Healthy Debate Would Help US Foreign Policy

This is a period of multiple disconnects in United States foreign policy - between the executive branch and Congress, between the House and Senate, and between foreign policy experts.

On a range of issues, the various participants in the policymaking process seem not even to be talking to each other, or sometimes trying to avoid talking at all. Consider six issues that, taken together, will have a good deal to do with shaping the role we play in the world in the 21st century.

NATO: Last week the Senate voted to admit Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Support came mainly from ethnic groups, especially Poles, in the US. Opposition came from almost all serious students of foreign policy. Supporters inside the government and opponents outside simply talked past each other.

International Monetary Fund: The clash over the IMF is between the Clinton administration and the Senate, on one side, and the House on the other. For more than 50 years, the IMF has done a good deal to bring stability to international currency exchange rates. Now it needs more money to continue. Largely run by European technocrats, the IMF is a citadel of economic orthodoxy. Its critics, who include well-regarded economists, say the Fund's orthodoxy has blinded it to political changes and that it is time to rethink its work. The way to settle the issue is to debate it, not to avoid it as congressional leadership and the administration are trying to do out of fear that otherwise it might not pass.

Fast track trade legislation: This would renew expired presidential authority to negotiate international trade agreements that would be subject to congressional approval in their entirety, but not to amendment. It involves the ability of the US to influence world trade rules. It's been relegated to the file labeled "too hard." The disconnect is between the White House which supports free trade and congressional Democrats and organized labor who think free trade hurts workers.

Human rights: At any given time nobody can agree on what priority it ought to have. There are those who want human rights to come first, and others who want trade and/or national security to come first - and they don't seem to hear each other.

UN dues and population control: The US is in long-term default of about a billion dollars in payments it is legally required to make to the UN. Argument over the matter within Congress and between the administration and Congress become repetitive and sterile.

Congress last week guaranteed that the stalemate would continue by passing a bill providing the delinquent dues, or most of them, but also prohibiting the use of funds for agencies promoting abortion abroad.

The mischief is that neither is the UN going to get the funds it's owed, nor are anti-abortionists going to get the prohibition they desire. UN funding could probably not pass the House without abortion restrictions, and abortion restrictions could probably not pass the Senate without UN funding. Put them together and they pass Congress but get a White House veto despite the president's desperate need to pay the UN dues.

This kind of scenario is possible only because there are enough people in Congress who oppose abortion more than they support the UN and who wouldn't care very much if the UN collapsed. Population control involves the future of the human race; the UN is the best institution to deal with it, but ideologues on both sides are making rational discussion all but impossible.

The election in November is the last opportunity we will have to avoid exiting this most turbulent of centuries constricted by these several impasses.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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