The State of the Union: Win friends, influence nations
NEW YORK — When President Bush mounts the podium for Tuesday's State of the Union address, he should keep in mind that his audience includes people around the globe. Though he is accountable to the US electorate, Mr. Bush's appeal - or lack thereof - to the rest of the world will help determine the fate of critical foreign-policy initiatives and, potentially, his presidency.
Bush's success as an orator has often hinged on which side of the ocean was listening. Bush's speech nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks was hailed as a triumph at home, showing that the novice president had the mettle to take on the terrorist threat. But in other countries, his you're-with-us-or-against-us formulation seemed starkly naive and oblivious to the political nuances of unstable regions. His promise of a "crusade" against Al Qaeda sounded to Americans like verve or bravado. But to Muslims, it carried frightening historical connotations.
In last year's State of the Union, the last-minute addition of North Korea to the "axis of evil" made for a memorable rhetorical flourish, but struck much of the world as reckless provocation.
The administration's attitude seems to be that a superpower like the US has better things to worry about than global popularity. To be sure, US military might and its unique position in the world make a degree of resentment inevitable. The administration appears convinced that when push comes to shove, pragmatism will trump the domestic politics of other countries, and governments will override the people's passions in favor of the economic and security imperatives that drive support for the US. Ever macho, the administration seems to think that showing that it cares about what others think would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
In the meantime, anti-US sentiment has swelled in ways that directly hurt US policy. Popular outcry in Turkey may mean the US can't secure the full basing privileges it seeks, complicating military planning for Iraq. Anti-US sentiment in South Korea is surging during the most dangerous and politically sensitive period on the Korean Peninsula in years. Propelled to a second term by his defiance of the US over Iraq, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is now in a position to make life difficult for Bush in the UN Security Council.
Polls confirm the disturbing trend. A Pew Center Study in December showed America's image slipping between 2000 and 2002 in 19 of 27 countries surveyed. Ever attuned to the polls, the Bush administration should take these polls seriously. Heads of state in what should be some of the friendliest capitals are now caught between the historic, cultural, military, and commercial pull of the US and populations who increasingly view the Bush administration as an exemplar of the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. More than before, these rulers now preside over democracies, meaning that public opinion can no longer simply be suppressed or overlooked.
The Bush administration and its allies share an interest in reversing the rise of anti-Americanism. A foundation of global support will make crises in Iraq and North Korea easier for Bush to handle, while letting his counterparts out from under an increasingly uncomfortable political dilemma.
Clearly, Bush should start considering not just how his speech will play in Peoria, but also how it will play in Pretoria - as well as Paris, Prague, and even Pyongyang.
While soothing words on national TV will not win back American prestige overnight, the State of the Union offers a golden opportunity to reach out to foreign publics in advance of possible action in Iraq. To craft an appeal that will resonate beyond US borders, Bush must sound a few key themes.
First, assuming the president wants to lay a foundation for military action in Iraq this winter, he needs to persuasively explain why the threat posed by Saddam Hussein must be met with force now. Only by offering more specifics about Iraq's defiance of weapons inspections, more detail on what long-term involvement is intended in the region, and a more persuasive case as to why the inspections do not deserve more time can Bush counter global perceptions that invasion is motivated by domestic political considerations or base economic imperialism. Many Americans await these answers, too.
Second, Bush should show respect for international institutions and norms. If the world's population were confident of US regard for the international system, they'd feel less desperate to rein in the US. By lauding UN success in reinstating the inspectors in Iraq, and making clear he regards full Security Council support for military action as preferable, Bush will make it easier for himself to seek further UN backing and, if it proves unavailing after a genuine attempt, to move ahead without it.
Finally, as preoccupied as the administration is right now, Bush must outline a vision that extends beyond the immediate crises. If he ignores issues like AIDS, poverty, and the global environment, he'll signal that his brand of leadership begins and ends with America, that his demands for support offer little return.
For more than a year, the Bush administration has argued, regarding terrorism, Iraq, and North Korea, that the US cannot shirk the burdens of world leadership. If Bush is indeed to succeed as a world leader and not just a national one, he must start to pay attention to the effects of his words on the whole of his audience.
• Suzanne Nossel, a former senior adviser at the US Mission to the UN, works for a media company in New York City.