How Reliable Is US Diplomacy?

TWO recent congressional moves relating to Russia and Jordan demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining the credibility of US diplomacy.

In 1993, after President Boris Yeltsin had survived a right-wing challenge to his leadership, the Clinton administration pledged $1.6 billion in aid to Russia. The action was praised in a letter to President Clinton by four ex-presidents, three of them Republicans: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Congress was also broadly supportive of the aid package. A significant part of the package was the Nunn-Lugar initiative to help destroy Russia's nuclear weapons.

But now, in 1995, the Republican-dominated Congress, on the eve of President Clinton's diplomacy in Moscow, is balking at further aid to Russia and questioning funds already appropriated. Even the Nunn-Lugar legislation -- a plan solidly in US interests -- has been challenged, although most observers believe it will survive.

King Hussein, showing remarkable courage, signed a peace treaty with Israel in October 1994. The United States played a significant role in encouraging the king's move and rewarded it with a pledge of $275 million in debt relief. The peace treaty at the time won strong backing in Congress; Israel, with many friends on Capitol Hill, urged Congress to support the debt-relief commitment fully. Notwithstanding such support, some in the House of Representatives are now proposing that the debt-forgiveness pledge be reduced to $50 million.

Both commitments, to Russia and to Jordan, were made in full accordance with US constitutional processes. Countries have reason to expect that when such pledges carry both executive and congressional approval, they are valid.

During the long process required to implement an aid agreement, circumstances often change, both abroad and in the United States. This has been true in the case of Russia. Because of setbacks to economic reforms and actions in Chechnya, legitimate questions have been raised about the appropriateness of US assistance. The 1994 elections also changed the political balance in the Congress. In the effort to bring the deficit under control, all US commitments are subject to scrutiny. In such circumstances, a review of future policies and pledges is thoroughly appropriate.

In the cases of both Russia and Jordan, however, the new Congress is also challenging past commitments that have been important to US diplomacy. In both cases foreign leaders made difficult decisions -- in part, at least, in anticipation of US support.

If, in either case, major upheavals would have brought about changes in the regimes with which the United States negotiated the commitments or original conditions were not met, reconsideration of the pledges would have been defensible. In Russia, however, the nuclear destruction program is proceeding and economic reforms are bringing improved conditions. Jordan has fulfilled its part of the bargain with Israel.

If the US appears to renege on commitments made after due executive/legislative process, the reliability of US diplomacy comes into question -- and other leaders, politically vulnerable, can be expected to balk at doing Washington's bidding.

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