Humble Pie

If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us.

--George W. Bush, encapsulating his diplomatic philosophy, October 11, 2000

Bush's America is certainly not more "humble," as the president promised. On the contrary, he has managed to give himself an image as an international "troublemaker" whose main accomplishment has been to launch a wave of uneasiness, perplexity and irritation among allies and adversaries alike.

--Portuguese columnist Teresa de Sousa in Lisbon's Publico, May 2001

The great Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, Jr., once characterized Americans as "loners in the world." The aptness of that description was brought home on May 3, when the United States was voted off the United Nations Human Rights Commission, even as such rampant human rights violators as Sudan and Libya were voted on. The most disturbing element of the whole debacle, as Human Rights Watch's UN representative Joanna Weschler told The New York Times, was not that America's enemies had voted against it, nor even that some of its strategic allies had. No, the real surprise was that some of the United States' friends had taken an active role in booting America off the UNHRC roster.

What happened? Some in Washington attributed the ouster to a desire by the international community to place business concerns over human rights. But it can't be that simple. The United States, after all, though pretty good in the human rights arena, is hardly averse to putting commercial considerations above moral ones. Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, has famously defended his deal making with odious regimes by saying, "The good lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments." It's not as if the United States--ardent promoter of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Area of the Americas--posed much of a threat to commercial imperatives by its presence on the commission.

The official story is that the voting results were an accident: Colin Powell's State Department dozed while votes previously committed to the United States got bartered away. But it may be that willingness to sell out the United States emanated from the world's increasing annoyance at George W. Bush's buffed-up American exceptionalism, which appears to consist primarily of a heavily armed withdrawal from the rest of the world combined with a brazenly cavalier unilateralism when making occasional forays into the international arena.

As Bush dusts off the Reagan cowboy hat, there's a growing consensus among even our historical allies that America's leadership role is neither inevitable nor advisable. If the president doesn't tread more carefully, he'll find himself inflaming old animosities and, worse, instigating new ones. It's one thing to antagonize potential enemies--but do we really want to antagonize our friends?

The best point of departure for exploring this state of affairs is the Bush administration's aggressive (if vaguely formulated) plan for a national missile defense system--a plan that, to become reality, requires either the abrogation or amendment of the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Withdrawing from the ABM treaty, as the administration has proposed, represents a unilateral withdrawal from a whole network of arms-control agreements; indeed, withdrawal could undermine the edifice that arms control is built on. As early as 1999, Britain's Economist was anticipating such high-handedness from Bush and pointedly noted that if an "armor-plated" America "thinks it can behave without constraints in the world, how is it to persuade other states that they should accept constraints themselves?" The answer, as one foreign diplomat based in Washington told me, initially seemed to be "Persuading? We don't need to do no stinkin' persuading."

While there is a common view that the Cold War–era ABM treaty is dated, the Europeans--who for decades have lived the closest to the Russian nuclear threat--were not thrilled to learn from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the United States would withdraw from such an important treaty with hardly so much as a cursory consultation with their cross-Atlantic neighbors. Some Europeans react to these developments with surly growls and gnashed teeth; The New York Times has taken to regularly reporting the indignant headlines of foreign newspapers, and even the normally steadfast British are lukewarm. Other Europeans look at Bush's missile defense obsession with a more bemused indulgence. "My government is concerned, but I keep telling them not to worry," a European defense attaché told me, "because if anyone thinks you guys can afford both that huge tax cut and a missile defense system, they're in dreamland."

In Asia, concerns about abrogating the ABM treaty are more urgent; a U.S. missile defense system will likely spur the Chinese into an arms buildup that will then spread to India and Pakistan. Currently impoverished North Korea, it is true, does not look like much of a threat, nuclear or otherwise. But if that's the case, the Bush administration's argument for missile defense--built around the notion that North Korea is a dangerous rogue nation with nuclear capability--evaporates. (Hence the more recent emphasis on North Korea's threat as a missile exporter to other "rogue states.") In any event, the last thing Nobel Peace Prize–winner and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung wants to see is a new Asian arms race. In February, Kim signed an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, supporting the continuance of the ABM treaty.

Kim apparently thought his years of struggle against a military dictatorship in the service of making South Korea an actual democracy might, along with his Nobel-winning reconciliation efforts with North Korea, command some respect from Bush. No such luck. Instead, President Bush publicly humiliated Kim for not supporting missile defense and pulled the United States out of ongoing disarmament-and-peace efforts in Korea--a damning thing to do to the leader of a country that places a high value on saving face and whose democracy is still fragile. Indeed, Bush's treatment of Kim contributed to Kim's party being routed in an early May regional election.

In the wake of the U.S. freeze-out of South Korea, it was left to the European Union (EU) to dispatch a high-level team to Pyongyang and strongly reassert its commitment to the peace process. "I have to say," remarks a longtime senior Pentagon official, "while the EU has its own relationship with the North Koreans, you usually don't think of the EU as playing a major role in regional Asian security affairs." But it may be that the European Union will move to fill the vacuum in places that the United States abandons, diminishing this country's moral and practical claim to involvement in the region.

The EU countries--not to mention half a dozen Latin American countries--are also unhappy with the U.S. approach to Colombia (a policy, in fairness to Bush, that was established initially under President Bill Clinton). In 1999 the United States and Colombia launched what was supposed to be a large-scale civil and economic plan, Plan Colombia, meant to rein in Colombia's drug-financed civil war. But what started out as a homegrown socioeconomic development effort was quickly hijacked by the United States, whose politicians have used it to posture righteously against the menace of drugs by giving Colombia's army $1.3 billion in military aid. Financing this militaristic antidrug effort has antagonized Colombia's neighbors.

As Plan Colombia was devised, the United States neglected to touch base with Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, or Panama, all of which were concerned about Colombia's war spilling over their borders. To these countries, $1.3 billion in largely military aid was less likely to increase stability than to escalate the war. Some interested observers hoped that Secretary of State Colin Powell would bring some sanity to the United States' Colombia policy. Instead, Powell announced on March 13 that Plan Colombia was to expand into the "Andean Regional Initiative" with an additional $730 million for Colombia and its neighbors so that, as Powell said, "we take into account some of the spillover that could occur."

The European Union was keen to support Plan Colombia in its early stages, because it was designed to address the root causes of Colombia's unrest by reconnecting the people with their government. But according to Sanho Tree, director of the drug-policy project at the Institute for Policy Studies, the drug-obsessed United States simply failed to grasp that. "Everyone but the United States gets that the social origins of the civil war are not being addressed by Plan Colombia," Tree says.

The European Union's Parliament agrees: In early February, the body voted 474 to 1 to condemn Plan Colombia. "The Europeans were prepared to give a staggering amount of social and economic assistance to Colombia," says Tree, "which would have addressed some of the root causes of the civil war and drug economy. But our $1.3 billion of militarized-drug-war aid sent them packing in disgust."

There are signs that the Bush administration is belatedly realizing the value of consultation with allies. A team of senior officials has been dispatched to Europe to discuss missile matters with allies. And after months of letting Rumsfeld snarl at the Russians and Chinese, Bush regained some goodwill with the Kremlin by talking with Putin before his missile defense speech on May 1. The allies are, nonetheless, still concerned. While most in Washington's consular community were impressed with how General Powell, in particular, handled the downed-spy-plane incident, a low-grade anxiety remains about the shift in approach to China.

There is also a sense of lingering vexation over the abrupt announcement by Bush ("the toxic Texan" or "the pollution president," as he has come to be known in some European publications) that the United States--responsible for one-quarter of the earth's carbon dioxide emissions--wants no part of the Kyoto Protocol designed to limit greenhouse gases. As one diplomat says: "It seems to reflect a lack of knowledge or appreciation on the part of the administration that the Green parties of Europe have a place at the political table, and that they do for a reason--people care about these issues--and that they have to be handled across borders." (Indeed, when pressured to approve plans for building a new power plant that would violate Kyoto, Norway's coalition government actually resigned rather than be party to a violation of the protocol.)

Finally, though domestic press coverage of the United States' exile from the UN Human Rights Commission mentioned it only in passing, the U.S. expulsion had a lot more to do with America's support for Israel than the Bush administration cares to admit. Over the four years that former Irish President Mary Robinson served as UN high commissioner for human rights, she has come to earn the respect of even her adversaries by fairly describing ugly situations from Moscow to Congo to Beijing. But when investigating human rights violations in the occupied territories of Palestine, Robinson met with active resistance and derision from the United States, which slammed her for concluding that Israel has used disproportionate force against the Palestinians. On March 19, citing dissatisfaction with her office's budget--but also, according to diplomatic sources, tired of the United States' provision of political cover for Israel--Robinson announced her resignation.

Subsequently, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and scores of world leaders prevailed on Robinson to rescind her resignation (with France offering to boost her office's budget). But between France's pro-Arab stance and widespread resentment over Robinson's shoddy treatment at the hands of U.S. diplomats, it's hardly surprising that the United States lost some votes on May 3 (especially given that much of the world is less friendly to Israel than the United States is: On April 6, the Human Rights Commission voted 48 to 2, with only the United States and Guatemala opposing, for a resolution supporting the establishment of an independent Palestinian state). Given the United States' long-standing promotion of human rights worldwide (a reputation that is acknowledged by even such occasional critics of the United States as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International), its being voted off the commission is an embarrassment and a blow to the cause of human rights. Perhaps if the Bush administration hadn't pursued such a clumsy "loners in the world" foreign policy, this travesty could have been avoided.