America's isolation at the Rio "Earth summit" was all right with George Bush, who figures that "leadership sometimes requires standing alone." But one wonders whether the Bush administration has any clear idea of what the future basis for American leadership should be.
Military power remains, but its devaluation is as inevitable as it is welcome. Economic power will be difficult to project, given our budget deficits and borrowing needs. And the Los Angeles riots underscored another handicap: the diminishing power of the American example.
Increasingly critical views of American society must, over time, erode respect for American leadership. With the Soviet threat removed, Europeans in particular are less and less likely to accept U.S. counsel while they denigrate our way of life.
"The 'American model' is in crisis -- its radiant power waning," argued Guenter Nonnenmacher, foreign editor of Germany's conservative and traditionally pro-American Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in a recent column. "A drive through New York shows scenes that you otherwise would only find in developing countries." Mr. Nonnenmacher added that a "prerequisite" for America's continued world role is recovery of its "inner balance."
French President Francois Mitterrand's public statements linking the Los Angeles riots to 12 years of Republican laissez faire policies provoked outrage in the Bush administration. But having spent the better part of eight years in Western Europe, I would say that Mr. Mitterrand's views represent the rule rather than the exception. It is an opinion shared by conservatives as well as socialists such as Mr. Mitterand. And it should not be confused with the more benighted strain of anti-American snobbery, pockets of which certainly exist.
In countless conversations with well-informed Europeans who have traveled widely in America, like its people and admire its diversity, a similar theme comes up: America is no longer a land to be emulated. These are the kinds of people -- not politicians, but high-level civil servants and political advisers along with journalists, lawyers and other professionals -- whose influence will be critical to deciding how far Europe will follow America's lead on specific global issues.
The United States attained its postwar pre-eminence with overwhelming military-industrial power and financial might. Yet the importance of our democratic example should not be discounted. As Europe lay prostrate from 30 years of fratricidal fighting, there was considerable admiration for American stability, prosperity and liberty.
That was then. In the intervening decades, most West European nations have firmly anchored their political democracies, forged vibrant capitalist economies and built highly advanced welfare states. This welfare capitalism or, as the Germans call it, the Sozialstaat, offers universal health care, generous unemployment and welfare payments, free university education and an aggressively regulated labor market (which mandates, for example, a minimum six week vacation in Germany).
Europeans may be aware of the contribution that U.S. Marshall Fund aid and military protection made to this achievement. But gratitude is a limited asset in international relations. Since the world's Saddams and Milosevics are not going to disappear any time soon, European elites still welcome U.S. military power as geopolitical insurance. But they deem U.S. political and social achievements to be decidedly inferior to their own. And they are increasingly skeptical about American wisdom.
None of this will convince those disciples of Reaganism who are convinced that their creed remains the wave of the future -- and America, once over some temporary glitches, will again be the world's model society. But in making this argument, they should not be allowed to get away with certain false alibis.
A first alibi rests on the fact that prior to the collapse of Communism there was also a general retrenchment of West European socialist programs. More recently, post-Communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have embraced radical, free-market solutions. In other words, goes the alibi, doesn't the past decade in Europe amount to a vindication of Reagan-style economic and social policies?
That is not, based on my experience, the way the Europeans see it. In Western Europe some of the more ambitious socialist
ambitions had to be scaled back, but what was left is more important than what was abandoned. A notable example is France, where Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party was elected eleven years ago on an expensive, left-wing platform that caused immediate trouble -- a weakened franc and huge trade deficit. In 1983, Mr. Mitterrand reversed course, adopting a policy of austerity, justifying his about-face with the need to maintain the Franco-German monetary link that was the centerpiece of the new European Monetary System.