The U.S. tells the world: One of us must be reasonable, and it won't be me

February 27, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Madeleine Albright's world tour was a personal success. A New York Times headline said she ''struts across a world stage, radiating star quality.''

Her trip unfortunately also illustrated the problem of American foreign policy today. It is no longer really under the control of the stars (or otherwise) of the executive branch.

The issues raised during her journey include Russian hostility to NATO expansion, European opposition to America's effort to make other countries boycott Cuba, German anger at absurd and impertinent American strictures on Germany's treatment of Scientology, French hostility to the American unwillingness to yield NATO commands to European officers, Chinese resistance American human-rights demands, and the usual disputes with Japan over market access.

Originating in Washington

Each of these problems originates in Washington (except for the Scientology issue, which comes from Hollywood). None is necessary. One can say that the China human-rights dispute and trade disagreements with Japan come from the way the Chinese government treats its people and how Japan orders its domestic economy. But there would be no trouble between them and the United States if Washington were content to let them run their affairs as they choose.

Washington, instead, wants to change them, against their will. Naturally this makes trouble. Trouble is normal enough in state relations, except that in the American case the troubles tend increasingly to be produced by projecting domestic political issues into foreign relations.

American diplomacy, as a result, functions as a mediator between the outside world and American domestic interests and politics. The new secretary of state is not in a position to conduct, as she might like, a foreign policy of true national interest.

She and her subordinates play the game of ''one of us must be reasonable and it won't (can't) be me,'' not as a tactic (as Richard Nixon did) but because they have no alternative. They cannot make concessions on issues in the public eye. Domestic pressures and the perceived political self-interest of the president prevent it.

NATO expansion was decided by the president chiefly in response to pressures from voters of Polish, Baltic and other East European origin. Once launched, NATO expansion will be rammed through, whatever the Russians or the allies think of it, even if it is, as George Kennan fears, ''the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.'' For the president to reverse himself would be seen -- or so the president's political entourage sees it -- as a humiliation or ''defeat.''

Southern command

A European in charge of NATO's southern command is now impossible for the same reason. This never meant putting a European in command of the Sixth Fleet, since the Sixth Fleet, as a nuclear-armed U.S. force, has always taken its orders directly from Washington (and under American law, has to). But once the American press cried out that ''they'' -- the French, the Italians -- wanted to control the Sixth Fleet, the idea of naming a European officer was politically dead in Washington, whatever the damage to alliance relations.

The Helms-Burton problem originated in electoral politics. The president signed the bill because he thought he would lose votes by opposing this attempt to force others to boycott Cuba. He and his secretary of state are now begging the European Union not to attack the U.S. in the World Trade Organization, saying that if they do so Congress will strike back, doing even worse damage to the WTO and world trade.

Negotiate with Helms

Shortly before her world tour, Mrs. Albright received the new U.N. secretary general in Washington, Kofi Annan, and immediately sent him off to see Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She thereby acknowledged that Senator Helms is more important than either she or the president in determining America's relationship to the U.N. Mr. Annan was implicitly being advised to negotiate with Mr. Helms, rather than with the secretary of state.

American diplomacy has been reduced to threatening allies and opponents with worse things to come if they do not yield to Washington's immediate demands. This might be called the serial-killer negotiating style, or ''stop me before I kill again.''

The variant to this is a plea to negotiating partners to cooperate with the ''reasonable'' elements in American government to prevent the unreasonable elements from committing outrages. This may resemble the ''good-cop, bad-cop'' style of negotiating, but is not the same thing since the good cop has ceded control to the bad cop.

Foreign observers often see the United States today as a juggernaut in international relations, the ''sole superpower'' crushing all who stand against it. What they do not realize is that American conduct is evidence of weakness. The executive branch of government in the United States, constitutionally charged with the conduct of foreign relations, no longer is in control.

This is a reversible situation, if, or when, a president chooses to reimpose his authority, and knows what he wants. There would be political profit in this, since the ''great'' presidents have always been those with a firm and realistic foreign policy.

Until that happens, the star quality of the secretary of state is squandered.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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