WORLD

THE SUPERPOWER RETREATS

A TROUBLED WORLD ASKS: WHERE’S AMERICA?

June 21 1993
WORLD

THE SUPERPOWER RETREATS

A TROUBLED WORLD ASKS: WHERE’S AMERICA?

June 21 1993

THE SUPERPOWER RETREATS

WORLD

A TROUBLED WORLD ASKS: WHERE’S AMERICA?

Take a map of the United States and fold it from left to right and again from top to bottom and the creases will intersect not far from Kansas City, Missouri. The city of 1.5 million people could well lay claim to being the spiritual, as well as the geographic centre of America’s heartland. Tucked into a bend of the muddy Missouri River where it crosses the Kansas state line, Kansas City gave the country such enduring icons of Middle America as Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite. It is a prosperous place where the rumble of foreign wars sounds distantly, if at all. Those few people curious about events elsewhere must brave the seedy end of Main Street and an estab-

lishment that does most of its business in erotic videos to find an out-of-state newspaper, let alone a foreign journal. It is a city where most people seem to agree with 29year-old phone company worker John Saul that the agonies of Bosnia, Somalia or Liberia are someone else’s problem. In Saul’s view, “There needs to be a hell of a lot more concentration on what’s happening here in the United States.”

It is a feeling increasingly shared across much of America. Barely two years after Desert Storm prompted some analysts to speculate that the world’s last remaining superpower might take on the role of global policeman, many Americans seem instead to

be losing interest in the rest of the world. Take away the compelling and clear-cut Cold War rivalry with communism, and domestic enemies again predominate in the public mind. Joblessness, the fear of violent crime and concern for the bloated national debt loom as larger and more immediate concerns than the remote and intractable conflicts of foreign lands.

Among those for whom international affairs are apparently an afterthought is President Bill Clinton, whose fitful focus on foreign policy has caused growing disquiet among America’s allies. Europe’s concerns grew in May, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher toured European capi-

tais in a less-than-forceful attempt to win support for Clinton’s short-lived plan to get tough with the Bosnian Serbs. Christopher’s limp performance prompted the London Times to observe tartly that “the episode has left European diplomats wondering if they are dealing with an American administration of potentially historic incompetence.”

If not incompetence, certainly a marked lack of interest in foreign issues. Some important American allies, in fact, need look no further than their own capitals for evidence of how far down Clinton’s priority list they stand. The new President waited until last month to nominate former Michigan governor James Blanchard as his ambassador to Canada. And the administration did not nominate envoys to either Tokyo or Bonn until nearly five months into Clinton’s term of office.

Attitudes in Washington began late last month to resemble a conscious, if still unofficial new U.S. policy of disengagement from foreign affairs. In unguarded stately ments, both Christopher and g Peter Tarnoff, an undersecre| tary in his state department, u suggested that defence budget cuts and domestic preoccupations have left the White House with neither the will nor the military resources to lead interventions in global trouble spots. Said Christopher, on ABC’s Nightline\ “We can’t do it all—we have to save our power for those situations which threaten our deepest national inter-

ests.” Administration officials later denied that the statements reflected a change in American policy.

But America’s allies should not be surprised at their diminished importance in U.S. eyes. Clinton campaigned on a clear promise to put economic recovery and reform of America’s expensive health care system ahead of foreign adventures, and he will plainly be judged on those issues when he seeks re-election in 1996.

The President has already accelerated the withdrawal of American troops from Europe. The United States now has 164,000 troops committed to NATO in Europe, but Clinton announced in early April that the number will be reduced to 100,000. European analysts say that is the smallest force needed to maintain U.S. credibility as the leader of the alliance.

The administration’s halting response to the Bosnian conflict has already had one unwelcome consequence: it has exposed Europe’s own shortages both of resolve and resources. Even if European governments had mustered the political will to intervene militarily in the Balkans, they lack sufficient firepower to take such an action on their own. For that they are dependent upon American might and financing. Some European diplomats worry that, having come to regard Bosnia as a potential quagmire and a political nightmare, Clinton may begin a general retreat from America’s postwar commitment to European stability. That anxiety was only partly allayed by the U.S. decision last week to send a largely symbolic 300strong force to Macedonia, to discourage the Bosnian conflict from spreading into that former Yugoslav republic. And the use of U.S. forces in weekend combat in Somalia was a policing operation launched under UN auspices in order, Clinton said, to warn armed gangs in the East African country against provoking “terror and chaos.”

The President’s priorities are clearly in tune with his electorate at home. “It’s not that we’re not interested in the rest of the world,” said Ginna Bay, 62, a retired social worker from Long Beach, Calif., as she emerged from the Hairy S. Truman Museum in Independence, Mo., the late president’s home town, and now a Kansas City suburb. That shrine to one of the central architects of the postSecond World War order records the sweeping international changes ushered in during Truman’s administrait tion—including the establishment of both NATO and the United Nations. But now, said Bay: “We feel like we have so much poverty and people out of work, we want to take care of our own first.”

Reasons for a less ambitious world view are clear to many Americans. Asked accountant Tim Bonnette, 36, of the Kansas City

WORLD

suburb of Lenexa, Kan., last week: “If you have a national debt as large as ours, how can we continue to help somebody else?” Another visitor to Truman’s memorial, Mark Dube, 29, of Houston, Texas, voiced a measure of bewilderment that might well have been echoed in the White House as Clinton contemplated the perilous options in Bosnia. “I think America feels a little overpowered,” Dube suggested, gazing reflectively at Truman’s grave site in the museum’s quiet courtyard. “America has always seen itself on the side of the just. But we have a hard time knowing what to do sometimes: you can’t really choose a good guy and a bad guy.”

Vietnam veteran Ben Hunt, 44, now retired and living on a disability pension, agreed. “Our role in the world has declined and should decline,” he observed, resting his foot on the sleek black Harley Davidson motorcycle he had ridden from his home in Topeka, Kan., to buy cheap cigarettes at the U.S. army base at Fort Leavenworth, just northwest of Kansas City. “We don’t have the threat of communism. We don’t want to run the world.”

America has turned inward before. Historian George Curtis, the assistant director of the Truman Museum, is at work on a book that will examine the last time the United States turned its back on the world, in the decades after the First World War.

Today, says Curtis: “The country appears to be in the same mood. In fact, it may even be less concerned with the rest of the world than in the early 1920s.” Similar thoughts worry retired U.S. air force Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the Bush administration and now head of his own Washington think-tank. Scowcroft told Maclean’s that a progressive American withdrawal from world affairs “is a distinct possibility, not because of a conscious mood but out of indifference.” He added, “We’ve faced the same kinds of dangers before and we are reacting the same way as we did after the First World War.”

But parallels with the past should not be overdrawn. In the 1920s and 1930s, congressional advocates of U.S. isolationism eventually succeeded in passing the so-called Neutrality Act, which initially prevented President Franklin Roosevelt by law from direct involvement in the Second World War. Neither in the heartland nor among the deep thinkers of the capital is that brand of isolationism a popular cause. “I don’t think we should be the policeman for the world,” said

Kansas City insurance underwriter Joan Sormanti, 34. “But I don’t think isolationism serves us well at all. Whether it’s political, economic or just from a humanistic viewpoint, I think it’s dangerous.”

In Washington, analysts say that the same view holds in the White House. While Kim Holmes, director of foreign policy and defence studies with the conservative Heritage Foundation, blames Clinton for a lack of interest or vision in foreign policy, he says that the President remains committed in principle to open trade and American involvement in international affairs. “I see more drift, more vacuum than isolationism,”

said Holmes. Added James Hoge, editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs: “Bill Clinton is essentially an internationalist.”

But if there is little support for old-style isolationism in America today, the new mood offers fertile ground for its close cousin: protectionism. In the cavernous hangars at Kansas City International Airport where Trans World Airlines maintains its international fleet of 170 jets, unionized workers have launched a campaign to persuade Washington to overturn a 1988 decision to allow U.S.-flagged aircraft to be serviced outside the United States. The catalyst for their drive is a Mexican proposal to build a giant aircraft maintenance base at Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, Calif., where wages are a fraction of the $20-plus an hour earned by veteran TWA mechanics. Airframe and engine mechanic Dick Holt, 50, professed concern that the Mexican facility “will be using cheap, unskilled labor, and cutting way too many corners.” But fellow worker George Minthorn, 52, was more direct in his objection. “We like to keep our jobs here in this

country,” said Minthorn, who repairs damaged wing surfaces.

The union campaign, which would also ban maintenance work on U.S. aircraft in Canada, may have only a slim chance of success. But in other areas, the Clinton administration has already signalled its sensitivity to protectionist sentiment. Tough rhetoric earlier this year, aimed at Western European development subsidies for the Airbus line of mid-range passenger jets, was reinforced when the White House banned other European firms from bidding on $24 million worth of U.S. government contracts. That action left European Community officials sputtering about retaliation. Then last week, U.S. trade commissioner Mickey Kantor used conciliatory tones to couch new proposals directed at opening Japanese markets to more imported goods. But his initiative carried the unmistakable threat that if Japan does not respond to Washington’s satisfaction, formal barriers to imports from Japan may follow. At the same time, higher priority battles over Clinton’s budget and his proposed health reforms now seem likely to delay ratification of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement beyond its year-end target date.

In fact, whatever Clinton’s own inclinations may be, the pressures to act on America’s self-protective new mood are mounting. In much of the heartland, the fumble-prone President is a less popular figure than Texas gadfly Ross Perot. The sharp-tongued billionaire, meanwhile, is sounding increasingly like an oldfashioned exponent of Fortress America who would scrap the trade deal with Mexico and outlaw “foreign lobbyists” on charges of “economic treason.”

Such ideas may carry little weight in official Washington, but they are plainly attractive to the growing number of U.S. voters who believe it is time to put America first. If Dick Holt, John Saul and countless others like them across the country know nothing else about the rest of the world, they know that it has absorbed more than a million good American jobs in the past decade. Isolationism? No. A new and, for Canada and other U.S. trading partners, potentially damaging wave of protectionism? Far more likely.

CHRIS WOOD in Kansas City with ANDREW PHILLIPS in London and HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington