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Firsthand look at pulls and pushes of diplomacy

By Lucia Mouat / October 7, 1988


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Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 226 pp. $25, cloth; $9.95, paper

AMERICANS who think of the United States as a generous and peace-loving nation of noble motives wonder why other nations do not always see it in the same light. Why are supporters of US foreign policy often so hard to find? In this compact chronicle of the democratic pulls and pushes that make the American diplomat's job both fascinating and trying, David Newsom suggests some thought-provoking answers.

Drawing on four decades of diplomatic experience, Newsom says the lack of more global support for the US and its policies is due in large part to America's failure to listen to others' views.

He zeroes in on Americans' desire to be No. 1 and the difficulty many Americans have in viewing other nations as equals. A tendency to personalize governments and leaders leads to a view of the world related by friendships rather than interests. Neutrality, which for many new nations is a way to avoid being caught in the superpower struggle, is not a concept with which many Americans are comfortable.

At home, US strength is seen largely in military terms, with quick action being the best way to resolve most problems. Assertive nationalists, Newsom says, predominate over cautious internationalists. Much in US foreign policy is designed to satisfy national impulses; rarely does the way a policy will be perceived abroad become an important factor in its development. The US says it wants a democratic world but tends to get along better with authoritarian countries less likely to challenge US assumptions, says Newsom.

Outside the US, the author says, Washington is seen as obsessed with the Soviet threat. Americans are often viewed as aggressive, trigger happy, and involved in regions where their nation's interest is not obvious. Much of the problem, Newsom concedes is the frequently large gap between what the US says and does. Washington's much-touted generosity in foreign aid, for instance, is only 13th in the world on a per capita basis.

Certainly an exaggerated view in many overseas nations of the US ability to influence what happens inside their borders and a widespread paranoia about what the Central Intelligence Agency is actually up to also figure in the mix. Many third-world leaders have taken to heart the writings of Thomas Jefferson and the US experience with the Marshall Plan. Newsom once heard a Kurdish tribesman in northern Iraq recite Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, supporting self-determination, and ask why the US has not supported an independent Kurdish nation.

Newsom's primary message is the importance of trying to see ourselves as others do. Yet it is by no means the whole of the book. Written in the crisp, readable prose one would expect of a former newspaperman and rich with anecdotes, the book focuses on the political and technological changes under way since World War II and the complex challenge they pose for American diplomacy.