Basic Foreign Policy: Friends and Allies Count

The United States has unmatched power. As the president said, "America is the indispensable nation." Yet even the US needs friends and allies to achieve its foreign policy goals. We are more effective with international support than without it.

There are strong unilateral tendencies in US foreign policy today. We have failed to pay our UN dues or our contribution to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). We sanction our friends and allies when we don't like their policies toward Cuba, Iran, or Libya - and when they don't support ours. Last year, we told our allies which countries were acceptable for NATO membership. This year, we told them we were ready to use force against Iraq, with or without their support.

Friends and allies generally support US foreign policy objectives, but they bristle at what they see as an overbearing - even domineering - style. While they sometimes differ with us, they want a US that is engaged, not withdrawn from the world. They see us as a critical actor on behalf of international peace and prosperity. They want us to lead - but they believe that we often do not consult enough, respect their opinions, or acknowledge their contributions.

Nothing much of importance gets done around the world without US leadership, but success also depends on partnership. Witness these examples:

* Progress in the Middle East peace process requires the US, yet we also have had important help. Ten countries join us in helping to monitor the Camp David Accords. Norway brokered the Oslo agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The European Union provides the bulk of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

* In 1994, the US replaced the military regime in Haiti and restored the elected president to office. We had the support of the UN Security Council and the Organization of American States. Police from Caribbean nations and a dozen other countries helped patrol the streets in Haiti, and Canadian and Pakistani troops provided security when US forces left.

* The 1995 Mexican financial rescue package was put together by the US, and we had a lot of help. We pledged $20 billion, but the IMF, the World Bank, and European institutions pledged $29 billion more.

* A freeze of North Korea's nuclear program was a product of US diplomacy. China lent a hand. A key incentive for the package was the promise of two light-water nuclear reactors, costing $5 billion, to be paid for primarily by South Korea and Japan.

* The US put together the Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia and is essential to its success. Our NATO allies provide three-fourths of the troops in Bosnia and four-fifths of reconstruction funds.

* US expertise is essential for the UN weapons inspection mission in Iraq. Yet we lots of help from others, including Russian inspectors, French scientists, and Chilean air units. Bahrain hosts the UN operation.

When we have the practical and financial support of friends and allies, we're able to achieve far more than when we act alone. Allies help conduct a successful foreign policy at a price Americans are willing to pay.

When we act alone, we have far less success. No other country supports our 36-year-old embargo of Cuba. Our policy of isolation gives legitimacy to one of the last relics of communism. We spend more time fighting with our friends about Cuba than we do promoting change on that island.

Our efforts to isolate the Iranian regime have caused great strains with friends and allies. No country supports US sanctions against Iran. The president's recent decision to waive sanctions against foreign firms under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act is a recognition of their futility. A policy of isolation means that our key problems with Iran - terrorism, weapons programs, and opposition to the Middle East peace process - remain unaddressed.

Where do we go from here? First, the US needs to maintain durable relations with allies and friends through forums such as NATO, the Partnership for Peace, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the Summit of the Americas. Through collective institutions we can shape a favorable international environment. New threats - terrorism, drugs, crime, disease, and environmental damage - pay little attention to borders.

Second, even as we cultivate allies, we need to reserve the right of unilateral action. Sometimes allies won't join us. Sometimes they'll be wrong. Sometimes we'll have to act alone to protect our interests.

Third, there are steps we can take to reduce frictions with friends and allies.

WE should pay our UN dues, on time and in full. Every foreign leader I meet asks, "When will the US pay its UN dues?" From the Gulf War to Haiti, the UN has played a critical role in building international support for US foreign policy.

We should pay our share of the increase in IMF resources. The IMF is far from perfect, but it is indispensable. A failure to back the IMF hurts not only US leadership but our vital interest in a stable global financial order.

We should limit the use of unilateral sanctions. Unilateral US sanctions cost jobs and exports, damage relations, and usually don't work. When we lash out at close friends and allies, we make it less likely that they will follow our lead in the future.

Finally, leadership also means listening. We may be the indispensable nation, but we should be wise enough to understand that our way may not be the only or best way. Important goals of American foreign policy will remain beyond our reach unless we work for, and win, the support and cooperation of friends and allies.

* Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

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