Under Bush, a flintier view of the world

Goal of 'containing' threats appears to take priority over settling world's conflicts.

First President Bush told South Korea's visiting leader to be wary in his talks with Communist North Korea.

Now, with China's vice premier in town, Mr. Bush's administration has downgraded Beijing from a "strategic partner" to half-threat-half-partner status - and may anger China by selling high-tech weapons to Taiwan.

In the Mideast, the Bush team has shifted American priorities away from nurturing Israeli-Palestinian peace - and toward isolating Iraq, which it sees as the real danger to US interests.

And a missile-defense system is a top Bush priority - whether other nations like it or not.

With each foreign dignitary who comes to Washington seeking audience with America's new president, the fledgling administration's foreign-policy outlook is becoming clearer. What's emerging is a watch-your-back view of the world, where caution and skepticism are key, where America's "national interests" are more narrowly defined, and where Reaganesque "evil empires" abound.

"There are hints that in a handful of important trouble spots, the Bush team could pursue a quite different policy" than its predecessor, says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. In general, Republicans' "basic impulse," he says, appears to be to "compete with and try to contain" foreign powers - rather than to cooperate and negotiate.

For some Republicans, this hard-nosed, more-realpolitik approach makes sense in the new age of global power politics.

"The post-cold-war era - where the US was the sole major power in the world - is over," says Tom Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford's neo-conservative Hoover Institution. "Now we're emerging into a world where we have several strategic powers jockeying to assert themselves."

He says a "more-assertive Russia is trying to compensate for its weakness by selling arms to places like Iran" while a "more-assertive China is playing up nationalism, and India is taking a more high-profile international stance." Even Europe is "stirring" by starting to form a common defense force. All this is occurring while "there are no major humanitarian-type crises out there."

It's in this setting that the Bush team has mounted the world stage.

In yesterday's Oval Office meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, Bush was expected to discuss the sticky issue of arms sales to Taiwan.

It's on this matter that the Bush team may early set its foreign-policy tone. By law, the US must sell arms to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. But the question for Bush is: What kind of weapons?

If he chooses to sell Aegis-class destroyer ships, which could detect incoming missiles from China, it will send a distinctly hard-line message to Beijing for all the world to see. A decision is expected next month.

Already, administration officials have signaled a cooler attitude toward the Asian behemoth. "We're looking for a dialogue with China - but not a strategic dialogue in the sense of a grand global alliance," says a senior administration official.

Meanwhile, although the Bush team has yet to fully engage Moscow, the State Department's planned expulsion of as many as 50 Russian diplomats is a tough-as-nails signal - and comes amid signs of a tenser relationship.

The expulsion order is a response to the arrest of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen on charges of spying for Russia - and is apparently the biggest ejection since 1986. Also, top US officials have begun complaining publicly about Russian arms sales to nations such as Iran.

On the Mideast, Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week the US will "assist" but not "insist" on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

As Bush met with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon this week, he also halted the CIA's long-time efforts to mediate between Palestinian and Israeli security forces, despite Palestinian requests for the help to continue.

To be sure, the Bush crew's outlook is not fully defined. And there are competing inclinations on the team.

During Mr. Powell's Mideast trip, for instance, he touted "smart sanctions" as the way to re-cement international consensus on isolating Iraq. But hawkish members of the Bush team squashed the idea.

The world isn't an entirely scary place for the new administration. Bush, a staunch booster of global trade, is asking Congress for fast-track negotiating power to expand trade. And the powerful business wing of the GOP would rather trade with China than play power-politics chess games.

There is solid consensus on one idea: missile defense, although selling it to friends and enemies may prove tougher.

Most of the joint communiques with visiting foreign leaders have hinted at a new global environment that requires defenses against incoming weapons. "The president has a vision that we can get beyond Mutual Assured Destruction," says the White House official.

But critics fear that deployment of a shield - especially if allies and China and Russia aren't consulted - could bobble the global balance of power.

"The administration is in danger of creating the very outcomes it says it fears," says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She worries that a US missile shield might spur China to build a new generation of weapons - which could cause India to do the same and Pakistan to follow suit.

All in all, the Bush team may be returning the US to its traditional skeptical, standoffish role in world affairs, as the simmering conflict in Macedonia highlights. Bush, thus far, is loath to involve US troops there.

"Historically, the US doesn't deploy troops unless there is a hegemon in the region - a Nazi Germany or an Imperial Japan," says Mr. Mearsheimer. "Otherwise, we just tend to stay out."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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