The New Isolationism

March 15, 1992

Richard Nixon's complaint that foreign policy has been almost completely ignored in the current political campaign -- the first of the post-Cold War era -- constitutes a justified rebuke to President Bush and his Democratic challengers.

His attack on "the new isolationism" finds its mark in the "America First" demagoguery of Patrick Buchanan. But real blame has to fall on Mr. Bush and on those with a plausible chance of replacing him -- Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas.

Mr. Nixon rightly suspects (see his remarks excerpted elsewhere in Perspective) that future generations will marvel at the silence that has shrouded American policy toward Russia and the other republics of the old Soviet Union.

It is not that the candidates are unaware that economic collapse in the Communist world threatens to create what Mr. Nixon calls a "new despotism." What alarms Mr. Nixon is that the candidates believe "foreign aid is poison," and cravenly follow their pollsters' advice not to mention the huge sums needed to stabilize democracy in the former Soviet empire.

Last week, the former president circulated a memo saying Bush administration's policies had been "pathetically inadequate" -- a "penny-ante" approach to a "high-stakes game." But while he toned down his language in a public address later, Mr. Nixon was actually even more cutting. He compared the timidity of Mr. Bush's present approach with the daring exhibited by underdog Harry Truman in the 1948 campaign. A Democrat confronting a Republican Congress, President Truman pushed through an aid program for Greece and Turkey, then threatened by Communist takeover, that was a precursor of the Marshall Plan.

Mr. Bush responded with the cry that he does not have a "blank check." True enough. But what about White House hesitation on tapping Pentagon billions for Russian aid, promoting a G-7 stability fund or meeting U.S. obligations to the International Monetary Fund, which the old Communist countries are soon to join?

The Soviet Union has, in fact, been the recipient of huge sums -- perhaps $70 billion -- mostly from Germany, and suspicions about where that money has gone are reason enough for some U.S. hesitation. Manufacturing in the former Soviet Union continues to be in the hands of corrupt monopolists, distribution under the control of mafia-style criminals. There is a real question whether more aid, hastily given, will merely prop up the present system or allow President Boris Yeltsin to move ahead with internal economic reforms.

On balance, however, Mr. Nixon is right that it is better to be bold than to be sorry. Neither the present administration nor the present generation of Americans wants to be responsible for "losing Russia." If the former president has goaded the 1992 crop of candidates into discussing life-and-death matters of foreign policy, he has done the country a real service.

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