Like it or not, we are the world's leader

Michael Mandelbaum

June 10, 1993|By Michael Mandelbaum

UNDERSECRETARY of State Peter Tarnoff caused an uproar when he said the United States was withdrawing from its role as international leader.

The chief problem with American forgien policy, however, is not what he said but what the administration has not said.

Unlike Cold War administrations, whose central international goal the containment of the Soviet Union -- was fixed, the Clinton administration must devise and present its own vision of American purposes in the world. It has not done so.

To dispel the doubts the speech raised at home and abroad, the administration must explain why our international leadership continues to be required and, more importantly, to what ends.

Mr. Tarnoff rightly noted that we have entered a new era in which American cooperation with other countries will be a major theme. This has not, however, reduced the need for American leadership. The two go together because virtually any important international goal will require U.S. leadership to achieve.

Operation Desert Storm was the prototype. Although the campaign was a truly multinational effort, the United States took the lead in organizing the victorious coalition and contributed most of the fighting forces. Without American political and military leadership, Iraq would still be in Kuwait.

In a speech in Minneapolis a few days after Mr. Tarnoff's remarks, Secretary of State Warren Christopher did emphasize the importance of U.S. leadership. But neither he nor Mr. Clinton has ever adequately answered the important question that follows: leadership for what?

There are three areas of international affairs of surpassing importance where U.S. leadership is required.

The first is Russia. A stable, peaceful Russia is the key to stability and peace in Europe and Asia. The best guarantee of a Russia at peace with its neighbors is the maintenance of a democratic regime in Moscow.

But President Boris Yeltsin's democratic government is unlikely to survive unless it succeeds in the difficult transition it has undertaken from a centrally planned to a market economy. Western economic assistance can help to ease that transition. Here the administration has taken the lead in what inevitably will be a protracted and difficult multinational effort to keep Russia on the path to free markets and democracy. Democracy in Russia is in the interest of all countries.

The administration has said and done little about the second great international task: the creation of a new security order. Even with the Cold War at an end, an American military presence of some kind is needed in Europe and the Pacific. The purpose is no longer deterrence but reassurance.

American military forces prevent the creation of a vacuum that the major powers of each region would be tempted to fill for fear of what their neighbors might do.

As long as the United States maintains the security treaty with Japan, for instance, the Japanese will feel protected against hostile developments in the policies of their nuclear-armed neighbors, Russia and China, and will see no reason to increase their own military forces dramatically.

Consequently, the Russians and the Chinese will not feel the need to arm against the prospect of a remilitarized Japan. The withdrawal of American forces from the Pacific would raise anxieties in each country about the other two.

Similarly, in Europe, without an American military role of some kind Germany would have to recalculate its security requirements, which would produce unease and perhaps sharp departures from existing military policies among its neighbors.

Only the United States can provide reassurance because only U.S. military forces are politically acceptable to all the major European and Asian countries.

The third international task for which U.S. leadership is indispensable is the expansion of the global trading system. Broadened trade is crucial for global economic growth, without which the developing world will remain poor, democracy will fail throughout formerly Communist Europe and social tensions will rise in the West.

The main vehicle for global trade expansion, the Uruguay Round of negotiations, has dragged on for more than six years. The United States is not the party most responsible for the delay, nor are we the most egregious violators of free-trade principles.

The Europeans have put up protective walls around their products, particularly in agriculture; the East Asians subsidize their exports and have formal and informal barriers to imports. Japan, with its huge trade surpluses with the rest of the world, poses special problems.

Nonetheless, as the world's largest economy, its largest market and the country with the most powerful tradition favoring freer trade, the United States has a particular responsibility for keeping the cause of trade expansion alive and well.

American leadership involves making many concessions for the sake of the world trading system as a whole.

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