Flying in a New Formation

Just 10 years ago this December, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending a hot-and-cold clash of ideologies. But it created uncertainty over how the world should work and America's role in it.

Now Sept. 11 has done the same.

The pace of change in US statecraft has been as rapid in the past five weeks as the period after the hammer-and-sickle flag fell from atop the Kremlin. Coalition-building has become the singular US focus for the foreseeable future.

Such a transformation will become clearer this weekend, when President Bush meets with a dozen or more leaders of Asia-Pacific nations in Shanghai, China. Suddenly, all sorts of irritating issues such as missile defense and trade disputes have been marginalized by a great willingness of nations to assist the US in beating international terrorists. Unlike the cold-war strategy to contain communism, this new goal has a long list of friends.

China and Russia set up their own regional antiterrorist alliance with Central Asian nations in 1999. They're ready to help the US with intelligence. Japan is moving quickly to overturn its pacifist past and provide noncombat military assistance. A few Southeast Asian nations who have their own problems with militant Islamists are working with the US. Even Iran has offered to help the US a bit in the war in Afghanistan.

But these are the early days of this new era. Many nations are still wondering what Mr. Bush meant when he said to Congress on Sept. 20: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." That's too broad a mandate, and needs refining.

Each nation's contribution can be varied and different, Bush said this week: "We're not going to ask nations to contribute in ways that their people won't understand or accept ... just so long as we're all focused on the goal of ridding the world of terrorism. And we must make that decision now."

The give-and-take of this coalition-building will define US relations with the world for years to come, until terrorism fades away and a new era begins.

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