The swearing-in was an extraordinary show of diplomatic pageantry.
In an expansive East Room ceremony that ordinarily would have taken place in the smaller Oval Office, former Senate majority leader Howard Baker this week officially assumed the duties of ambassador to Japan. The line-up of political glitterati in attendance included five former US ambassadors to Tokyo, two former secretaries of State, a US Supreme Court justice, and more than 300 other guests. It was the grandest swearing-in event for any US ambassador this year.
But it was much more than just a big party. In the subtle language of diplomacy, the event - and the visit of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan to Camp David tomorrow - is intended to send a signal, complete with crucial subtext: The US is reemphasizing its relationship with Japan, and it's doing so to counter China's rising influence.
This is just one recent example of the unfolding realpolitik of President Bush's foreign policy. Under this more hard-nosed approach, the emphasis is on countering perceived strategic threats and potential rivals rather than on safeguarding human rights and democracy around the globe.
"There is, going in [to this administration], something different," says George Shultz, secretary of State during the Reagan administration and an influential figure in this White House. "President Bush is trying to inject a greater sense of realism, a greater sense of US interests, a more hard-headed approach."
In the case of the swearing-in extravaganza, the administration was trying to "cement" the US-Japan alliance as a way to keep China in check, says a senior administration official. That's a departure from the Clinton administration's view of China as a "strategic partner."
"If you have a strategic sense of Asia as a triangle between the US, Japan, and China, that's not right," the official says. "It's more like a teeter-totter - a balance with China on one side and the US and Japan on the other."
An amorphous concept
Slowly, the world is getting a sense of what the Bush team means when it talks about a foreign policy based on the amorphous term "realism." Recent examples include the US rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming and Mr. Bush's derision of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty as a "relic" of the cold-war era.
In trying to apply its theory of realism, the Bush team is still feeling its way. "They are evolving a policy to make it operational, and it takes time," says Mr. Shultz.
Major areas of foreign policy are "under review," including the administration's military strategy, its approach toward Iraq, and its evolving relationship with Russia. Progress has been slow because of lack of key staff as the appointee-confirmation process drags on, and the intrusion of real-life crises needing immediate attention, such as the US spy plane in China and renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence.
In theory, foreign-policy analysts explain, realism means serving US security and strategic interests first - and that takes priority over goals such as strengthening human rights worldwide. Those who look at the world through the realist lens, they explain, would seek to balance China's power by building strong US alliances elsewhere in Asia, possibly even with Russia. They would craft a Mideast policy that is less focused on Israel and more concerned about relations with oil-rich Arab nations.
World according to realists
"Realists are people who have a pessimistic world view. They say that states are primarily concerned with the balance of power - making sure it doesn't shift against them," says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "For realists," he adds, "human rights and international law and international institutions don't matter much. When push comes to shove, power wins."
The shift from the Clinton to the Bush presidency has been jarring for some of America's allies. That's been the case with the administration's objection to the ABM Treaty and its rejection of the climate-change treaty.
This week, too, Bush was at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he decided to take the more Palestinian-friendly approach of emphasizing progress made in reducing violence. Mr. Sharon, meanwhile, was insisting on a cessation of violence as a precondition for a cooling-off period and future talks.
"That's definitely a realistic assessment. There's no way that you could expect that the Palestinian Authority can bring violence down to zero," says Michael Hudson, a Mideast specialist at Georgetown University here. "That's totally impossible."
Speaking from experience, Shultz says foreign-policy changes can sometimes "ruffle feathers." President Ronald Reagan, for example, tried to persuade the world to let free markets rein - at a time when conventional wisdom held that government should intervene in economies. Mr. Reagan, however, had a big asset on his side: like-minded leaders such as Germany's Helmut Kohl and Britain's Margaret Thatcher. He even eventually found a willing partner in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Bush's agenda of realpolitik, however, is complicated by the fact that he appears to be standing alone on the world stage at the moment - and, more immediately, by events on the ground.
In the Mideast, for example, the Bush team initially sought a regional approach to the peace process, but it has been forced to concentrate on Israeli-Palestinian violence. Regarding North Korea, the president first rejected talks but has since changed his mind. The administration has backpedaled, too, on plans to pull US troops out of Bosnia.
"Bush came into office thinking many, if not most, of Clinton's policies were not very good," says Lee Hamilton, former Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "More and more, he moves toward the positions of his predecessor."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor