PRESIDENT Bush sounded defensive right from the start. As he stood on the White House south lawn, getting ready to board a helicopter and begin his trip to the NATO summit in Rome, he began to try to justify his famous penchant for globe-trotting even before the assembled reporters asked him about it."I view this as a very important part of the responsibilities of the president, working for peace around the world," he said, breath visible in the early-morning cold. Then the questions started: Was he panicking because the November elections showed voters resented his foreign travels? Wasn't domestic politics behind the cancellation of his long-planned East Asia trip? Why shouldn't people think he was running scared? And, finally, had he received one of those T-shirts gleefully waved by Democrats in Congress? The ones that said: "The President Went to Rome, But All I Got Was This Lousy Recession" "Haven't got one yet. Haven't got one yet. I don't worry about that," said Mr. Bush. He took one more question, then turned and strode away. Once the potent image of George Bush, world leader, was the Republican Party's best political weapon. Now it may serve the same role for the Democrats: With a presidential election less than a year away, the electorate seems tired of foreign involvement and eager for a leadership more focused on domestic affairs. Foreign policy experts are increasingly calling for a new era in which the United States has a reduced role in the world, and for a redefinition of national interest to include economic competitiveness, educational improvement, and other "domestic" issues. Yet world events continue to inexorably pull the attention of Bush and other US leaders beyond the nation's borders. The fall of communism has, if anything, made dealing with the former Soviet Union more complicated; in the aftermath of the Gulf war the US is more engaged than ever in the Middle East. It stands at a point where it clearly has unequaled political and military influence around the globe. "We find ourselves a kind of world trustee, almost," says Michael Vlahos, project director at the Cente r for Naval Analyses. Bush's effectiveness in his chosen role of world leader isn't what is at issue with the American public. Most voters think that those characteristic Bushian endless phone calls to world leaders and lightning trips to allies are effective. An Oct. 21 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 69 percent of respondents approved of Bush's handling of international affairs. The political problem for the Republicans is that voters apparently are beginning to resent that more time, phone calls, and plane trips aren't being spent on problems closer to home. Fear of the lingering recession is undoubtedly a major reason for this mood swing. But a certain amount of world weariness may be another cause. Since 1989 world events have crowded together at unprecedented speed, and even among foreign policy professionals there is a feeling that the US may need to sit back for a while, deal with its own problems, and slowly come to terms with whatever the new world order portends. America can afford to do this, in this view, because the world has reached the end of an era. The collapse of Soviet power has greatly diminished the chance of any sort of armed confrontation between superpowers. At the same time, the decay of the US industrial infrastructure has become acute. Educational standards are slipping, while the major threats to US national security have become the economic challenges posed by Japan and the European Community. William G. Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a key voice in the US internationalist establishment, wrote earlier this year that "the United States has never been less threatened by foreign forces than it is today.... But never since the Great Depressi on has the threat to domestic well-being been greater." Henry Kissinger, the very symbol of US foreign policy analysis, has argued that America needs to think more vigorously about what its involvements are overseas. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's national security adviser, writes in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs that the new world order will require "a more subtle American contribution to sustaining global security than was the case during the cold war." The US should put more emphasis on sharing global decision-making with genuine partners, writes Dr. Brzezinski, and should preserve its influence by bringing home some military forces deployed overseas before host countries grow too restive. Yet to call this attitude "new isolationism" would be misleading. No one is arguing that the US should disengage from the world and care only about its internal concerns. The trends that will continue to force the US to look outward are obvious: the internationalization of the world economy (some 20 percent of US manufactured goods are exported) and continued danger in regional hot spots. Few think the US played the leading role in the Gulf war from a sense of international altruism. Iraqi control of Kuwaiti oil supplies threatened US "national interests" under almost any definition of the term. "The fact is we have to police our own interests, and they are global," says Jay Kosminsky, Heritage Foundation defense analyst. In the post-cold war era international security will depend on four key geostrategic issues, claims Brzezinski: * Success in European political and military unification. * Transformation of the Soviet Union into a voluntary association of republics, without violence. * Progress in the Far East toward some kind of "regional security accommodation" that engages Japan, China, the US, and perhaps the Soviet Union and other nearby states. * Movement in the Middle East peace process, with the US the major guarantor of regional peace. The US role will be a crucial factor in all these issues, argues Brzezinski. Europe will be shaped by the degree of American military presence that remains; the Soviet Union must react to how the NATO alliance transforms itself; the Far East contains vital American trade ties; and the Madrid Middle East peace conference would never have been held except for US involvement. "No other power currently possesses the attributes needed for effective global leverage: military reach, political clout, economic impact as well as social and cultural appeal," writes Brzezinski. US engagement on such a scale could still be much less intensive than it was at the height of the cold war, with hundreds of thousands of US troops based overseas. The alternative, in some eyes, could be a world of bitter local and ethnic conflicts running unchecked - a plethora of Yugoslavias. The US might fin d it hard to isolate itself from such disorder. Yugoslavia itself is a case in point. European Commission peace efforts have so far proved futile, exposing the limits of EC political and military power. At a recent hearing US Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana wondered aloud why the Bush administration had focused so much time on the Middle East, yet stayed aloof from the Balkan conflict. Haiti is another hot spot the Bush administration has so far shied away from. President Bush has draped his arm around ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, blasted the country's coup leaders, and pledged support for all Organization of American States actions. Yet there's been hardly a hint of US military intervention. Haiti is in America's back yard, but the US government clearly feels the unrest there is not a dire threat to American interests. National interest is always what America's, or any country's role in the world comes back to. Analogies such as "world policeman" or "isolationist" can be somewhat misleading. In international terms there is no such thing as a complete altruist, or a complete hermit. Absent rogues and tyrants, most leaders take each issue as it comes and try to do what they believe will make the citizens of their nation more prosperous and secure. The difference in the US is that the political debate about national interest is shaped by an interaction between the public and the government perhaps more than it is in most other countries. This can sometimes soften the emphasis on hard-headed Realpolitik. "The public definition of national interest is much more diffuse in the US than is the case in European countries," claims Prof. Ernest May of Harvard, who is writing a book on "National Interest in American History." Dr. May cites the case of the Kurds in the wake of the Gulf war, with public pressure forcing the Bush administration into greater involvement than it at first planned. President Carter's fixation on the hostage crisis was another foreign policy issue made much more intense by public interest. "Surely it was very hard for people inside the government to make the case that the small number of hostages was worth the fuss," says May. Twice before in the 20th century Americans have felt a powerful impulse to retreat from engagement in the world, says May: after World War I, and after World War II. The end of the cold war has had a similar, though perhaps less powerful, effect. Many Americans seem to believe that the country is off track, that we have been expending ourselves defending others, that we have reached too far. The Soviets no longer serve as the counter-superpower by which we can define ourselves. According to Michael Vlaho s, America "must learn to lead itself before it begins again to change others."
Last of three articles presented in conjunction with the National Issues Forums. The NIF engages communities in debate about public issues, then relays the outcome to national leaders.