Going it alone

David M. Shribman August 20 2001

Going it alone

David M. Shribman August 20 2001

Going it alone

At midsummer, the United States, which prides itself on being at the middle of everything in global affairs, is increasingly off by itself

David M. Shribman

World leaders call it “unilateralism.” His critics at home call it stubbornness. His foreign-policy planner calls it “à la carte multilateralism.” But by any name, George W. Bush—whose new style of go-it-alone diplomacy is causing consternation at home and abroad— is earning surprisingly low marks in the one subject he was expected to ace: getting along with others.

In fact, at midsummer, the United States, which prides itself on being at the middle of everything in global affairs, is increasingly off by itself—and sometimes not even at the international table. In his first six months as President, Bush has pressed ahead with plans for a missile defence in the face of skepticism from allies (like Canada) and from rivals (like China); stood virtually alone in resisting measures to fight global warming; stepped aside from international efforts to enforce a 1972 protocol on biological weapons; worked to dilute an agreement to combat gun traffic; and, just recently, threatened the U.S. may not participate in an international conference on racism.

All this—plus the Presidents refusal to press for Senate confirmation of a comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty, the subject of a United Nations conference next month—has raised eyebrows in capitals from Ottawa to Moscow. It has also raised backs in the White House, where the new crowd, which seldom misses an opportunity to distinguish itself from the Clinton team, responds that, on the international stage at least, talk is cheap but results count. By inclination and temperament, Clinton would stay up all night, talk and devour pizza, a personal style that soon became his diplomatic style. For all his easygoing manner, Bush doesn’t do that, and his persona abroad reflects it. He may be the most taciturn American leader since Calvin Coolidge, who once responded to a dinner guest’s wager that he could make the president speak three words by saying: “You lose.”

Some of the world leaders Bush has encountered in recent summits have been startled by the contrast between the new President and the old. Already this summer, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley has expressed his frustration, warning that American “unilateralism ultimately will lead to confrontation.” Remarks like Manley’s prompt a knowing nod on Capitol Hill, where the President’s Democratic opponents expected consultation but instead got confrontation.

Bush, who lost the popular vote last November, won the White House in a contested election and began his administration with a reputation for being more congenial than cerebral and with a vow to practise bipartisanship and co-operation. The easy congeniality masked a hard will. “Bipartisanship seems to have been merely a rhetorical device,” says Senator Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat. On taxes, the environment, regulatory issues and the drive to use public funds to underwrite social service programs conducted by religious groups, Bush has been uncompromising. But, his advisers are eager to point out, he has not been unsuccessful—though his decision last week to press ahead with limited stem-cell research troubled many of his supporters, who wanted no federal funding of such experimentation, along with many of his critics who hoped for even broader research.

By applying this domestic strategy to foreign affairs, Bush risks a new brand of isolationism—not the sort that Americans practised between the world wars, when the United States rejected the League of Nations and withdrew from international affairs, but an isolation from its allies and from the very councils of diplomacy that a single superpower can expect to dominate.

The Bush team insists it wants no such thing, however; Condoleezza Rice, the President’s national security adviser, recently went on television to argue, “You’ll not find a more internationalist administration than this administration.” But it’s possible to play an international role without paying much mind to international meetings, conferences and agreements.

Just as leaders across the globe are struggling to adjust to the new Bush style, the President himself is struggling to adjust to his new power and responsibilities. As governor of Texas— home to Compaq and Dell, two of the four biggest computer firms in the nation—he had to deal with a legislature that meets only 140 days every two years. A bit of glad-handing with the good of boys in Austin was all it took to keep the state going at a time of unprecedented prosperity.

David M. Shribman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe.

Now, the President, like Clinton before him, is seeking his sea legs diplomatically. “There’s always a certain tone deafness when a new administration comes in,” says Mara E. Rudman, a top national security assistant to president Clinton. “It is awesome how many constituencies a White House has to address. There is a learning curve, and presidents eventually learn that in order to accomplish anything, there are a lot of different interests that have to be taken into account and a lot of voices that have to be heard.” Suddenly, a lot of those voices are being heard—and they are complaining.