A turn inward for US, Europe

Issues like Katrina, European leadership, and complications in Iraq draw attention home.

The world's two major diplomatic powers, the United States and the European Union, are turning inward - and that is likely to mean a less ambitious foreign policy from the US, and less focus from the Europeans on global issues.

But exhaustion after Iraq and the unexpected domestic focus wrought by hurricane Katrina may also mean more cooperation from the US. A go-it-alone penchant on a host of international issues could be replaced by a broader tendency to "give diplomacy a chance," experts say.

"After Vietnam, we saw the opening to China and the era of arms-control agreements with the former Soviet Union because there was no support for an aggressive foreign policy," says Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration defense official now here at the Center for American Progress.

"In a similar way, because of continuing problems in Iraq and now the attention and money demanded at home after Katrina, the Bush administration is going to take a much more patient approach to solving the world's problems," Mr. Korb says. "No more axis of evil, no more grand transformation of the Middle East."

This week's breakthrough in a long standoff over North Korea's nuclear program, which includes US concessions that the Bush administration had said it would never accept, is a stark example of a new diplomatic stance.

Most modern two-term presidencies have turned, in the second four years, to the global stage to secure their legacies, historians note. But an inverted picture - an international focus giving way to a domestic emphasis - is likely to be true for President Bush, some analysts say. They note Katrina's unprecedented price tag and the wide range of disaster preparedness and response flaws that the storm exposed.

At the same time, Europe - which, as Mr. Bush made clear in the early weeks of his second term, was to be the chief partner with the US in a new era emphasizing diplomacy over force - is in the throes of an inward-gazing session of its own.

Just this week, Germany threw the EU deeper into a domestic preoccupation with a hung election that leaves the EU's economic and increasingly diplomatic engine without clear leadership and direction. That adds to the roadblock that French and Dutch voters laid down on the path to a more unified European foreign policy earlier this year when they voted down a proposed EU constitution.

The domestic focus of the West's two great political powers is worrisome for some observers, if for no other reason than that it may prompt some countries to turn elsewhere for political and economic ties. Or worse, some experts add, may be a tendency for some countries to use the moment to cast aspersions on democracy's effectiveness - or to test the West's watch over such priorities as democratic and human rights.

"Certainly there are actors on the international scene who want to see Europe weak and who are pleased to see Bush paralyzed on another front," says Dominique Moïsi, special adviser to the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. "If you are sitting in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran, you can say, 'Democracy is showing itself to be a fragile system, and that is good for us.' "

Indeed, Iran tops many observers' list of countries that may seek to exploit the West's troubles. Last week Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, used his first trip to the US (attending the UN summit in New York) to grill the US and the West in general for what he called hypocritical treatment of the developing world. He also spoke repeatedly of Katrina, expressing sympathy for the victims while emphasizing what he called America's disappointing response - and using natural disasters to tout Muslim solidarity.

"He was really crying crocodile tears," says Mr. Moïsi. "For those in the world for whom the similarity between Baghdad and New Orleans is obvious, he was emphasizing the incompetence of the administration," he says. "But there was also a subliminal message" for Americans, he adds: " 'You have other problems to worry about than the Iranian nuclear program.' "

Much has been made of the huge cost of post-Katrina recovery and the impact that will have on other expensive projects, such as the Iraq war and reconstruction. Even administration officials are saying privately that the days of huge supplemental spending for Iraq are over.

But budgetary considerations are only part of what's behind the Bush administration's recasting of priorities, some experts say. "It's not just a question of resources, it's a problem of Bush's waning political capital," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy specialist at Georgetown University in Washington.

Mr. Kupchan says he is not so much concerned that the US will back away from "current levels of engagement" in international counterterrorism, nonproliferation efforts, or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "Where I can see a consequential vacuum is in proactive engagement" in new issues coming up, he says.

He notes, for example, that final-status negotiations on Kosovo are to be set for later this year, "but Kosovo and the Balkans have fallen off the US radar screen."

Of course other international players will seek to fill the void, experts say, both to further their own political and economic aims and to take advantage of a stage less dominated by America. China is cited as the prime example. "People will try to balance off against the superpower, especially a distracted one, and we see the Chinese doing that all around Asia, in Latin America," and in Africa, says Korb of the Center for American Progress.

And one Bush thrust that others are sure to seek to counterbalance is his emphasis on the global spread of democracy. "The more the West seems paralyzed in its democratic behavior, the more the non-West, and in particular the nondemocratic non-West, can seem attractive," says Moïsi.

That is why Moïsi and Korb emphasize what they see as both America's and Europe's opportunity to demonstrate, even as they resolve domestic crises, the utility of diplomatic "soft power" and the strengths of the democratic system. "There are opportunities to be seized," Korb says. "But what this boils down to is the beginning of the end of a unipolar moment."

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