Firsthand look at pulls and pushes of diplomacy


Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 226 pp. $25, cloth; $9.95, paper

AMERICANS who think of the United States as a generous and peace-loving nation of noble motives wonder why other nations do not always see it in the same light. Why are supporters of US foreign policy often so hard to find? In this compact chronicle of the democratic pulls and pushes that make the American diplomat's job both fascinating and trying, David Newsom suggests some thought-provoking answers.

Drawing on four decades of diplomatic experience, Newsom says the lack of more global support for the US and its policies is due in large part to America's failure to listen to others' views.

He zeroes in on Americans' desire to be No. 1 and the difficulty many Americans have in viewing other nations as equals. A tendency to personalize governments and leaders leads to a view of the world related by friendships rather than interests. Neutrality, which for many new nations is a way to avoid being caught in the superpower struggle, is not a concept with which many Americans are comfortable.

At home, US strength is seen largely in military terms, with quick action being the best way to resolve most problems. Assertive nationalists, Newsom says, predominate over cautious internationalists. Much in US foreign policy is designed to satisfy national impulses; rarely does the way a policy will be perceived abroad become an important factor in its development. The US says it wants a democratic world but tends to get along better with authoritarian countries less likely to challenge US assumptions, says Newsom.

Outside the US, the author says, Washington is seen as obsessed with the Soviet threat. Americans are often viewed as aggressive, trigger happy, and involved in regions where their nation's interest is not obvious. Much of the problem, Newsom concedes is the frequently large gap between what the US says and does. Washington's much-touted generosity in foreign aid, for instance, is only 13th in the world on a per capita basis.

Certainly an exaggerated view in many overseas nations of the US ability to influence what happens inside their borders and a widespread paranoia about what the Central Intelligence Agency is actually up to also figure in the mix. Many third-world leaders have taken to heart the writings of Thomas Jefferson and the US experience with the Marshall Plan. Newsom once heard a Kurdish tribesman in northern Iraq recite Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, supporting self-determination, and ask why the US has not supported an independent Kurdish nation.

Newsom's primary message is the importance of trying to see ourselves as others do. Yet it is by no means the whole of the book. Written in the crisp, readable prose one would expect of a former newspaperman and rich with anecdotes, the book focuses on the political and technological changes under way since World War II and the complex challenge they pose for American diplomacy.

So accustomed are many nations to a controlled press, for instance, that any US news media criticism of another country may be seen as government-spurred. Even Newsom's decision to take a Saudi leader to the State Department noon press briefing left the man firm in his conviction that the US tells reporters precisely what they can and cannot print.

The myriad US agencies that now have foreign-policy interests and representatives abroad, the growing threat of terrorism, and the speed of communication that has made the luxury of a ``no comment'' on events unaffordable - all have increased the challenge to America's diplomats.

Often the assigned chore is to tell foreign leaders what they least want to hear. The mask that came over the face of Libya's then-elderly King Idris when Newsom, as US ambassador to Libya, urged him to think about preparing for a successor indicated clearly that the suggestion was out of bounds. As ambassador to the Philippines, Newsom also often pressed, against the obvious anger of Imelda Marcos, for the freedom of imprisoned Benigno Aquino. And as ambassador to Indonesia he faced the tricky task of trying to portray Henry Kissinger's 1976 statement that ``the old economic order has served us very well'' as a positive step forward. No reader can complete this book without a renewed appreciation for the high level of professional skill that prevails in the US diplomatic corps.

Each leg of the US foreign policy operation, from the role of the military and the intelligence-gathering forces to that of Congress and the US Information Agency, merits a chapter. One of the most intriguing sections of the book covers the rise of new third-world nations and the disappointment of their leaders in not getting a warmer US political and economic response:

Americans mistakenly viewed the surge of new nations in the '50s and '60s as similar to their own break with the British in 1776. Yet, unlike the Americans, third-world leaders inherited authoritarian institutions and tremendous problems of illiteracy, overpopulation, and hard-pressed economies.

Again the US East-West preoccupation played a key role in the US choice of action. France successfully encouraged the US to regard the war in Vietnam as part of the anti-Soviet struggle, for instance, rather than as part of the decolonization process. Portugal stressed the importance to NATO of bases in the Azores, hoping to discourage US support for the independence of Angola and Mozambique. Newsom insists that the US continue to search out motives. Those who tell the US what it wants to hear, such as Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in his protestations of anticommunism, fare well with the US when the primary motive may simply be to best a neighbor.

Clearly Newsom, who delivers his message in a low-key style that is markedly free of ideological darts, would like to see some changes. If the US is to earn respect for what it does as well as what it stands for, it must measure its global influence more modestly, lean in with a more sensitive listening ear, and work harder to develop logical policies that can be coherently explained and defended. It is a gentle call worth heeding from a diplomat who knows the score.

Lucia Mouat is on the Monitor staff.

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