Political and Moral Abdication


June 03, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The impulse of the Clinton administration in foreign policy is toward withdrawal, a justified withdrawal in terms of the domestic interests of the United States.

Whether this is in its general interest is another question, since the shift in American policy described by the imprecise and by now overworked term neo-isolationism presumes an international structure strong enough to tolerate an American withdrawal. This does not exist today.

Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff says that a larger share of the United States' not unlimited resources are needed for domestic reconstruction. This is what many of us have been saying for a long time. However, the argument for a redirection of U.S. policy must take account of the equations of power in Western Europe and East Asia, the two regions of greatest consequence to international stability in general and to the long-term security of the United States itself.

In these two places the major regional powers have in recent months given dramatic demonstration of their lack of ambition and even, it would seem, of their incapacity to act independently of the United States. Western Europe is adrift, seemingly incapable of common action on security and foreign policy matters. When Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria join the Community, as they undoubtedly soon will, the Community's ability to act will decline again. Yugoslavia is the continuing and tragic demonstration of this European impasse.

In Asia, the idea of American withdrawal produces something like panic even in Japan, the regional great power, which sees all too clearly the danger to itself in trying to play the great-power part, but confronts the reality that an American withdrawal would force it into just that role vis-a-vis China and an eventually recovering Russia.

There is nothing today to put in the place of American leadership. In certain respects the situation is worse than it was in the 1930s, when an isolationist United States from the beginning declined international responsibilities. Liberal internationalism was supposed to supply international security, and the League of Nations started off with no less power, and rather more successes, than the United Nations later enjoyed. It settled a series of troublesome disputes, and prevented a Balkan War between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925.

The League later failed because the fascist powers defied it, but by that time it was already foundering because of the major states' indifference. Poland and France were actually the first to refuse to accept its rulings (unsuccessfully forbidding the first to seize Vilnius, in present-day Lithuania, and the second from occupying the Ruhr in 1923).

An international organization is no more than the agency of its members, and international order can only be the product of the will and commitment of the major powers acting on their own responsibility. These were absent when Japan defied the League by invading Manchuria and when Italy conquered Ethiopia despite League sanctions. They are absent today, and without them both the United Nations and European Community are powerless bureaucracies.

Mr. Tarnoff's remarks last week -- later disavowed by more senior officials -- offered a rationale for the Clinton administration's reluctance to do by itself what its allies collectively decline to undertake. This is a persuasive argument in national terms, but fails to address the practical consequences of the present absence of international structure. An extended European war in the Balkans is a highly practical issue, whose larger dangers are evident to everyone.

The xenophobic violence that has broken out in Western Europe, and particularly in Germany, and the rise of ethnic tension in Eastern Europe are also connected to the popular perception that an established system of international constraints and values has fallen, and that society and the international order now exist to be remade -- and in Yugoslavia are already being remade by means of atrocious but successful violence.

Inward and outward order are connected: by the desperation and ruthlessness produced by their absence, if by nothing else. The collapse of democracy in Germany and Spain and the ideological hatreds, political intolerance and mob violence undermining France's Third Republic and subverting a fragile liberal order elsewhere in the 1930s were connected to the collapse of international order during that same decade.

We are at an important moment in contemporary history. The European powers refuse the international responsibilities that properly belong to them, and risk paying a very heavy price for their political and moral abdication.

If the U.S. government attempts in their default to reclaim its role of international leadership, it jeopardizes its popular support and its justifiable domestic priorities. If it declines to lead, it makes way for the anarchic forces now at work in international society.

This is not an affair of geopolitical abstractions but of deep national and international interests on both sides of the Atlantic and in East Asia as well.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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