Commentary: Foreign Policy: Bush's New Pragmatism

Ideology gives way to realpolitik, and the Administration goes stumbling up the learning curve

By Bruce Nussbaum

Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has the world seemed such a dangerous place. Iraq, North Korea, al Qaeda: All threaten the peace. But unlike the policies that clearly defined America's strategies in the conflict with the Soviet Union, containment and mutually assured destruction, U.S. foreign policy today appears confused, conflicted, and at times self-defeating.

What do Americans and people around the world see? The Bush Administration is poised for war against Iraq to prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction. But Iraq has admitted U.N. inspectors who have yet to find any. And no evidence has been presented showing that Saddam Hussein has sold any such arms to terrorists or other nations. Fellow Axis of Evil member North Korea, however, concedes that it is building nuclear weapons, has thrown out international arms inspectors, already has missiles that can hit Japan, South Korea--and perhaps the U.S.--and sells Scuds for cash to sustain its wretched economy. Yet the White House says it is willing to talk to North Korea and is using allies to help negotiate a peaceful accord with the country.

If little consistency in foreign policy can be perceived, it's because there hasn't been any. We have seen President George W. Bush embrace neo-isolationism as a candidate, unilateralism and preemption in his first year in office, multilateralism in his second, and Wilsonian internationalism (or Teddy Roosevelt-style imperialism, take your pick) as he enters his third.

The good news is that the reality of Bush foreign policy lags behind its rhetoric--and how it is perceived. The President and his White House foreign policy advisers appear to be on a learning curve. As they come up against global realities, they are shifting away from their hard ideological positions toward a more pragmatic approach to world problems. The crises in Iraq and North Korea, each in its own way, have forced the Bush Administration to hew to a more traditional, multilateral, diplomatic course of action.

What's frightening is that we are witnessing the evolution of Bush foreign policy firsthand--watching the policy reversals, observing inconsistencies, hoping for the best outcomes but fearing the consequences of actions taken hastily or without adequate thought of consequence. Until the Bush Administration comes up with a clearly defined foreign policy, uncertainty, fear, and anger may continue to surround its actions, both at home and abroad.

The change in Bush's approach to foreign policy over three short years has been startling. Bush ran for office as a neo-isolationist, fearful of losing U.S. sovereignty to international organizations such as the U.N., opposed to military intervention in ethnic wars such as Bosnia, against nation-building in such places as Somalia, and determined to build a missile-defense shield to ward off foreign threats to the homeland.

In office, Bush embraced unilateralism, walking away from key international treaties ranging from the Kyoto global warming agreement to the ABM missile deal. That caused a wave of unpopularity that has only gotten worse. Recent Pew Research Center poll figures show rising anti-Americanism in countries ranging from Germany and Turkey to South Korea and Canada.

September 11 reinforced White House unilateralism. The U.S. attacked al Qaeda and overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan alone, with help from Britain. It did the job efficiently, largely without involving NATO or the U.N.

The apogee of the unilateralist phase of Bush foreign policy came in the summer of 2002, when it was codified in The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, a document President Bush personally edited before sending to Congress. The national security paper emphasized unilateralism, preemption, and preventing any country or combination of countries from being allowed to ever match U.S. military might. This was clearly aimed at China. Talk about imperial reach.

Yet within weeks of issuing the national security paper, Bush's foreign policy turned sharply multilateral. The realities of regime change in Iraq forced the shift. In fact, the new policy direction had already been foreshadowed in the regime change in Afghanistan. To cement its victory there, the U.S. was forced to ask Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Germany, Italy, the U.N., and a host of other international organizations for help in safeguarding Kabul and rebuilding the country. The U.S. may have fought alone, but in the end, victory depended on many others.

In Iraq, that dependence became evident. To get use of bases in the Middle East, Turkey, and Europe to invade Iraq, the U.S. had to go through the U.N. Security Council and play by the multilateral rules of the game. In the process, President Bush challenged the U.N. to become "relevant" again--and it did. He learned to lead the U.N. without any loss of U.S. sovereignty. It was an important lesson.

North Korea is teaching additional lessons to the Bush foreign policy team. Preemption may be possible in a militarily weak country such as Iraq, but it is nearly impossible in heavily armed states such as North Korea. It could mean the destruction of Seoul or perhaps even Tokyo. So even though North Korea may be a more powerful threat to the U.S., and even though it lied for years about building nuclear weapons, a unilateral, preemptive military solution isn't the answer. Instead, the Bush Administration is grudgingly turning to South Korea and China to defuse the volatile situation through diplomacy. Allies count. Welcome to realpolitik.

There remains much public confusion and trepidation about Bush foreign policy precisely because it is in transition. Rhetoric often doesn't match behavior, conflicting voices speak at the same time, and policies are still at variance with one another. Unilateralism may be out, but prevention remains in. Does anyone in Washington really think the U.S. can prevent China from becoming a major military power?

The shifts underway in the Administration's foreign policy are fast-paced and welcome. In fact, the multilateral approach could improve President Bush's chances of implementing his plan for rebuilding Iraq. Bush neo-isolationism has given way to a Wilsonian internationalism that dreams of remaking Iraq and the rest of the Middle East into modern, democratic societies. A democratic Iraq could tip the scales in Iran, where elections have already eroded the power of the mullahs. An arc of democracy across the top of the Middle East, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, opening the way for the modernization of Islamic society, is possible. That would be an epic event on the scale of ending the Cold War.

But to do that, the U.S. needs a clear, consistent foreign policy that mobilizes world opinion behind its vision. A first step would be to bring its rhetoric in line with its increasingly pragmatic approach.

Nussbaum is editorial page editor.

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