The World Casts a Critical Eye on Bush's Style of Diplomacy

Times Staff Writer

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way," George W. Bush said during his 2000 presidential campaign. "But if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us."

Little more than two years later, the world's verdict on President Bush's diplomacy is split -- between critics who see it as arrogant and allies who support its goals but sometimes wonder where the "humble" went.

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and China, all nations Bush hoped to count as allies in the confrontation with Iraq, have joined to resist the president's drive toward war, with complaints over what they see as American highhandedness.

Even staunch allies such as prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain have sent word to Bush that some U.S. bravado -- like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's dismissal of "Old Europe" -- has done more harm than good.

And a few senior Republicans, like Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska, have warned that the Bush administration's take-no-prisoners style risks alienating allies it needs in the long run.

"In an era when allied cooperation is essential in the war against terrorism, we cannot afford to shrug off negative public opinion overseas as uninformed or irrelevant," Lugar said at a hearing last week. "The governments of most nations respond to public opinion, whether it is demonstrated in the voting booths or in the streets."

"The responsibility of leadership is to persuade, not to impugn the motives of those who disagree with you," Hagel said. The administration is "seen as bullying people. You can't do that to democracies. You can't do that to partners and allies. It just isn't going to work."

Bush and his aides, not surprisingly, push back.

"What you have here is a president who is willing to point out what's right and wrong, maybe sometimes undiplomatically," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some administration officials privately acknowledge that the critics may have a point -- at least on the question of style. And Rumsfeld, without acknowledging any error, took pains to soften his acerbic comments on Europe after British officials complained.

But beneath the flap over a few ill-chosen words lie deeper, more difficult questions: Should the world's only superpower adjust its goals and strategies at the behest of weaker allies? And is Bush likely to do so?

When Bush arrived at the White House in 2001, many Europeans assumed that he would turn out, in foreign policy terms, to be his father's son: a cautious consensus-builder with great-power relationships at the center of his strategy.

In retrospect, they may have missed signs that Bush's diplomacy would more closely resemble that of Ronald Reagan: assertive, sometimes impatient with more cautious allies, and prone to divide the world into good and evil camps.

The new president's willingness to override traditional partners surfaced early: Bush surprised his first major foreign visitor, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, by announcing that he did not intend to resume talks with North Korea, discussions that Kim saw as important for his own efforts to open ties with the North.

In short order, the new administration also announced that it intended to withdraw from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming, that it would not agree to a newly completed agreement on biological weapons and that it planned to scrap the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty prohibiting most long-range missile defenses.

None of those decisions was a surprise; all stemmed logically from conservative foreign policy principles that Bush and his aides had outlined in the campaign.

The ABM treaty, for example, would have blocked the missile defense program that was the centerpiece of Bush's military strategy. And the Kyoto treaty had already been dead in the Senate for three years.

Still, many U.S. allies reacted with dismay. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said he believed that the ABM decision was a mistake, but he added that he had little choice but to accept it. On global warming, allies said they hoped the United States would come up with an alternative approach to solving the problem; almost two years later, the administration has yet to do so.

All that was before the Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terrorism -- a global effort that both rallied a vast coalition to Bush's side and gave the president a new sense of mission.

"You've probably learned by now, I don't believe there's many shades of gray in this war," Bush said last year. "You're either with us or against us. You're either evil, or you're good."

That stark battle cry told countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan in 2001 that they had to choose either to help the U.S. hunt down Al Qaeda terrorists or be counted as enemies. But once Bush turned his focus last year to Iraq, the message had a different effect: It told Europeans that they were expected to join the uncompromising U.S. campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or risk being considered "evil."

Most European governments supported the Bush administration's approach, but not all. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, facing a tough reelection campaign, announced that he opposed war on Iraq, period. French President Jacques Chirac objected to Bush's warnings that the U.S. would disarm Iraq with or without the approval of the United Nations, and he waged a tenacious campaign for the U.N. Security Council's authority to block military action.

Most striking, though, was the change in the image of the United States among the European public, from embattled ally to arrogant bully. Across most of the continent, polls find large majorities opposed to a war. In largely friendly Britain, a poll by the Times of London found that respondents were split evenly over who posed the greater danger to world peace, Bush or Hussein.

"This is the product of a long accumulation of problems," Hagel said. "There's a pattern perceived by our allies of straight-out unilateralism on the part of the United States. Maybe it's right, maybe it's wrong. But then comes Iraq, and the president says, 'We're going to do this with you or without you.' And that raised the stakes."

Friction between the United States and Europe isn't new. In 1998, during the Clinton administration, France's foreign minister warned that the United States had become a "hyperpower" that took little advice from its allies.

But where President Clinton and his aides sometimes scrambled to soothe Europeans' bruised dignity -- and agreed for the most part with Europe on issues such as the Kyoto Protocol -- the Bush administration has been more willing to disagree.

Part of the administration's undiplomatic style comes from Bush's fondness for what his Texan aides like to call "plain speaking."

When a reporter asked Rumsfeld last week whether he intended to heed European suggestions that he take a lower profile, the defense secretary replied, "I haven't heard it from the president."

Part of it comes from straightforward policy differences that could no longer be bridged by soothing language, such as the disputes over the Kyoto and ABM treaties.

"In the 1990s, we went around agreeing with everybody, and our foreign policy lost contact with reality," said former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. "This is a reality check. The Bush administration is basically saying, 'Let's base our thinking and our actions on reality.' "

And part stems from a long-running debate within the administration over how far to bend to the wishes of its allies. In one camp, officials say, Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that the U.S. has too often allowed alliances to constrain its freedom of action. In the other camp, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has maintained that making more compromises in the short run is worth it to strengthen alliances in the long run.

That internal debate mirrors the difference between two broad camps in Republican foreign policy thinking: unilateralists, who argue that the United States should be more assertive around the world, and traditionalists, who argue that maintaining strong alliances comes first. Bush has sought to combine both approaches; he often sounds like a unilateralist but insists he is not -- and sometimes makes concessions to the other side.

Powell won last year's battle over going to the Security Council for a resolution on Iraq, which passed in November. But now, in Round 2, it may be the Cheney camp that wins -- if the lesson Bush draws from his collision with France and Germany is that sometimes allies are too much trouble.

"It looks as if Powell has lost this round," one administration advisor said. "When the president saw that the future [in the Security Council] was an endless argument about [weapons] inspections, he said, 'Forget it.' And Powell said, 'Yes, sir.' "

One side effect of the Iraq debate is bitterness among Bush aides about Germany's Schroeder and France's Chirac, especially their brief opposition to allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to prepare defensive measures for Turkey in the event of an Iraq war.

Another is the beginning of a new, more polarized domestic debate over the war, which divides not only Democrats but Republicans as well. Hagel, a conservative, has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Bush policy; the current international coalition supporting the war, he charges, "is not a coalition of the willing; it's a coalition of the bought."

The question for the long run, officials and outside experts say, is whether this winter's bitterness persists, or even deepens, in the months to come.

A few scholars have warned that opposition to war on Iraq could spawn a four-way alliance among France, Germany, Russia and China -- big countries that are nervous about U.S. power.

But most foreign policy experts are skeptical of that scenario.

"They don't have enough common interests to constitute an alliance," said Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor under Bush's father. "But whenever we get kicked in the shins, there will be smiles of satisfaction around the world. It will increase the friction in everything we do."

"Using excessive rhetoric is not cost-free," warned Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former Clinton administration aide.

"I think with a different tone and more attention to the concerns of other countries ... it would have been possible to bring the French along in Iraq and to have more support from South Korea on the North Korea issue," he said.

"Some members of the Bush administration seem to argue that we're so strong, we can do whatever we want and others will fall into line," he said. "The first part of that proposition is correct; we're stronger than anyone since ancient Rome. But the second part doesn't follow. Others won't fall into line."

Shultz, who served as secretary of State under Reagan, defends the Bush administration's tough rhetoric.

"It's not too bad to have a good cop-bad cop routine," he said. "Rumsfeld is out there reminding people of reality. Some people are uncomfortable with that."

But he too argued that alliances need to be nurtured.

"We have to conduct a global diplomacy," he said. "We need a very strong State Department. Colin Powell has been reviving it as an institution by getting it money and respect, and that's good.

"We need to do what I call 'gardening.' We need to tend our relationships."


Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein, Maura Reynolds and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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