Worldly entanglements are not for Americans

February 26, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- America's internationalism is open to debate in places far beyond New Hampshire, Delaware and the Dakotas. It concerns people in Asia and Western Europe, where fear of American isolationism competes with concern about what some say is a new American expansionism.

The tendency, of course -- particularly in the Balkans -- is to look for complicated explanations for simple things. Sometimes Americans themselves supply those explanations. A recent article by two New Republic writers was much remarked in Europe and the Middle East. It said that Washington is building a new ''empire,'' to extend from Muslim Bosnia to the Gulf of Aden, in order to ensure American access to Middle Eastern oil and to counter Islamic fundamentalism.

Charles Krauthammer, the columnist, made the right response by suggesting that any American official who thought national security would be improved by trying to run Bosnia and the Muslim Balkans deserved to be locked up.

Nonetheless, those of us who argue that despite the Bosnian intervention, the underlying American trend is toward withdrawal from international political interventions and engagements, meet considerable skepticism. A recent column of mine to that effect provoked responses in the Austrian and French press citing the new American military presence in Macedonia and Albania, as well as the deployment in Bosnia, as evidence to the contrary.

These comments also noted the situation in the former Soviet Union as a reason for expanded American commitments in Europe. In Asia, American military presence is said to be necessary to contain the tensions on China's southern sea-frontiers, and to balance Russia, dissuade Japan from becoming a nuclear power and prevent conflict in Korea.

Internal dynamics

There is much in these arguments, but they ignore America's internal dynamics. They overestimate the influence of the United States' diplomatic and security establishment, which correctly assesses the American interest in European and Asian stability. The State Department and Pentagon do want a continued American security presence in Asia, and an active American role in Europe.

American business leadership is also largely committed to internationalism because it has convinced itself of the rewards of trade in the global marketplace, and simply because American corporations now are often heavily engaged in foreign markets and manufacturing facilities.

However, against these internationalist influences is the force of popular opinion, which since Vietnam has largely been turned inward. Pat Buchanan, in recent presidential primaries, has provided a colorful case of successful isolationist campaigning, but more significant has been the near-complete absence of concern for international matters expressed by the party's other presidential candidates or by the leaders of the Republican congressional majority.

Among the Democrats, things are not much different. Resistance to Bosnian involvement was as common among liberals as among conservatives. The U.N. has few friends in either party. There is trade internationalism, but that's about all.

Journalists abroad have painful knowledge of this lack of domestic interest in foreign affairs. In recent years increasing numbers of American correspondents have been called home. Just a few years ago the three major American television networks all had serious news operations in Paris. Newsweek had a large office here, and Time-Life even had its own handsome building.

Today that building has been sold. Time is represented by a bureau chief, a correspondent and two editorial assistants. ABC is the only network left in Paris (other than CNN International), and is represented by a husband-and-wife team. Just four general newspapers still have bureaus here. A few others have part-time ''stringers'' (sometimes journalists who have retired here). The reader at home simply is not interested in foreign news. Or at least editors and publishers at home believe that the reader is not interested.

The evidence actually is conflicting. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations regularly surveys American opinion and finds rather substantial levels of support for internationalist policies. My own feeling is that this tends to express good intentions and principle. It says what people feel they should think.

In fact, though, they don't seem to want to watch television or read newspapers and magazines about international affairs, other than when U.S. troops are involved or American national interests are directly engaged. Their latent internationalism can be mobilized, to back the Bosnian intervention, for example. But it is not spontaneous.

There really is nothing surprising in this. The United States is a huge country and has always been a rich generator of domestic subjects of interest, amusement, popular astonishment or popular horror. The national circus has more rings than one person can watch (some of them better not watched). The rest of the world can seem a long way away.

American internationalism flourished during the years of the celebrated American Century, now closed down. Those were years when Americans felt themselves capable of remaking international society on a better model. Some of the ambitions of the 1950s and 1960s have been fulfilled; others have been forgotten.

There is a feeling now that allies are not bearing their share of the burdens, or are competing unfairly, or are taking away American jobs and prosperity. The world should not underestimate these changes.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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