralism," says former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. "This is not the time for empires."

But this is not a tale of opportunities lost forever by the U.S. That's too simple a view. Yes, the Bush Administration has squandered a portion of the goodwill it gained after September 11, but by no means all of it. Many of America's allies are alarmed at Washington's behavior, but they are ready to follow if given the right encouragement. There is a crisis of confidence in U.S. leadership around the world, a crisis that could still inflict damage on all parties involved. But there's still ample opportunity to mend fences.

To see the other side of this complex story, consider the achievements of the U.S. since September 11. Look at the rapprochement between Washington and Moscow on key strategic issues. Clearly, the nationalist Russian political Establishment (including Primakov) still doesn't fully trust Uncle Sam. President Vladimir V. Putin is also under new pressure for hewing to a U.S. line, so much so that even he has shown his independence by putting out feelers to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But fundamentally, Putin has created a pro-West foreign policy. He's offering up Russia as an alternative source of oil supplies just when doubts are emerging about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And Putin is unlikely to block an action against Iraq, as long as he can negotiate a deal to protect Russia's economic interests there.

There are other diplomatic gains. India, traditionally wary of U.S. ties, has aligned itself with Washington. American relations with China, in crisis at the beginning of the Bush Administration, are as good as they have ever been. The September 11 attacks and their aftermath, says Su Ge, vice-president of Beijing's China Institute of International Studies, "definitely helped improve Sino-American relations."

These successes have led some American foreign policy veterans to believe that behind the headline-grabbing gripes there really is a solid and even growing core of support for the U.S. "Underneath it all, there is very little [anti-Americanism], in fact," says John C. Kornblum, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and ambassador to Germany, and now chairman of Lazard Germany in Berlin.

That may be an exaggeration. A seething rage against the U.S. has clearly been building in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, thanks largely to the tragic impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations. But talk to policymakers in Europe, and you begin to see Kornblum's point. There's a growing recognition that terrorism threatens global growth and security--and that it has to be dealt with if the fruits of the global economy are going to be reaped.

It's significant that even France, where anti-American attitudes are almost a reflex, is finally recognizing just which way the international winds are blowing. Look at what's coming out of the new center-right lineup in Paris. No more attacking U.S. policy as simplistic or arrogant. The marching orders from President Jacques Chirac and new Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin: coordinate with the U.S. "They realize that poking at the U.S. is not going to get them very far," says Ezra N. Suleiman, an expert on European politics at Princeton University. "The French want to be able to influence Washington, and in that they are thinking ahead." Indeed, not only Moscow but also Paris is bargaining with the U.S. about post-Saddam Iraq, oil industry sources say. In particular, they want access to Iraq's vast pool of oil reserves, currently 115 billion barrels. That's 11% of the world's oil.

Thus the French and other Europeans are coming around to the idea of backing the U.S., as long as Washington makes its case to the U.N. "If Bush goes the U.N. way, this is like the 1991 [Gulf War coalition] because we basically feel the same way about Saddam," says a top French diplomat in Paris. "But if he chooses the unilateral formula, we're not going along." A recent poll by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that 60% of Europeans would back a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq if the U.S. wins U.N.and allied support.

So there are numerous signs that the world is ready to follow American leadership. But that leadership must be steady, attentive to allies' concerns, and not hell-bent on pursuing narrowly defined U.S. interests. This may be one of the greatest challenges now facing George W. Bush--to overcome the widespread perception that today's Washington could not care less about what the rest of the world thinks. Too many representatives of the world's political elite remember the Clinton Administration, which played to the global gallery with much message and little substance. With the Bush Administration, by contrast, "on substantial things they are often right, but the message is marketed badly," says Julian Lindley-French, a senior researcher at the European Union's Institute for Security Studies. "They just don't take the time to see how it impacts overseas."

Deep down, France, Russia, and even China recognize that America, the most powerful and dominant power on the planet, is simply not going to behave in a multilateral way a lot of the time. But as long as the Bush Administration grants them due respect--and does not outright ignore them--they are not likely to have fundamental objections to American leadership. "There is a desire for U.S. leadership. It doesn't take a lot to make the necessary changes; it's a willingness to work more with our friends," says Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School and a former defense secretary.

After all, we are bound to work together. President Bush and his advisors may have poured cold water on the idea of nation-building when they entered office. What the U.S. and others are starting to realize in Afghanistan, though, is that the post-Cold War world will inevitably involve nation-building, and it's going to be a constant, endless, often thankless engagement. Making Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and many other failed and outlaw states become responsible members of the global community is the real challenge of tomorrow's world. "It's like the early days of the Cold War," says Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former top official of the French foreign ministry. "You had a military response to communism, which was Nato. But you also had the Marshall Plan." Then, as now, you need friends.

By John Rossant

With bureau reports

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