Policeman's Lot Is Not a Happy One
When the US acts unilaterally, as in Iraq, even allies may wince
WASHINGTON — This year many American actions in the world have illustrated a first principle of geopolitics: When you're the globe's policeman, you can swing your billy club as you see fit - but your friends and neighbors won't always be happy about it.
Last week's cruise-missile attacks on Iraq are only the latest in a string of US foreign policy decisions that have been met with a decidedly mixed response from other nations. In February, even Canada was perturbed when President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill, which aims to punish foreign firms that do business with Cuba. The unsubtle American campaign to block United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali from a second term has further irritated a number of American allies, particularly those in the third world.
This doesn't mean the United States has no friends who support it virtually unasked. Britain - and to a certain extent Germany and Japan - supports the bulk of Washington's foreign policy agenda, including missile strikes meant to contain Saddam Hussein.
It does mean that US moves often look different outside its borders. Other nations have their own interests and public opinion to consider. That can lead to disagreement over police actions, even with such historic allies as France.
There's been much grumbling in Paris and other Western capitals, for instance, that many recent US moves have been driven as much by domestic politics as by the geo-variety. Diplomats claim that Clinton support for the Helms-Burton Act stems at least partly from the need to court the virulently anti-Castro Cuban-American vote in Florida. Nor has any president ever dropped in the polls by getting tough with Saddam Hussein.
Domestic politics isn't something limited to the US, however. France, for its part, wants to position itself to win oil and weapons contracts with Iraq when UN sanctions against Baghdad are lifted.
It isn't likely that unrest over individual US policies is threatening the overall cohesion of what's still called the Western alliance. But snapshots of opinion from other nations present a complex picture of the way US unilateral actions are affecting the rest of the world:
French pursue independent aims
France's refusal to endorse Washington's latest round of air attacks on Iraq was carefully calibrated to do minimal damage to French Atlantic ties, while bolstering France's bid to be a key player in Mideast diplomacy and markets.
In the hours after the first US attacks Sept. 3, French officials expressed "concerns over the evolution of the situation," but carefully avoided explicit criticism of US actions.
Following a visit by American Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Paris Sept. 5, France said it would continue to participate in surveillance operations south of the 32nd parallel, that is to the limits of the UN-mandated no-fly zone. On Sept. 3, the US unilaterally extended the no-fly zone to the 33rd parallel, a decision that France refused to endorse.
"France now thinks there are opportunities in the region at a time when Arabs are frustrated by Israel's new government. It is also eager to boost economic relations with the Arab world at a time when competition with the US is tough and markets are shrinking," says Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.
France was Iraq's leading arms supplier before the Gulf war and is Iraq's biggest creditor, with some $4 billion in Iraqi debt. In recent months, French businessmen have stepped up visits to Baghdad in search of contracts in antici- pation of the lifting of the UN embargo on Iraqi oil sales.
Britain stands by the US
Britain has isolated itself from its other allies by supporting US policy toward Iraq, but Prime Minister John Major is far from unhappy about standing virtually alone on the issue in Europe - and being seen to do so.
He insisted that backing for the US attacks was wholly justified by Saddam Hussein's actions in Kurdish areas of Iraq. And Mr. Major calculated that there were domestic political gains to be made from striking out on a line different from others' foreign policy.
Labour leader Tony Blair, anticipating victory at the coming general election, is going out of his way to forge close ties with Clinton and his advisers. His shadow defense secretary, David Clark, who otherwise might have been tempted to assail the government for taking a tack different from other EU states, moved in firmly behind Major and his support for Clinton as the cruise missiles began landing in Iraq.
Germany 'understands' the US
If the term "special relationship" weren't already in use to describe the ties between the US and Britain, it might be co-opted to apply to German-American relations.Germany tends to be supportive of the American role in the world, or at least to avoid making noisy complaints when the US acts unilaterally.
German gratitude for American help in the immediate postwar period remains an element of the German-American relationship. In 1990, Germans appreciated the unequivocal support for reunification they got from the US at a time when the British and French hesitated.
But German-American relations are not always a love fest. Indeed, now that reunification has been achieved, Germans have been more willing to strike out on their own, in direct opposition to American policy. Germany has been a leading proponent of the European Union's "critical dialogue" with Iran, intended to build trade and improve human rights there.
The Germans can make subtle distinctions, too. Bonn's response to the US attacks on Iraq in recent days is a good example. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, speaking of the strikes, has said carefully that he has "full understanding" for the US actions. "Understanding" is not quite the same as "assent" or "agreement."
"There's no doubt Germany has taken a position in between" the more supportive British and the French, who have been quite outspoken in their opposition, says Eckhard Lbkemeier, director of the department of foreign policy research at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bonn, a think tank allied with the opposition Social Democrats.
Japan: more consultation, please
Generally speaking, the Japanese reaction to the Iraq missile strikes was tepid, with some observers questioning their legitimacy under UN resolutions and bemoaning the use in the attack of warships normally based in Japan.
The lack of consultation with allies, says Masashi Nishihara, a research director at the government-backed National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo, was due to the presidential campaign. Without decisive action from Clinton, says Mr. Nishihara, "Dole would have attacked him."
More consultation, had there been time, might well have produced more support, in Nishihara's view. As it was, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto spoke up, albeit in a lukewarm manner, in favor of the strikes.
"It's nice to see that the US is still ready to take bold action," says Seizaburo Sato of Tokyo's Institute for International Policy Studies, because it shows that "the US is still a very reliable ally."
Professor Sato says comparisons to the Gulf war coalition fashioned by then President Bush are unfair, since the invasion of Kuwait was a step that many countries saw as a threat. Under similar circumstances, he says, Clinton could forge as broad a coalition. "I think the US can lead global opinion."
Russian interests ignored
If one thing angered Moscow more than anything else about the American missile strikes on Iraq, it was the way in which Washington's actions took no account of Russian interests. And there was nothing the Kremlin could do about it.
It is hard to be sidelined when you used to be a superpower, and Russian criticism of US policy is often tinged with more than a hint of frustration.
The case of Iraq is a perfect illustration. In 1991, Moscow went along with the US-led coalition's war against Saddam Hussein, an old Soviet ally. But Russia has $7 billion worth of debt tied up in Baghdad, and Moscow has long been arguing for a relaxation of the United Nations embargo against Iraq that would allow the Iraqis to earn the money they need to repay that debt.
The missile strikes made the prospect of an end to sanctions even more distant, deflating Russia's economic hopes. "Tomahawks Strike at Russian Interests" was the headline in Komersant, the leading business daily here.
Yevgeny Kozhokhin, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, acknowledge that "it is very difficult to be the sole superpower. In the new role, some mistakes are inevitable."
Even Saudi Arabia is lukewarm
Few members of the Western-Arab coalition that had been painstakingly pieced together in 1990-1991 Gulf war by President Bush to roll back Iraq's occupation of Kuwait have backed the latest US response against Saddam.
The difference between the Gulf campaign and the current crisis in Iraq underscores how American influence in the region has fluctuated.
In 1990, the US could muster an alliance of more than 40 armies that included Syria, a nation still on the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. But last week even Saudi Arabia, which served as the allied base for the Gulf war and has benefited most from the US decision to strike Iraqi defense systems in southern Iraq, gave a lukewarm response.
But the message from American allies was clear: The coalition exists only on a case-by-case basis, and in this case the US was on its own.
Cuba law irks Mexico, others
From Latin America to Europe, US trading partners are showing little interest in heeding the US call to turn the heat up on Fidel Castro's dictatorship via the Helms-Burton law that targets foreign investors in Cuba. In Mexico and Canada and Europe recently, Clinton's special envoy on Cuba, Commerce Undersecretary Stuart Eizenstadt, touted an anti-Castro line but only heard repeats of the international community's rejection of Helms-Burton in response.
As Mr. Eizenstadt's visit to Mexico demonstrated, the issue for US trading partners is not as much Cuba as it is a US law they consider a violation of international trading principles and a sign of a US desire for hegemony over international trade.
*Monitor writers Gail Chaddock in Paris, Alexander MacLeod in London, Ruth Walker in Bonn, Cameron Barr in Tokyo, Peter Ford in Moscow, Howard LaFranchi in Mexico City, and Scott Peterson in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.