Combating Isolationism

When the cold war ended, the smoldering embers of American isolationism got new oxygen and burst into flame.

They burn in the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan; in the opposition of House Democrats and labor unions to free-trade agreements; in the unpaid dues of the United States to the United Nations; in Senate Republicans' rejection last week of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

They burned, too, in Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, when he declared too much presidential time had been spent on foreign policy; he was going to concentrate on things domestic.

Yet it would be a mistake to see isolationism - the view that the US can go it alone economically and militarily in the world - as a firestorm about to consume American foreign policy. It's more like a brush fire that can be kept under control by an immediate and focused response.

Most important, the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats in Washington who see the need for an active US foreign policy need to start working together and stop using foreign-policy issues as political weapons against each other.

For one thing, you don't reach out to Republicans by attacking them as Neanderthals in a campaign-style press conference as President Clinton did last Thursday. He's done little to build a foreign-policy consensus; it's long past time he met with members of Congress of both parties on a regular basis to discuss such issues.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her deputies should invite members more often to Foggy Bottom for background briefings. State needs to give more than lip-service to Congress' foreign-policy role.

Congressional observers should be included on treaty-negotiating delegations. Arms-control pacts are extremely complicated. Bringing senators in on the ground floor is important to building support for ratification. This procedure played a major role in the success of the strategic and intermediate arms-reduction treaties of the 1980s.

On the Hill, meanwhile, senators and representatives seeking a bipartisan foreign-policy consensus must step up their efforts. News that Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan are gathering a group of colleagues to discuss Russian issues is encouraging.

There is little consensus on America's role in a post-cold-war world. Yet that world retains dangerous threats: terrorism; the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; and genocide. A consensus doesn't just happen. It has to be built.

It's time for responsible people in both parties to get cracking.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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