Cost of amassing resentments is high

Ambushes in Afghanistan, bombings in Baghdad and troubles elsewhere suggest that U.S. foreign policy these days is more successful at raising resentments than at easing tensions.

A set of principles guided U.S. conduct from World War II until the century’s turn: balance of power, multilateral cooperation, peaceful resolution of disputes, no first use of nuclear explosives, regard for international agreements, respect for national sovereignty and deference to other peoples’ choice of rulers.

The results generally served us well, especially in triumphantly ending a 40-year Cold War without nuclear disaster. By contrast, departure from the code of conduct produced our most conspicuous defeat, in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration is reworking the nation’s former foreign-policy standards, editor John Feffer contends in “Power Trip: U.S. Unilateralism and Global Strategy After September 11.” The Bush team’s goal is “to remake the world in the United States’ image.” In the process, it is recklessly “targeting adversaries, ignoring allies and acting with all the arrogance of a country that believes itself above criticism — a country that is, in short, on a power trip.”

The new pattern: dissolution of treaties, disregard of allies’ interests, armed attacks without proven threat or provocation, threatened pre-emptive strategic use of nuclear weapons. In short, a muscle-flexing unilateralism.

Feffer and 17 contributors describe the foundations, policy documents and geographical nuances of this policy shift, and they sketch profiles of the ideological actors driving it. Arriving 22 months after 9/11, the book rides that shock wave but is not swamped by it. Two years is time enough to ease early-day fears, evaluate initial responses and gain measured perspective of U.S. interests.

But the authors’ chief service lies in their insights regarding risks and vulnerabilities that cling to the aggressive new approach like barnacles to whales:

The tendency to move from problem-solving by cooperation and compromise to problem-solving by proclamation and confrontation marginalizes diplomacy and global institutions. This exasperates countries that must act largely through the United Nations and similar bodies.

The inclination has grown to exaggerate the capabilities of armed force and to underestimate its limitations.

We regularly see evidence that a mighty army can be a clumsy shield against angry citizens’ rocket grenades and truck bombs.

U.S. refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Protocol on global warming casts the nation as rigidly self-serving, unwilling to bind itself, even with exemptions and disclaimers, to globally accepted standards of justice and the common good.

Cumulatively, such blemishes threaten the United States with a backlash of ostracism and isolation — the unwillingness of others to help this country advance its foreign policy because reciprocity is stringently, arrogantly rationed.

This reminds me of George Reedy, who quit as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary rather than lie to the public for him about the Vietnam War.

Reedy’s fine book about that war-era presidency, “The Twilight of the Presidency: An Examination of Power and Isolation in the White House,” is particularly germane now. Johnson, reportedly like George W. Bush, didn’t welcome disagreement. Reedy believed that this trait isolated him, breaking down constructive channels of communication, fostering a capricious use of force, eroding the ability to foster unity and ultimately degrading authority and power.

The people in charge now ought to read both “Power Trip” and “The Twilight of the Presidency.” They could get useful ideas about responding to threats without increasing dangers.

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