Making Trade-Offs Is Foreign Policy's Art

By , former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes from Washington.

THE art of making foreign policy in the United States is in balancing a series of trade-offs. Where to strike that balance is one of the main points of friction in the eternal struggle between Congress and the president.

Generally speaking, Congress wants to get more and give less. In the view from Capitol Hill, the president usually lacks toughness in dealing with foreigners. In the view from the White House, Congress does not understand what the president is up against and is unreasonable in its demands. This friction can be positive when the president uses congressional demands as leverage in diplomatic negotiations. He can say to a foreign leader, ``I know this is too much, but Congress is making me do it.''

That tactic worked in the 1940s when Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg insisted that, for the United Nations' own good, no country should contribute more than one-third of the UN budget. The Truman administration resisted mightily, but finally yielded. The UN accepted the ceiling, and the principle was established. The United States contribution has since been further reduced.

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Would a similar ploy work in the 1990s when Congress complains about the costs of UN peacekeeping? Congress is full of so many other complaints about the UN that this one might not be taken seriously. Congress should not cut off money if it sees the larger question: Would we rather have other people help us in our international endeavors, ineffective though they might sometimes be, or would we rather try to do it all ourselves?

Some act as though the US will accept help only on its terms, disregarding the views of those who help it. Congress thinks it's OK for foreign troops to serve under a US-commanded UN force. But heaven forbid we put US troops under foreign command.

We thought the UN was great when it responded to our pleas for help in the Persian Gulf. We are happy to have it take over from us in Haiti. We are not happy with it in Bosnia or Somalia or Rwanda, where our own participation has been minimal. But we can hardly have it both ways. As the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R) of Illinois used to say, ``The hair comes with the hide.''

Or consider the case of Mexico. To a good many people on Capitol Hill, the proposals to help Mexico weather its economic crisis looked as though the White House was simply shielding Mexico from the consequences of its own misguided policies. If we are going to be a soft touch, they said, then we ought to insist that Mexico tighten controls on the environment or improve labor conditions or control illegal immigration to the US.

Mexico's economy is a warning sign for US

In Mexico, this is seen as an infringement of sovereignty and an affront to Mexican pride. On the point of immigration, Mexican law guarantees the right of Mexican citizens freely to leave and enter their country. If their economy collapses, the wave of migration northward will dwarf anything seen heretofore.

The root cause of the Mexican crisis is that Mexico's foreign trade has been badly out of balance. Mexico has been importing too much and exporting too little, living beyond its means.

The US also has its foreign trade badly out of balance, for the same reasons that apply in Mexico. We have not had a Mexican-type crisis yet because we are bigger and richer and our trade deficit is not as large as Mexico's relative to gross national product. But the parallel is close enough that we have no grounds to be smug in advising other people. On the contrary, we ought to see the Mexican case as a warning to clean up our own act.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about where to strike the balance in trading off foreign-policy choices. Go too far in one direction and we look like Uncle Sucker. Go too far in the other, and we end up with nothing because we tried to get too much. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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