BEIRUT, LEBANON — Twelve years ago, Bill Clinton won the presidency by stressing that "it's the economy, stupid!" Perhaps "it's the diplomacy, stupid!" doesn't have quite the same ring, but in this year's election, foreign affairs - particularly Iraq and global terrorism - are at or near the top of the national agenda.
Voters know that whoever wins in November will face tough challenges trying to secure an even half-decent outcome in Iraq while he also combats the international terror groups that continue to threaten global security. The US cannot achieve either of these goals on its own. So whichever candidate is president next year needs to find a way to work effectively with the other nations of the world.
John Kerry says he will make this a priority, and has described some of the steps he would take to achieve it. For his part, President Bush now seems to be moving toward a more collaborative, less combative, approach to the situation in Iraq. He should accelerate that process and extend it to other items on the international agenda.
One good sign from the Bush administration regarding Iraq was the US military's participation in the cease-fire agreement concluded Sunday between the interim Iraqi government and Moqtada al-Sadr's movement. Another was the promise Secretary of State Colin Powell recently made to convene a conference of G-8 members and all of Iraq's neighbors in November. This conference will bring Iran and Syria to the same table as the US and other G-8 states. Both countries have long land borders with Iraq, so their cooperation will be key if Iraq's all-important election is to go ahead in January as planned.
These steps indicate that - at least regarding Iraq - the president and his advisers understand the US needs to work cooperatively with a broad range of other parties if it is to avoid a humiliating upset in that troubled land. Indeed, if the Iraqi elections are to have any chance of success, whoever is in power in Washington at the end of January will probably have to beg the UN to play a much bigger role in supervising them than is currently envisaged. The controversies swirling around the election in Afghanistan show how sensitive this role is, and how valuable it is to have the UN, rather than the US, playing it.
How can the other members of the Security Council, and other nations in general, be persuaded to take on more responsibility in Iraq? This is where the traditional arts of diplomacy - and crucially, the willingness to listen to, and engage with, other governments - are sorely needed. Washington, which represents just 4 percent of the world's people, cannot expect other governments to respond to its most pressing concerns if the process is not reciprocal.
It's never too late to start. But from late 2001 until recently, the Bush administration turned a mostly deaf ear to other countries' concerns - on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming, or the structure of global trade - while it prepared for, and then carried out, an invasion of Iraq that was opposed by most other governments and was never fully authorized by the UN. Indeed, the invasion openly flouted many of the key restrictions that the UN Charter rightly places on the freedom of any nation to use force against another.
Small wonder that now, when 135,000 US service members find themselves stretched dangerously thin in Iraq, other actors both inside and outside Iraq who could be helpful to Washington are saying, essentially, "Yes, we can consider helping you. But you need to help us, too."
For some nations, that help may be monetary. But for many nations in the Middle East - whose cooperation is especially crucial in the campaign to restore peace to Iraq, as well as in the fight against Al Qaeda - the help they need most from Washington is political. Specifically, they need to see strong and effective US engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. But that kind of engagement has been quite absent for the past two years. Washington, which pays many of Israel's bills, has allowed its tough-guy Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stride forcefully away from the concept of a negotiated peace while he consolidated Israel's hold on large new chunks of occupied Palestinian land.
Does the agenda I've outlined above - much better relations with the UN, a renewal of US activism on the Palestinian question, and more sensitivity to other nations' concerns in general - seem like too much to ask?
It certainly represents a big change from the policies the US has followed for most of the past three years. But those policies have not brought security to either the US or anyone else. A new relationship between the US and the rest of the world is sorely needed.
So, yes, in this election, it really is the diplomacy that counts.
• Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.