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U.S. Quietly Redefining World Role : Transition: Bush’s emerging policy mandates less involvement, or even no involvement, where the U.S. once intervened, a Pentagon strategist says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bush Administration foreign policy strategists, seeking to redefine America’s priorities in a post-Cold War world, are quietly streamlining U.S. involvement in--or withdrawing altogether from--areas where Washington once expended considerable influence and money.

The process, called “prioritization” by one senior strategist, is among the key assignments facing policy planning staffs at the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council, Administration sources say.

In contrast to the Administration’s patchwork response to many international crises since the advent of the “new world order” almost two years ago, the new approach represents the first real effort to establish clear criteria to guide future foreign policy decisions.

The emerging theme of the new strategy is “selective engagement"--a distinct break from the interventionist American policy of containment pursued over the past 40 years in an effort to block Communist expansion. It also is a departure from the American policy of “constructive engagement” employed in various international crises of the past decade.

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“The policy of containment meant involvement everywhere,” one Pentagon strategist said. “With no need for containment, we can become more selective. Places where U.S. policy played a role in the past will simply not get much attention in the future.”

The Pentagon official said the new strategy is bound to be “tough” and “controversial” because it mandates less--and in some cases no--American involvement in countries or regions where the United States previously has intervened.

While the United States continues to play a leadership role in important geo-strategic areas, such as the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the new strategy already is reflected in a significant reduction in American commitments around the world.

And experts say it contrasts sharply with the two foreign policy “triumphs” that heralded the emergence last year of American preeminence in global affairs--Operation Desert Storm and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The American role in the Yugoslav crisis is one example. Despite a 1990 CIA report predicting Yugoslavia’s demise, the White House continued to back territorial integrity rather than self-determination. As Yugoslavia proceeded to disintegrate, the Administration opted to let the European Community take the lead in responding to the worst violence on the Continent since World War II.

When the EC moved to recognize Croatia and Slovenia in 1991, the United States delayed making its own decision until 1992. And while Washington is partially credited with preparing the way for U.N. sanctions against Serbia last month, the move came only after Europe failed to act to end the bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The American intervention was both reluctant and belated, a role reflecting the minimalist approach being adopted in Washington, several private U.S. analysts say.

The new approach was officially reflected in a dramatic reversal of the Pentagon’s vision of future U.S. foreign policy. The first version of a classified Pentagon planning document for 1994-99, leaked earlier this year, advocated a single-superpower world and an activist role for the United States in containing potential rivals--even current allies in Europe and Asia.

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In stark contrast, a revised version of the document, leaked last month, stresses collective action and implicitly calls for a lower American profile worldwide, saying: “The United States remains a nation with global interests, but we must re-examine in light of the new defense strategy whether and to what extent particular challenges engage our interests.”

While the “new world order” has been widely interpreted as calling for collective action, several recent crises ended up in the hands of the United Nations or other international organizations, primarily because they did not engage U.S. interests. America’s unwillingness or inability to forge a consensus in these situations is a departure from Washington’s direct leadership role in the U.N.-sanctioned Gulf War coalition.

The gradual shift has become even more visible in several parts of the world where the United States has either opted for others to take the lead or limited its involvement in recent months.

While U.S. action--or inaction--in such cases may reflect the rush of events or the complexity of specific crises, analysts say a clear pattern is emerging.

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The Administration deferred to the Organization of American States when democracy was suspended in Haiti and Peru. When multilateral efforts failed to set things right, Washington opted to prevent fleeing Haitians from seeking refuge at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and to withdraw U.S. counter-narcotics teams from Peru, the main grower of the raw material for cocaine consumed in the United States.

In Thailand, Washington cut off economic aid last year after a military coup but largely left it to Japan, the regional power, to resolve the political crisis. Although Tokyo seemingly accomplished little, the Pentagon did not move to cancel joint maneuvers with the Thai armed forces until pro-democracy demonstrations became violent last month.

In several other countries facing crucial turning points--ranging from Afghanistan to Zaire--the United States is backing away from its past intervention or dominant influence.

In Afghanistan, U.S. analysts are suggesting that Washington play a negligible role in the transition to post-Communist rule following the April ouster of President Najibullah. Although Washington spent billions of dollars arming, training and supporting the moujahedeen resistance during 13 years of guerrilla war, U.S. postwar aid is likely to be limited to supplying humanitarian aid and technical experts to clear mine fields and unexploded ordnance, State Department officials say.

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In Zaire, Washington is “on the sidelines” in efforts to break the stalemate between pro-democracy groups and President Mobutu Sese Seko, according to one U.S. official. Although the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1970s and 1980s to aid Zaire--and, through Zaire, to influence events throughout southern Africa--U.S. military aid was suspended in 1990 and economic aid was halted last year. Washington’s involvement now is limited to offering “advice,” the official said.

Similarly, the United States has largely withdrawn from Somalia, for years a key Cold War ally in Africa’s eastern Horn, and in Liberia, the West African state founded by freed American slaves. When both began to disintegrate in 1990, U.S. Marines evacuated diplomatic personnel, doing so in Somalia less than a year after a new $50-million U.S. Embassy was built. Since then, Washington has deferred to African and U.N. organizations to try to end civil warfare in the two countries.

Even the U.S. call for sanctions against Serbia came only after the foreign minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina came to Washington last month to warn that his country was becoming a “slaughterhouse.”

Despite the carnage, the Administration deferred to the United Nations. Explaining the move, a State Department spokeswoman said the United States is prepared to be a world policeman only where its vital interests are at stake.

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Although foreign policy experts agree that the United States is clearly pulling back from many parts of the world, they differ in their assessments of whether it is taking the right course.

“It’s an irony. At the end of the century, we’re living in a world that mirrors the American vision--reduced trade barriers, self-determination for peoples, proliferating freedoms, all the things spelled out by Woodrow Wilson in his ‘Fourteen Points’ in 1918. The American vision has come true, and yet the United States is absent from the world,” said a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The senator said that even on high-profile issues, the United States is not providing the leadership needed to produce significant results. Eight months after the opening fanfare of the U.S.-orchestrated Middle East peace conference in Madrid, the Arab-Israeli talks are still centered more on procedures than on substance. U.S. aid to the republics of the former Soviet Union so far has been limited to token bilateral aid and support of the republics’ membership in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Others think a selective U.S. withdrawal is a rational response to the collapse of communism and will not damage American interests.

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“It’s inevitable. In the absence of a global threat, democracies do not respond well to a patchwork quilt of regional threats,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a National Security Council staffer during the Reagan Administration who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Aside from issues in our own back yard, our primary interests can now be narrowly defined along a fault line through the Eurasian landmass--an arc from Berlin to Beijing, via Baghdad and the Balkans,” Kemp said. “That’s the only area where we’ll have vital interests and not be able to wash our hands.”

Still others think that short-term caution should be matched by an urgent long-term re-evaluation, during which political and economic relationships are specifically redefined and international institutions restructured.

“We’re being very passive. In order to respond effectively, the United States has to have a more fundamental change in policy than we’re willing to contemplate,” said John D. Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

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At the moment, he said, the United States is addressing pieces of “a larger whole with some seriousness” but without trying to determine what the whole should look like. “We’re fumbling,” he said. “To deal with Yugoslavia, for example, we must first face another question--how the international community is to be organized. Without a strong U.S. initiative, no one will think in these terms.”

Indeed, the biggest problem affecting the new U.S. strategy is that other world powers are not offering much vision or leadership in the post-Cold War era unless prodded, analysts said.

Operation Desert Storm was hailed for its examples of positive new approaches to international affairs: “collective security,” “multilateralism” and “power-sharing.” But those concepts have not been as effective in subsequent crises. As a result, something like a vacuum has been created, tending to pull the United States back into a role it apparently does not, at the moment, want to play.

“We’ve retreated from regional issues like Latin and Central America, which were the centerpieces of foreign policy in the Reagan years. But we’ve also failed to address multilateral global issues that are likely to dominate into the next century,” said Peter Galbraith, a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “On collective security, we’re marginal players. We’re laggards on the environment. And we’re obstacles on population issues.”

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Defending the new approach, the Pentagon strategist said that America’s long-term goal is to gradually extend the “zone of peace” in North America, Europe and Japan--prosperous, free and democratic areas where war is “unthinkable"--to other regions and eventually the world.

“Our focus now is to redirect our energies to shore up that zone rather than to fight wars on the periphery. We want to help stabilize other regions so they can join,” he said.

Some American analysts are dubious, however, about the potential to address broad long-range themes without first defusing the world’s immediate crises. “We aren’t going to be able to avoid engagement, like it or not,” Steinbruner said. “We don’t have policies commensurate with the problems. But if the United States doesn’t get involved, very little is going to get done.”


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