When US Defense Secretary William Cohen had to protest to the media last week that France and America are still great friends, he was doing some image repair. Washington and Paris had just skirted a serious collision over French oil investment in Iran, and Mr. Cohen was trying to smooth things over.
The subject, in this instance, was Washington's counterproductive attempt to force the rest of the trading world to boycott Iran. But it could have been any one of a number of topics on which the US is widely perceived to be morphing from the world's admired only superpower to the world's chief scold.
Uncle Sam has an image problem. The bully pulpit so courageously used to persuade others of the virtues of democracy, free markets, and cooperative international action has lately seemed, even to many of America's staunchest well wishers, more like a bully's pulpit.
Item: President Clinton proclaims the UN is "needed more than ever before" but hasn't brought Congress around to paying all of the US's back dues, forcing grumbling allies to bear the weight.
Item: Under the Helms-Burton law, Washington refuses entry to the US to executives of any firm doing business in Cuba on what may have been property once owned by Americans. Canada and European friends of the US were outraged, simmering down only when Mr. Clinton postponed application of the law.
Item: Congress almost habitually proposes economic sanctions against other nations for a wide range of abuses, real or exaggerated. In the past five years, such punishment has been aimed more than 60 times at 35 nations. A coalition of 600 US companies is trying to slow this scatterfire disruption that costs jobs (an estimated 200,000) and money (more than $15 billion in exports).
A few targeted nations may fit some definition of "rogue" nations. But it's hard to credit the idea that 35 nations may be so far out of step as to merit that scarlet description. What's more likely is that individual members of Congress (and sometimes the White House) find it good politics or a satisfying vent to frustration to slam a boycott on a government believed to be thwarting the US.
Unfortunately, it's often some of America's best and oldest friends who get caught in the line of fire. Why? Because, to work, sanctions don't just hit the supposed target. They also tend to boomerang onto third parties who, having no beef themselves against the target, presume to carry on trade, negotiations, or diplomatic contact.
Early in its first term, the Clinton administration appeared intent on alienating Britain, France, Germany, China, and Japan all at once. More recently, the administration has mended those fences. But some members of Congress have helped to undo that by creating the aforementioned multitude of sanctions.
Earlier this year, two level-headed lawmakers from Indiana, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D), proposed requirements that would have such sanctions automatically reviewed each year to see if their benefits exceed their costs and if they are having the intended effect. They also would have all sanctions expire after two years unless they are extended by new congressional votes.
That's a sensible approach. It would help repair America's image among its friends, without making the superpower a wimp.
Meanwhile, over at the White House, the president could more often match actions to words. After the recent Iranian elections, Clinton indicated he would be open to exploring a less automatically hostile relationship with Tehran's new prime minister. So far, there's been little follow-through.
And, if the president means what he said about the UN being needed more than ever, his team ought to move more resolutely to untangle the mess left by this one member of the club who wants to call the shots but not pay the bill. A sensible first step would be to further the solid work of the US consultant who has helped reform the world body's financial system. One way to do that would be to work more closely with the other permanent members of the Security Council and regional powers on additional steps to streamline the UN.