WASHINGTON — For many years, the basic argument about the framework of American foreign policy was isolationism or internationalism. Gradually, it has become unilateralism or multilateralism. There is no longer a dispute over whether the United States ought to play a role in the world. The argument is over what that role should be.
The Bush administration itself is divided, with the unilateralists represented by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the multilateralists represented by Secretary of State Colin Powell. When Secretary Powell returned from the Middle East saying sanctions against Iraq needed to be modified in consultation with allies, Secretary Rumsfeld said the sanctions needed to be strengthened. When Mr. Powell said the Bush administration would pick up North Korea policy where the Clinton administration left it, President Bush said the matter was being reviewed. In Congress the split is more along party lines.
Unilateralists tend to be Republicans; multilateralists, Democrats.
On most issues, the difference is not so much the ultimate objective as how to get there. This difference in tactics is fundamental. Unilateralists are willing (some even prefer) to go it alone. Multilateralists look for allies as a source of help and strength. Unilateralists emphasize defense: If you're going to do it all by yourself, you need to be stronger than if you have friends helping you.
Unilateralists talk - and act - tough; multilateralists cultivate allies in the muted tones of diplomacy. Unilateralists say they are realists and multilateralists are romantics; multilateralists say they are the realists and unilateralists are bullies. At least some foreigners agree about the bullies. A former Russian prime minister recently accused the US of talking "to us as if we were a banana republic." When the Bush administration announced that it would reject the Kyoto treaty on global warming, a Japanese environmental activist was provoked to call it a "sinful statement."
Unilateralists see the world as a contest between good and evil; multilateralists see it in shades of gray rather than in black and white. The unilateral message to the rest of the world is do it our way or else. Diplomacy is used as pressure, not persuasion or negotiation. Unilateralists would remake the world in our image - and give the world stage directions every step of the way. Multilateralists would improve our image with confidence that the world will find it attractive.
Each side of this division shares something with the other. President Reagan could damn the Soviet Union as "an evil empire," praise the US as "a shining city on a hill," and negotiate serious arms-control accords with his nemesis. President Nixon, Reagan's equal as an anti-communist demagogue, could launch the opening to Maoist China, a US initiative that ranks with the Marshall Plan and NATO in the post-World War II era.
It's good that this debate is occurring. What's bad is that most of it is private. What has emerged to public view are only the tips of several icebergs. The country deserves better. And so do our allies. Under every president in living memory, American governments have had a mania for keeping their internal disagreements secret - or trying to. Only when they have everything neatly tied up, do they unveil a policy and then expect public support, especially from Congress, in the name of bipartisanship. By that time, with an administration committed to every detail of a blueprint, it's too late for meaningful public debate.
It is precisely when the policy is being worked out in the privacy of the White House or State or Defense Departments that the public - and allies - ought to be involved. That is when policy formation is still fluid enough to be influenced by Congress, the public, and the allies.
The importance of involving allies needs to be emphasized. Equally as much as Congress, they need - to paraphrase Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Arthur Vandenberg - to be in on the takeoff if they are expected to be in on the crash landing. The Marshall Plan is a splendid example.
After Secretary of State George Marshall's speech proposing the plan, the European participants negotiated with each other and with us as to the modalities. Congress conducted extensive studies. A House committee under Rep. Christian Herter, who was later to be secretary of State under President Eisenhower, went to Europe for its own talks with Europeans.
This is a far cry from an administration spokesman brushing off an issue by saying, "That is being considered. We'll let you know when we decide what to do."
Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor