A President's Soft Power

Call it the attention gap.

More countries than ever watched the US presidential contest with some anxiety. Yet global issues barely got a peep from the candidates during the campaign.

That gap won't last for long. As Bill Clinton discovered - and the new president-elect will, too - foreign affairs is a rhinoceros in the Oval Office. It can't be ignored.

The next president will enter the White House with no clear mandate on foreign policy from this campaign battle. Domestic issues dominated the stump, while ironically, President Clinton's primary focus during the year was on foreign issues.

And despite Mr. Clinton's intention to focus on social reforms, he leaves office on Jan. 20 with fewer domestic than international achievements.

As a military and economic giant, the United States can't afford a long learning curve for its new president. He must quickly grab the reins of every global trend and trouble spot and steer them carefully.

What should his main theme be? Here's a big one learned during the decade since the end of the cold war: Talk softly and carry a soft big stick.

The No. 1 threat to the world's only superpower is that it can easily create threats to itself by being a bully - or being seen as one.

Resentments will build up quickly if behemoth America fails to consider other nation's interests. Leadership requires listening. Exercising power in this more-complex world first takes the earning of authority.

Rather than throw its economic and military weight around solo, the US needs to develop more alliances beyond its cold-war partners in Europe and Asia. China and Russia, especially, must slowly be weaned from their fear that the US will encircle rather than embrace them.

The need for alliances was learned in the Gulf War, Haiti invasion, and lately in Kosovo and East Timor. Tackling the world's hot spots will require the US to share risks under joint leadership. It can let regional problems be solved by regional powers.

In the Middle East, US interests are diverse, from Israel to oil, and need better statecraft to win over Islamic and Arab nations before the region's terrorism spreads to US shores.

Alliance-building is also necessary on softer issues, such as paying dues to the United Nations, setting up an international war-crimes court, and preventing global warming.

The US must avoid the arrogance of imposing its economic model too quickly on other countries. Many of its solutions for the 1997 Asia financial crisis now seem heavy-handed. And it should be wary of imposing high US standards, such as those related to labor and the environment, in free-trade deals with countries at lower levels of development.

The values of the US naturally attract friends and imitators. They rarely need to be imposed. The new president must integrate the US and others into an evolving system of global pacts on arms, trade, and other matters that reflect those values.

Then a US presidential race won't be as nail-bitting for other nations.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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