Earlier this year, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell stood at an air force base outside Rome and, answering a reporter's question, explained how President Bush negotiates foreign policy differences with U.S. allies. "He tries to persuade others why that is the correct position," Powell said. "When it does not work, then we will take the position we believe is correct."
For many foreign officials, Powell's response epitomized the conduct of U.S. foreign policy since the Sept. 11 attacks: They believe the Bush administration, with its unyielding focus on the war on terrorism and the primacy of U.S. interests, increasingly places little stock in the needs and opinions of other nations.
Administration officials, by contrast, see an envious world clamoring for attention from the only superpower, which they say has embarked on a dramatic effort to eliminate great power rivalries and usher in freedom around the globe. "We've got influence, power, prestige and clout beyond any nation in the history of the world," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said. "It brings forth a certain amount of envy."
The starkly different perspectives -- the overseas view that the United States has disengaged from the world and the American insistence that it has never been more engaged -- demonstrate how the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that left more than 3,000 people dead have actually served to widen the gulf between the United States and the rest of the globe. This is the picture that emerged from extensive interviews with foreign officials and experts by correspondents in seven key countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, along with interviews with administration officials, experts and diplomats in Washington.
A brief flurry of support for the United States after last September's attacks has evaporated because of what foreign officials consider a dismissive U.S. attitude toward international treaties and coalitions, a tendency to view problems through the distorted lens of the war on terrorism, and confusing and inconsistent messages sent by a foreign policy team that often seems at war with itself, according to diplomats and officials overseas. Problems that are considered important to the rest of the world -- such as the threat of global warming, the costs of globalization and the spread of infectious diseases -- appear to receive little if any attention from the administration, foreign officials complain.
European officials say they feel adrift and increasingly estranged from U.S. policy, especially on the Middle East and the environment. Latin Americans say they have been ignored despite the region's growing financial woes. Officials in Japan and South Korea say they aren't sure whether they matter much to the United States anymore. U.S. relations with China and Russia have improved but appear to have reached an uncomfortable impasse. Arabs express despair that U.S. policy in the Middle East has swung sharply in favor of Israel. Indeed, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon may be one of the few around the world confident that it sees eye to eye with the administration.
Sept. 11 "was a moment to be seized and was not," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. "This sort of Dallas syndrome -- with us or against us -- is not helpful."
"We still have an administration that is looking at the world just through the prism of the campaign against terror," said Arturo Sarukhan Casamitjana, chief adviser to Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. "I think we're in for a rough ride."
'They Couldn't Do It'
The war against terrorism has shifted U.S. priorities and rejiggered its relations with several nations. Efforts to ease immigration between Mexico and the United States, for example, all but died after Sept. 11. Russia and China moved to strengthen ties with Washington through their assistance in the war, though this came at the expense of the administration playing down human rights abuses or anti-democratic practices. The administration has fallen silent on Russian abuses in Chechnya, even though the 2000 Republican Party platform harshly criticized the Clinton administration for ignoring Russian actions.
The United States has placed troops and formed ties in Central Asian states run by Soviet-era autocrats and bound ever closer with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf even as he consolidates his grip on power he seized in a 1999 coup. And the rash of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel has helped push Bush further in the Israeli camp.
Administration officials acknowledge there is a perception the United States is pursuing its own goals at the expense of broader international issues. But they dismiss it as inaccurate. Armitage conceded that "part of it is our fault," because "some of our rhetoric is less than edifying." But more broadly, he said, it is the result of the preeminence of the United States in world affairs.
He pointed to the dispute between Spain and Morocco over Morocco's seizure of the uninhabited Parsley Island 200 yards off its coast in July. Powell personally resolved the conflict with more than three dozen phone calls, totaling six hours, even though he thought it really was an issue to be settled by the European Union. "We had expressed the view to our friends that this is for the EU," Armitage said. "You guys are both there and they're there, so why don't you let them fix it? But they couldn't do it."
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, ticked off examples she felt demonstrated U.S. engagement, such as working to resolve the conflict in Sudan, easing tensions between India and Pakistan, helping the Philippines fight terrorists and promoting a new round of free-trade negotiations. "Sometimes it does appear that there is no issue in which people do not expect the United States to be involved," she said.
Still, the widespread perception that the United States has effectively disengaged from many parts of the world, ready to go its own way no matter what the consequences, has broad implications, experts and foreign officials say, especially if the United States tries to assemble support for a war against Iraq. Not only will it be more difficult to put together such a coalition, they say, but a decision to pursue military action in the face of broad opposition could rupture relations with many nations.
Some U.S. officials say that, when push comes to shove, other countries will follow if the cause is right. "It is less important to have unanimity than it is to be making the right decisions and doing the right thing," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week.
Two speeches by Vice President Cheney last week, in which he appeared to reject any option against Iraq short of military force, spawned complaints in many capitals. But the administration's fierce campaign against an international court for war crimes, its rejection of a treaty to set targets to reduce global warming and its effective veto of an expansion of a biological weapons treaty -- all backed by many of the United States' traditional allies -- had already strained ties.
Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has strived to maintain the Anglo-American "special relationship," has told colleagues he feels no real rapport with Bush, according to officials in London. The administration embarrassed Blair when it imposed steel tariffs that harmed British exports, and Blair has begun to pay a domestic political price for administration actions in such areas as the Middle East, the environment and the International Criminal Court. A significant part of Blair's Labor Party is in revolt over the prospects of war with Iraq, with one leading member writing to Blair last week asking him to say clearly whether he would back a U.S. strike on Baghdad.
Around the globe, there is a "sense of betrayal, abandonment and disengagement," said Ivo H. Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There are many problems that cannot be solved without a significant degree of cooperation," he said. "What you fret away with this unilateralism is the goodwill of others to cooperate."
'Sure of Its Righteousness'
From the start of Bush's administration, but especially since Sept. 11, the president's rhetoric and actions have shifted almost 180 degrees from the modesty and frequent consultations he promised as a candidate. Bush assembled a foreign policy team notable for its experience, but also for its dominance by strong-willed individuals who believe the United States must set the agenda if other countries don't have the will or ability to confront the dangers the world faces.
In the second presidential debate during the 2000 election, Bush said he would pursue a foreign policy that focused on maintaining respective relations with important allies. "The United States must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course," he said, adding, "It's important to be friends with people when you don't need each other so that when you do there's a strong bond of friendship."
At West Point in June, Bush offered a dramatically different vision. He claimed the right to preemptively attack any nation that the United States deems a threat while at the same time suggesting the creation of an international system without great power rivalry -- but dominated by the might of the United States. "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace," Bush said.
In the West Point speech, Bush argued that the twin doctrines that had governed U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II -- containment of the Soviet Union and deterrence of potential threats through nuclear weapons -- were no longer viable in an era when stateless terrorists, or a dictator such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, could attack without warning.
Administration officials have insisted that preemptive action could include a range of actions short of military conflict. But analysts and foreign officials fear Bush's doctrine runs the risk of undermining international rules and practices for resolving conflicts, making the world a much harsher place.
"This administration has too many ideologues and too many people that come with baggage. They come with an ideology that is confrontational, that is 100 percent sure of its righteousness," said Maher, the Egyptian foreign minister. The country is "so sure of its power and concentrated on itself that concentration does not allow it to perceive its own interests. Stability in the world. Rules that everybody abides by. That is in the interests of the U.S."
Administration officials said such concerns are misplaced. "The United States is an overwhelming presence right now, there's no doubt about that. Everybody will tell you that," one senior official said. "I sometimes think that there's an unwarranted fear that the United States will use that power in the way that other overwhelming powers did."
The sheer size of the U.S. military -- and the technical expertise demonstrated in Afghanistan -- leaves the United States without peer. The value of Bush's proposed 15 percent increase in military spending -- $48 billion -- is larger than the defense budget of any nation besides Russia, and the overall U.S. military budget of nearly $400 billion is larger than the next 25 nations combined.
Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described Bush's vision of an international system run according to U.S. interests and values as "the new Rome." But, she said, "My reading of history is it doesn't work. . . . . History shows that being the most powerful nation means that others gang up on you."
'Lost in the Rhetoric'
The United States succeeded in the post-World War II era because it demonstrated a commitment to the collective public good, such as the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, that at the same time defused the threat other nations might have felt from U.S. power. Administration officials say they are following in that tradition.
But Mathews said the balancing act is largely missing from the Bush agenda, pointing to the president's decision to skip this week's United Nations summit on sustainable development in South Africa. Nearly 100 world leaders are attending the gathering, including every other head of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
"His absence sends exactly the message they want to send -- and it is an extremely unfortunate one," Mathews said. She described the message as "we don't put this anywhere near the top of our list of international priorities, and we think little of these international gatherings."
A senior administration official countered that Bush, who will visit Africa next year, "has had a more active policy in Africa" than any other president, especially for "an administration that was supposedly distracted by terrorism." Powell will join the 10-day summit on its last day.
Chris Patten, the EU external affairs commissioner, said the United States should not ignore the larger context of uneven world development and Third World poverty. "Am I so naive as to think if you drop 20 million European aid packages on Sudan or Somalia or Afghanistan that terrorism is going to disappear tomorrow?" he asked. "No. But do I think there is a relationship between global inequity and state breakdown and violence and instability and terrorism? Yes."
Administration officials pointed to Bush's promise, made at a conference in Monterrey, Mexico, this year, to boost foreign development aid by as much as $5 billion, a 50 percent increase, as a sign of his commitment to the developing world. Some officials said that, without the Sept. 11 attacks, such a boost in foreign aid likely would not have been contemplated. Bush tied receipt of the aid to adopting sound economic policies and attacking corruption, and the criteria have yet to be spelled out.
One lesson of Sept. 11 is that "little countries, if left untended, can become big problems," Armitage said.
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said that although the increase in foreign aid is dwarfed by Bush's boost in military spending, the administration has made large strides in this area. "The perversity is that Bush has been able to move further on foreign aid than Clinton was," he said. "Bush's track record is much better than critics allow, but it has gotten lost in the rhetoric."
'Sense of Resentment'
U.S. foreign policy aims also have been obscured by the constant battles waged within the administration over primacy for foreign policy, diplomats and foreign officials say. While many are used to conflicts within the U.S. bureaucracy, they say the cacophony of disagreement among the State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council and the vice president's office is highly unusual.
One senior foreign minister said it was impossible to take any assurances made by the State Department on faith, because all too often the final policy was different than originally described.
In Latin America, many officials were concerned when the administration, which frequently touts its commitment to democratic values, initially appeared to condone an attempted coup in Venezuela earlier this year. The administration first signaled that it cheered the ouster of President Hugo Chavez, saying he had provoked the crisis, then backtracked a day later to express its support for the democratic process.
"You can go all over Latin America and you will find disappointment," said Jorge Montano, a political consultant in Mexico City who served as ambassador to Washington from 1993 to 1995. "The behavior of this administration has been extremely erratic, proving their ignorance about what is going on in the region."
The battle for supremacy over foreign policy was most public over the Middle East. Bush made an initial decision to let the Israelis and Palestinians settle their own problems. When violence erupted, he shifted from demands last April that Israelis immediately leave occupied territories to a decision in June to cut off all contact with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. The move to isolate Arafat surprised Arab and European partners in the peace process, largely freezing diplomatic movement.
But internal policy disputes also affect less visible areas. The administration has repeatedly highlighted the problem of weapons of mass destruction, but has been an uncertain participant in efforts to control such weapons. Before Sept. 11, Bush wanted to slash funding for a program to improve the security of Russian nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; he supported new emergency spending immediately after the attacks. Then, in April, the administration effectively halted the program -- but in June, Bush pushed his Group of Seven partners to help fund a new 10-year, $20 billion program.
After all the twists and turns, "the Europeans have no idea if it [the $20 billion plan] is a fig leaf or a real proposal," Mathews said.
Similarly, an eight-year international effort to expand the Biological Weapons Convention has teetered on the edge of failure because the administration, despite sounding alarms about the possibility of bioterror by hostile countries, has vetoed efforts to bolster enforcement mechanisms.
Administration officials say their policies have been consistent. And they argue that the open debate within the administration brings the rest of the world into the conversation.
"We have a noisy, sometimes rambunctious debate in front of and for the president in order to expose the issues to him so he can make a decision," Armitage said. "Sometimes the rambunctious debate here is seen as a sign of unilateralism. I think transparency here in our decision making is actually a good thing."
The perception that the United States is acting with disregard for the consequences of its actions -- whether unfair or not -- may have long-term consequences.
In Asia, Bush's labeling of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" -- along with Iraq and Iran -- is resented in South Korea as having undercut South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's engagement policies with the North. In Japan, administration officials are viewed as insensitive to the delicate balances that have kept the region at peace. Japan worries the administration is not giving much thought to the implications to its chief ally in Asia when it rails against North Korea and talks of attacking Iraq.
Meanwhile, though officials in Washington regard the relationship with Russia as one of the brightest spots of post-Sept. 11 diplomacy -- "the closest and most remarkable U.S.-Russia relationship in history," one U.S. official said -- the view of the relationship in Moscow has begun to sour.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically reoriented Russian foreign policy to perhaps its strongest pro-American inclination ever, which culminated in Moscow's acceptance of Bush's decision to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to jointly scale back strategic nuclear warheads. But rather than benefit from closer ties to Washington and the West, many Russian leaders believe they have been stuck on the wrong end of a one-way street. Bush has not delivered on the economic tradeoffs that Putin was counting on, Russian officials say, and foreign investment has fallen 25 percent in the first six months of 2002.
"There is a deep sense of resentment," said Alexei Arbatov, a leading member of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. "They do not believe that for all the strategic and military concessions Russia will get great economic cooperation."
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland, said that most nations would probably follow the U.S. lead if Bush administration officials demanded it, such as in the case of Iraq. But he offered a note of caution.
"Think if you apply that same strategy and principle to your own lives and your social relations, if you take that attitude as a strategy of winning, where you don't take people's wishes in consideration and calculations into account," he said. "How much resentment builds up awaiting the right moment?"
Correspondents Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan in Mexico City, Glenn Frankel in London, Keith B. Richburg in Paris, Howard Schneider in Cairo, Peter Baker in Moscow, Doug Struck in Tokyo and John Pomfret in Beijing contributed to this report.
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