Foreign policy is not much of an issue in this election. It seems not to be much on voters' minds, but it ought to be. With a few exceptions (the North American Free Trade Agreement prominent among them), both the making and conduct of United States foreign policy have become increasingly inept - thoughtless, and heedless, of consequences. Worse, in many cases, this is bipartisan, which may be why it is not a campaign issue.
The US has not found a satisfactory substitute for the Soviet Communist threat as a focus for foreign policy. The Clinton administration has trumpeted the spread of democracy and human rights. More recently, spurred by sundry acts of mass violence, the administration and Congress have jointly taken up antiterrorism in much the same way their predecessors were hooked on anticommunism.
Ignore, for the moment, that democracy and human rights are an amorphous target for focusing foreign policy. There is a contradiction between promoting human rights for their own sake and eroding them under cover of antiterrorism. We ought to take prudent precautions against terrorism, but we need to be conscious of the price.
We lose something if we erect barriers around public buildings or legalize more wiretapping and other intrusive behavior by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. That was one of the costs of the cold war in the name of anticommunism. Now we see it revived in the name of antiterrorism. Both the administration and Congress assure us this will be OK, but the assurance rings hollow. To the degree that terrorist states force us to become closed societies like they are, they are winning the battle, even if they never blow up another building or another airplane.
More than anything else, perhaps, is an American attitude that is increasingly churlish toward foreigners. The US is becoming harder to get along with and less considerate of "the interests" of other countries. There is much agitation in Congress and squeamishness in the administration about allowing US troops to serve under foreign commanders as part of a UN force. Yet many foreign troops have served under US commanders. Does anybody think foreigners are going to be willing to let this state of affairs continue indefinitely? How can there be partnership that way?
In the UN generally, the US has stridently insisted on a multitude of reforms, on doing things differently - and better. Certainly, changes are needed. But the US has chosen an odd way to bring about reforms: We simply don't pay our dues. This is not how to make friends among the other members, without whose support our position can't prevail.
The foreign-aid program started half a century ago with the twin objectives of promoting economic development and restraining communism. Since the days of the Marshall Plan, its successes on both counts have been modest at best. The law and the policy concerning foreign aid are now loaded with a long list of standards that would-be recipient countries must meet. These standards have to do, among other things, with environmental protection, women's status, human rights, electoral processes, antinarcotic enforcement, and treatment of US citizens and investors. This makes busybodies out of US officials running the program. It's another good way to alienate people.
Broadly, a country's foreign policy is based on one of two approaches: doing it alone or jointly with allies. During the cold war, the US generally acted in concert with allies, especially in NATO, even in the now-reviled UN, and somewhat in Latin America and Asia. Now, the administration and Congress, consciously or otherwise, have decided to go it alone, at least with respect to Cuba, Iran, and Libya.
And they have added an element of coercion in the form of Draconian penalties against foreign companies that invest in, or trade with, those countries. The sponsors of this policy may think it is a way to encourage the rest of the world to stand up to terrorists (Iran, Libya) and Communist dictators (Cuba). But to the rest of the world, it looks like we are trying to tell them how to conduct their business, and they don't like it. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany - ordinarily some of our closest allies - are among the most prominent protesters. The Organization of American States, which used to support US policy toward Cuba, has now voted 32 to 1 (with the US, naturally, as the single vote) against it.
When Saddam Hussein moved against the Kurds in northern Iraq, and the US rocketed his missile bases in the south, support from other countries was notably tepid. Given how we have been treating other countries, what could we expect?
*Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.