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Sitting as Second Fiddle in Paris, U.S. Performs With New Realism

<i> Walter Russell Mead is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin). </i>

Economic summits don’t usually go down in the history books. For a few days the assorted presidents and prime ministers enjoy looking more like statesmen than like politicians. They pass resolutions in support of motherhood and against the man-eating shark. They bask in the warm glow of favorable news stories about their international accomplishments.

But the 1989 Paris summit will long be remembered. Something fundamental has changed and, whatever happens, relations between Europe and the United States will never return to the old pattern.

Paris had its share of hot air and platitudes. The seven leaders of the world’s largest industrial democracies denounced pollution--without doing much concrete about it--and agreed that repression of democratic protests in Beijing was reprehensible, but that little could be done in response. Courageously, the seven world leaders reaffirmed their position that drug trafficking is bad; they went out on a limb to denounce inflation.

But, thanks to the Bush team, something important did happen at this month’s summit--something so important that future historians may call it a turning point in world history. For the first time since World War II, the United States agreed to play second fiddle on a matter of major importance to the future of Europe.

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In preparatory meetings before the summit, the United States deferred to West German plans for reshaping policy toward Poland and Hungary. At the summit, President George Bush announced that the European Community--an organization the United States does not belong to and has had serious differences with--would coordinate the common Western approach to these issues.

Not since the Yalta agreements, when an ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, has a U.S. President made such potentially far-reaching concessions in international diplomacy. Bush not only gave new stature to the EC, he moved in the direction of accepting President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s central theme: There is a common European home stretching from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains, and Europe must work out its destiny without outside involvement. Whether the new Bush policy is a limited concession or part of a broader strategy of disengagement from Europe remains to be seen, but the U.S. position in Europe will never be the same.

Many observers, both within the United States and beyond its borders, will welcome what they see as a new realism in the Bush approach. The United States can no longer police the world, can no longer bail out every insolvent debtor and can no longer concern itself with every political issue in every corner of the globe. Other observers will be more cautious. Conservatives may worry that the new realism is nothing more than a rehash of Jimmy Carter’s age of limits; others may fear that the Bush team has a clearer idea of what it is against than of what it is for.

It is too early to decide whether the supporters or the critics have the better case. U.S. foreign policy is in the early stages of a transformation as sweeping as the changes undertaken by the other superpower of the old postwar world. No better than Gorbachev does Bush know where his country’s policy will stand when the dust settles.

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But if it is too early to evaluate the emerging new U.S. policy in Europe, it is not too early to see some of the obstacles that successful American policy must overcome. Eastern Europe is the product of a tragic history, and the past casts long shadows over the nations now emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. Both world wars were triggered in Eastern Europe; the region has been relatively quiet since 1945 only because the Soviets imposed a stern peace. Now the Soviet grip is loosening and the old rivalries, old problems, are coming to the fore.

If political tensions in that volatile part of the world are to be contained, Eastern Europe needs prosperity more than anything. Eastern Europe wants to live like Western Europe. The Hungarians and the Poles are seeking escape from communist poverty and they turn to the West for inspiration and help. So far, the West has been cheering them on, but neither Bush nor his West European colleagues have responded with the massive infusions of aid these countries will eventually need. To Poland, laboring under the burden of a $39-billion foreign debt, the West responds with the same program that has been so disastrous in Latin America: austerity, retrenchment and “structural reforms” that never seem to raise living standards.

Eastern Europe has turned away from communism because it never delivered economic results that met the people’s aspirations. Eastern Europeans want to live like Germans and Swedes--not like Argentines and Thais. If capitalism fails them, it is not clear where they will turn, but it is clear that Eastern Europe will be neither happy nor contented.

Whether the United States, the Common Market or some broad international organization representing all the major economic powers of the world coordinates the Western response to Eastern Europe’s aspirations, that response must be adequate to the gravity of the problem and the stakes involved.

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Here the danger facing the Bush Administration may be that new realism about how much U.S. aid it can afford to give may not give Eastern Europe a realistic chance for the growth it needs.

There is a danger that Eastern Europe will be developed as an export platform for Western Europe--Western Europe’s Mexico, where cheap labor and lax regulations allow the low-cost production of goods for export to richer markets. This would lock Eastern Europe into a low- wage development path for years to come, contributing to social tensions at a difficult time.

It will also help make Western Europe isolationist and strengthen what is already a dangerous tendency to think of the Continent as a compact market to be defended from competitors based in Asia and the United States. An isolationist Europe led by an inflation-wary Common Market will be a drag on the rapid growth that most of the world will need in the next decades.

American policy must seek two basic objectives: prosperity and growth in the Eastern European countries themselves as they emerge from the shadows of communist rule, and the integration of all European economies into a global economy open to growth.

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It won’t be easy. Western Europe will inevitably play a leading role in shaping the development of its neighbors to the East.

If the United States wants to have an important voice in Eastern European matters, it will have to make major contributions to the Eastern European economies. On his swings through Poland and Hungary, Bush pledged $125 million to promote private enterprise and economic restructuring. The total pledged for both countries comes to 25% of the cost of one Stealth bomber.

Perhaps the next topic for new realism is reassessment: deciding the importance of weapons versus economic diplomacy for the maintenance of world peace and the protection of basic American national interests.


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