Like hanging, the prospect of losing an election concentrates the mind -- and renders candidates wonderfully sensitive to voter concerns. This year the elections are working the way they are supposed to: Trailing in the polls and stuck in a recession as Election Day looms, President Bush is scrambling to prove that he has heard the voters, understands their views and is making the U.S. government respond.
Two recent departures in China policy indicate that Mr. Bush has, in fact, finally understood that today Americans are much more concerned with economic advantage and disadvantage than with diplomatic gratifications. In late August the administration issued an ultimatum that China must open its markets to U.S. products or face custom duties of up to 100 percent on nearly $4 billion of Chinese imports. Less than a month later President Bush himself announced the decision to sell Taiwan 150 high-performance F-16 fighters.
Both these new policies outrage the Chinese Peoples' Republic as Mr. Bush knew they would. The Chinese government threatened retaliation on customs and charged that the F-16 sale violated Ronald Reagan's commitment to them in the agreement of August 17, 1982. In fact, the sale does not violate President Reagan's commitment, which linked arms sales to peace and the balance of forces in the Taiwan Straits. But for Mr. Bush the interpretation of the communique was far less important than the need to make the sale.
The president understood that he must not lose thousands of American jobs and a strong U.S. market position to the French aviation industry, which was poised to sell Taiwan as many advanced Mirage fighters as Taiwan wanted to buy. The French are nearly as irritated as the Chinese by the Bush decision to sell the bombers -- but so be it.
Both these recent China policy decisions must have been painful for Mr. Bush. They violated priorities and proclivities he had acquired over a lifetime of experience in international affairs. But the collapse of communism and the emergence of a global economy in which the U.S. faces tough competitors have made his experience less relevant and less useful as a guide to action.
More than they seemed to realize, Mr. Bush and his team have faced new issues for new stakes. The U.S., moreover, has operated from a new position -- far less favorable than the American position in the Cold War. U.S. economic policy has suffered from the administration's tendency to make decisions on new problems on the basis of the old criteria. And nowhere has this been more clear than in regard to China, to which the Bush administration long continued to offer special preferences, exemptions and advantages.
All that is now past.
Days after the China decision, Mr. Bush announced that the U.S. would sell F-16s to Saudi Arabia as well. And the Congress, which has traditionally opposed such sales, seemed ready to go along.
This is the new world with which an American president must deal.
In this world, military power has not lost its importance -- otherwise no one would want F-16s. But for the United States, balancing power among competing states in the Middle East or North Asia has less urgency than balancing the budget and increasing American exports. Americans are no longer in a position to swap the tangible rewards of one-way free trade for the intangible satisfaction of being a superpower above the competition.
George Bush has understood this, even if the State Department is not yet clear that the game in which the China card was wild is finished, and the players have either died or gone home.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.