WASHINGTON — Policies may change in fight on terrorism, but US interests remain paramount.
Despite America's greater engagement with the world since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the lone superpower will still practice what Bush administration policy advisers call "multilateralism a la carte."
That means alliance building when that serves America's interests, as in the war against terrorism, but a continued avoidance of agreements that administration officials see as unnecessarily shackling, such as the Kyoto pact on reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.
"This administration has always been forthright that if international agreements weren't in US interests, they weren't going to sign them," says Brett Schaeffer, a United Nations and diplomacy specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "There may be an extra dose of Realpolitik now, where the US agrees to more in exchange for getting something they want against terrorism, but the focus on US interests hasn't changed."
There's no question that America, beginning with President Bush and Congress, is taking a greater interest in the world than it did just a few weeks ago, foreign policy experts say. The US has suddenly moved on a long-stalled to-do list, paying arrears to the UN, for example, and approving a free-trade pact with Jordan.
At the same time, Mr. Bush has lifted sanctions on India and Pakistan, and even advised Chechnya's Islamic rebels to cut ties to international terrorists - words that must have been music to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But what leaders from Beirut to Beijing want to know, observers say, is what impact the terrorist attacks will have on America's global leadership. Those leaders are looking for clues in short-term actions the US takes, but also in the longer-term agenda the US sets.
"Already, countries are wondering how much the US can put on its plate," says Harry Harding, dean of international affairs at George Washington University.
Asian countries especially are interpreting Bush's decision to cut back a scheduled Asia trip to mean "[the US] can't have diplomacy as normal. That leaves them wondering: What else won't America have time or energy to do?"
According to Mr. Harding, some Asian countries see the fact that Bush is taking in the summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), while dropping three bilateral meetings in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, as evidence of a White House warming to multilateralism.
Still, no one should expect America under Bush to suddenly buy into the Kyoto treaty on global warming, or to scrap the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.
"Certain things were suddenly possible that weren't before Sept. 11, but that doesn't mean the unilateralist impulse is gone," says Michael Lindsay, a foreign-policy specialist at the
Brookings Institution here.
One of the things that might now be possible is greater US involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State Colin Powell says he is now spending part of each day on this issue. That reflects not only his view that the conflict must be seen as one of many elements for addressing the global challenge of terrorism, but also a confirmation of his longheld belief - sometimes at odds with some members of the Bush foreign policy team - that the US must be actively engaged in the peace process.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that before Sept. 11, Mr. Powell had been planning a speech saying the US was ready to call for creation of a Palestinian state.
Middle East leaders are encouraging the US to exert its leadership in the region following the terrorist attacks, and Powell's comments indicate that the US is moving in that direction.
"We're active again in the world," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a longtime advocate of a US global engagement.
Just as other countries are approaching the aftermath of Sept. 11 as a time to jockey for better relations with the US, the US will also pursue its same agenda with the world, though newly weighted toward fighting terrorism.
In some cases, that new weight will prompt shifts in positions. Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas labored for months to block the free-trade agreement with Jordan, for example, not because he opposes free trade - he's a staunch advocate - but because he saw this particular agreement, which includes labor and environmental clauses, as a threat to American sovereignty. But after Sept. 11 - and after phone calls from Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice - Senator Gramm saw that good relations with a key Mideast ally took precedent over his concerns, and he dropped opposition.
Others say they expect to see little shift on previously held positions. What will count now is how the US pursues its agenda, says Harding - and how Sept. 11 may have altered that agenda long term. Among the key issues to watch, he says, are the US military review under Secretary Rumsfeld and the Bush plan for missile defense; globalization and world trade; and the antiterrorism effort itself.
"Will the longer US emphasis be on punishing?" he says, "or will it be on dealing with the root causes?"