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Opinion

After Bush: How to repair US alliances

Bush's exit won't suddenly fix things. Both sides need to step up.

By Michael Fullilove / November 4, 2008



Washington

In January 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and US entry into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt wheeled himself into the White House bedroom of his guest, Winston Churchill.

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He was startled to find the British prime minister in the bath. Roosevelt began to back out, but Churchill rose from the bathtub and stood before him – naked, pink, plump, and dripping. "Come back," he is said to have cried. "The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States!"

The winner of the presidential election is unlikely to have such intimate relations with America's traditional allies.

Barack Obama and John McCain both hold their attractions for the allies. Obama's emergence has caused one long swoon throughout Europe and beyond: even the unromantic Australians favor his election by a margin of nearly 5 to 1. McCain is not feeling that kind of love, but he does have a history of taking alliances seriously, which is appreciated by old hands.

As president, however, either man would need to work hard to reinvigorate America's alliances.

The departure of the deeply unpopular President Bush will prompt a global sigh of relief. But it will also throw light on a fundamental disconnect between the United States and many of its allies.

Many Americans believe that once Mr. Bush is gone, allies will step forward and share the burdens of leadership. Many allies believe that once Bush is gone, Washington will start listening to them more.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, allies' fears of an existential threat have declined, along with their willingness to share risks and costs with their American partner.

Afghanistan is a good example. Nearly everyone agrees that the war against the Taliban is a good fight, but fewer are prepared to fight it in a manner that puts their soldiers directly in harm's way.

Washington remains the only capital able to run a global foreign policy and to project military power anywhere on earth. But America's recent sorrows, including the wrong-headed misadventure in Iraq and the financial crisis, only make it harder for it to demand loyalty and sacrifice from others.

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