President Bush, in his first speech on American foreign policy in some time, told U.S. Naval Academy graduates Wednesday that new threats to world peace are emerging, and "we must guard against those who would turn the noble impulse of nationalism to negative ends."
Bush's remarks underscored the grim failure of the international community to counter the ethnic bloodshed in Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet realm.
The remarks also marked the first time in weeks that he has emphasized global relations instead of domestic matters, which have been high on his public agenda since the Los Angeles riots.
With 1,010 Annapolis graduates clad in white tunics assembled before him, the setting spotlighted Bush as U.S. commander in chief-- a role that brought him sky-high popularity ratings after the Persian Gulf War before they plummeted during the recession, and a role his advisers would like him to project in the coming presidential campaign.
Bush also used the academy's 142nd commencement to seek support for a program of international assistance to the former Soviet Union. He said the U.S. share of the $24-billion program is only "a fraction of the $4 trillion" spent on winning the Cold War. He called for continued nuclear deterrence, the forward deployment of forces near potential sites of combat and the maintenance of rapidly deployable units.
Bush spoke at the academy at the start of a day that took him in the evening to Marietta, Ga., for an appearance before children at the Mt. Paran Christian School and a campaign fund-raising dinner.
By warning Naval Academy graduates of the dangers of nationalism gone awry, Bush drew attention to the turmoil and deep ethnic hatreds in the six republics that once made up Yugoslavia and to the conflicts flaring between Armenia and Azerbaijan and among other ethnic groups in the former Soviet empire.
Such warfare, he said, exemplifies the emerging shape of the world in the years after the fall of communism, as old threats recede only to be replaced by new ones.
"You take up your watch at a watershed moment," Bush told the graduates moments before they accepted their commissions as Navy ensigns and Marine Corps second lieutenants.
"Today, the dominoes fall in democracy's direction," he said, citing the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the subsequent dismantling of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union.
The threat of a "lightning strike" across Europe has vanished, he said, and the threat of nuclear war "is more distant than at any time in the past four decades."
But, Bush said, "with the end of the East-West standoff, ideology has given way to ethnicity as a key factor for conflict. Ancient hatred, ethnic rivalries frozen in time, threaten to revive themselves and to reignite."
Bush's rare public pitch for aid to the former Soviet republics came at a time when domestic needs are dominating the political agenda and members of both parties are balking at providing massive assistance overseas.
The Office of Management and Budget said the aid package would cost the United States $480 million for food, medicine and technological advice, although it includes an additional $6 billion in already allotted U.S. guarantees of International Monetary Fund loans.
"For all that we must do and will do to open new opportunities to every American here at home, we cannot fail in this critical mission," Bush said.
"Whether the lands of the old Soviet empire move forward into democracy or slide back into anarchy or authoritarianism, the outcome of this great transition will affect everything, from the amount of resources government must devote to defense instead of domestic needs, to a future for our children free from fear."
After the ceremony, Bush, a Navy pilot during World War II, was presented with a Navy varsity letter sweater, bearing a star to signify the Annapolis victory over West Point in last year's Army-Navy football game.
Bush responded with a terse but enthusiastic: "Awright!"