A Second-Term Shift?

Let me be the first to say it: Condoleezza Rice may be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize. As a critic of the Bush administration and a Democrat, I'm not a fan of Rice's record as national security advisor. But if her new rhetoric means a real second-term conversion, she may go down in history as one of the most successful secretaries of State ever.

U.S. actions over the last four years have been driven by Rice and colleagues who believe that as the lone superpower, the United States is powerful enough to act whenever and wherever it wants, primarily through military means. That costly myth has made the superpower burden heavier — and spiked anti-Americanism to unprecedented levels that, in turn, breed further terrorist attacks. There are signs, however, that the administration may be abandoning this myth.

Going into the lion's den of France earlier this month, Rice spoke of the need for "an even stronger partnership based on common opportunities" and laid out the threats both countries face — terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, failed states and organized crime. Over the last four years, we have lost ground in combating these threats. If she and her boss succeed in restoring America's place as a persuader, not just enforcer, dramatic progress is possible.

First, the administration is poised to make history in the Middle East, not only between the Palestinians and Israelis but perhaps also between Israel and Syria and the Arab world. The rise of the more responsible Palestinian leadership and the strong U.S. backing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could be a winning combination if the administration seriously engages in the search for peace. The backlash over a Syrian role in the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon could lead to a housecleaning and a new willingness in Damascus to make peace with Israel. Rice has appointed herself as the lead peace negotiator, putting her firmly in line for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, the recent elections in Iraq came off better than even the administration had hoped, with 8.5 million Iraqis voting despite insurgent violence. And they voted for a secular — not Islamic, Iranian-style — government. The key to success, however, will be continued U.S. aid and military presence over the next several years while we build up a functioning Iraqi force able to maintain security. Historians will long debate whether the U.S. investment was worth it. Regardless, an increasingly stable Iraq will help address problems elsewhere in the Arab world; the U.S. can convert its investment into progress in the region. To do so, Washington must develop a serious plan to address the lack of reform in the Arab world — a root cause of the radical fundamentalist terrorism.

Third, if the administration's newfound fondness for building partnerships and diplomacy holds, it has a chance to make significant progress in stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

One big question is whether the administration will abandon its most ideological positions, such as its irresponsible opposition to negotiating a deal with North Korea, which probably has nuclear weapons. It will also have to work harder to bring the Europeans and Russians along with its tough stance against Iran, which is probably working to develop nuclear weapons.

And it will have to shift its focus from national missile-defense programs designed to address a receding threat and invest in tough international regimes that stem proliferation. The Proliferation Security Initiative, endorsed last year by the U.N. Security Council, offers a new way of doing arms control that bypasses long treaty negotiations and uses the power of the Security Council to build new rules more quickly.

Fourth, President Bush has a chance to change the U.S. relationship with the developing world by investing in it seriously. He recognized that this challenge is central to the war on terrorism in 2002 by saying, "When governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror." Nowhere is that challenge starker than in Africa, where more than half of its 650 million people live on less than $1 day. In his first term, Bush doubled aid to Africa, including $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS. Yet the U.S. is far from doing its fair share. The U.N. and most industrialized countries have called on states to provide 0.7% of their gross national product to halve the number of people in poverty by 2015. To do so, we will need to increase our giving from its current 0.1% of GNP.

Second terms tend to be risky, and Bush may choose to cling to the superpower myth. But as he departs for his first second-term trip to Europe this week, he has the chance to begin to work with U.S. allies in earnest. Regardless of past differences, the world will follow the United States if it does the right thing. If the administration engages and leads, the gains made in the second term may be some of the most important in our history.