Politics & Policy

Principle and Interest

A new public diplomacy for Bush's second term.

In her two days of confirmation hearings before the Senate, secretary-designate Condoleezza Rice struck all the right notes–or at least all the expected ones. Though unyielding in her defense of Iraq policy and firm in asserting America’s right to defend its vital interests in the absence of U.N. approval, she was friendly towards multilateralism, happy to cooperate with international bodies, and positively eager to mend fences with “Europe.”

“Europe,” the U.N., and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment had been hoping for just such a balance. They were resigned to the likelihood of a tough stance on Iraq and the past while longing for a more accommodating posture on the wider “Bush doctrine” and the future. After two days they thought they had both.

Rice’s first major personnel decisions were seen as confirmation of this balance. She has chosen Robert Zoellick, formerly the U.S. trade representative, to be her deputy; Robert Joseph to be in charge of arms proliferation; and Nicholas Burns, currently U.S. Ambassador to NATO, to be the under-secretary for political affairs. What the European press noticed, however, was that she had not re-appointed the combative John Bolton to a senior position. He will now leave the U.S. State Department–perhaps to return to the lush pastures of the private sector, perhaps to move to another senior post in government where his allies include Vice President Cheney.

All this is being interpreted, at home as well as abroad, as a shift in U.S. foreign policy from an unproductive ideological neoconservatism represented by Bolton to the more pragmatic realism of Zoellick, Joseph, and Burns. Earlier this week in the Washington Post Richard Holbrooke was suggesting that the U.S. will cooperate more closely with the U.N., look more kindly on the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto accords, and work more harmoniously with the European Union and the NATO allies.

It may well be that these predictions turn out well–but they are rooted in some shaky assumptions. And they are exaggerations at the very least. To begin with, the differences between John Bolton and the new appointees are somewhat overdrawn. Bolton is not a neoconservative at all–as Lawrence Kaplan pointed out in a New Republic profile. He is an “assertive nationalist.” He was hostile to such developments as the ICC and Kyoto–and he fought battles with the Europeans over them–precisely because he thought them damaging to U.S. interests. His point of view is still strongly represented in the administration by, among others, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who will continue to fight for them on the National Security Council.

Nor could Bolton’s tenure at State be dismissed as unproductive. Sure, he failed to disarm Iran and North Korea. But that failure is shared with several previous administrations and all our major allies. What Bolton did achieve, however, is truly remarkable. He devised a practical way of halting the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups and rogue states–namely, the Proliferation Security Initiative–that the international community has now signed onto. The PSI advanced U.S. interests by recruiting those allies who could offer America real help to prevent its enemies obtaining weapons of mass destruction. That was pragmatic multilateralism of a high order.

Both Zoellick and Bolton, moreover, were among the original “fabulous Baker Boys” (i.e. proteges of former Secretary of State James Baker) who managed the delicate diplomacy of defeating the Soviet Union and reunifying Germany without provoking a major European crisis. Burns has sought to limit the development of a separate EU defense force lest it weaken NATO. And Joseph is regarded as a tough arms-control negotiator. All are strong defenders of U.S. interests.

What distinguishes them from Bolton, apart from their closeness to Secretary Rice, is that they are relatively low-key in their public presentations. They argue the U.S. case in terms of interests (which can be compromised) rather than in terms of principles (which must be defended intact). And they talk softly even if they hold a big stick behind their backs.

Diplomats tend to like this approach–and it gets a good press from mainly liberal journalists. But it produces two difficulties for the conduct of foreign policy.

In the first place, if you decide to advance your interests by compromise rather than by arguing a principled case, then you need some basis for compromise–something to offer the other side. What is that likely to be in the Rice State Department? Zoellick’s appointment suggest that it might involve trade and commerce with Europe. In addition to his four years as U.S. trade representative, he chaired a German Marshall Fund committee on Atlantic relations in the mid-90s. And he tends to dismiss fears that the EU could significantly damage U.S. interests on the grounds that it will never get its act together. That points to a grand EU-U.S. bargain.

To oversimplify: The EU is anxious to exercise greater influence over U.S. diplomatic and military policy and the U.S. is increasingly worried that European trade regulations are damaging U.S. business worldwide. A grand strategic EU-U.S. rapprochement might establish a transatlantic free-trade area in which the U.S. would gain early influence on the EU’s

regulation-making in return for granting the Europeans a greater say in diplomacy and military affairs.

Such a grand bargain would bring immense long-term benefits–notably the continuing support of a liberal world order by a united West. But it would not be easy to achieve, especially in the current European atmosphere of savage anti-Americanism.

Which brings up the second problem: If a government fails to explain the principles behind its foreign policy, then its actions inevitably risk seeming arbitrary expressions of selfish power. America’s objection to ceding authority to the ICC, for instance, rests on the fact that the court is not accountable to any democratic lawful authority. It is a free-floating legal bureaucracy that nonetheless claims to exercise power over corporations, NGOs, citizens, and even governments, and to create new international law.

This should be offensive to any liberal democrat. The U.S. has a strong and principled case for its opposition. If the U.S. fails to make that case in principled terms, however, then its opposition to the ICC is bound to look like that of an arrogant superpower pursuing a unilateralist agenda. Thus, if the Rice State Department pursues a policy rooted in hard-headed national interest but expressed in cautious terms of compromise, it will lack an important dimension. It will need to outsource the ideological arguments underlying that policy. As Dr. Rice herself conceded, it will need an ambitious public diplomacy program. And if that program is to succeed at a time of widespread anti-Americanism around the world, it will need to be led by eloquent, independent, and respected Americans.

The most respected American in today’s world, as the tsunami crisis has shown, is Colin Powell. And the most eloquent is Bill Clinton. Both would be persuasive advocates of the U.S. in different ways–and each would remove the taint of partisanship from the other. Together, as joint chairmen of a major new public-diplomacy campaign, they could begin to restore the world’s

image of America as a generous and decent nation.

I realize that NRO readers may not immediately see that Bill Clinton is the man to burnish America’s image. But NRO readers are not the target audience–you already have a fairly favorable opinion of America. Between them Powell and Clinton appeal to pretty much the rest of the globe. President Bush is rumored to be looking for some gesture of bipartisanship with which he could launch his second term. Here is one that would go beyond mere gestures to help reshape the international climate of opinion–and so give Secretary Rice’s realpolitik the deeper dimension it needs to appeal to mankind as well as to cold-blooded departments of external affairs.


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When I saw the chop-suey font in the CNN story I was reminded of a powdered-drink product from my youth: Funny Face.