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Monday, July 23, 2001

Creating enemies and losing influence

LOS ANGELES — In Moscow and Genoa this past week, the faint outlines of a reactive global containment policy toward America emerged.

In Russia, Beijing and Moscow signed a "friendship and cooperation" treaty. And in Italy, at the summit of the G8 group of industrialized nations, strong objections again surfaced over the so-named U.S. national missile defense.

In the past, U.S. internationalists worried about the possibility of a creeping American isolationism. Now the worry is about a creeping American unilateralism: If America can do it (build a vast missile defense), then, by golly, let's do it. It's certainly not an irrational worry: After all, the Bush administration has already trashed the international arms control process, including, shockingly, the valuable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and, in effect, the venerable Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

This inward-looking psychology, or pathology, is especially alarming to U.S. allies. They count on U.S. military security guarantees in the context of our explicit alliances with them. But the Bush administration's security philosophy seems to be more like the game of solitaire than bridge.

This gun-slinging cowboy mentality is reflected in the administration's warmth toward the obscure Pentagon doctrine officially known as RMA. These are initials for the Revolution in Military Affairs theory that proposes to transform America's military posture from being capable of fighting two wars simultaneously to relying mainly on a futuristic "Star Wars" approach. "The RMA isn't overtly ideological," wrote the New Yorker magazine's Nicholas Lemann recently, "but it makes for a good fit with a foreign policy that is suspicious of international alliances and prefers to see the United States act mainly alone and mainly to protect itself."

Unsurprisingly, RMA is the theoretical framework for missile defense. And so while the Bush administration may be prepared to downsize its initial phase in order to thread the requested appropriation through a skeptical Congress, it will absolutely fight to preserve this keystone of its defense posture. After all, lots of campaign contributors will not be unhappy if RMA causes MD to take off.

Even with the best of U.S. intentions (meaning that the Bush administration really thinks it'll work, will make the world safer for everyone except the rogues, etc.), a large-scale missile defense, born from the RMA doctrine, could well emerge as the international icon for America's new unilateralism. "We are, in the eyes of many," says U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering in the current issue of Foreign Policy, "the hegemon. Our friends in Russia and China are strong advocates of multipolarity, which is a code name for finding ways to constrain the United States."

The world worries that Bush's creeping unilateralism is in fact a search for even greater military advantage than we already have. So, an informal containment policy against America? Yes.

Sure, the perceived American abrasiveness and bullheadedness are probably as much a matter of the Bush administration's style as substance. To coin a phrase from the prior Bush president, what's urgently needed now is a "kinder, gentler" international profile. And so what Bush should craft is a foreign policy that relies less on defensive missile rattling and more on old-fashioned, considerate diplomacy. He must mount a worldwide charm offensive and cage those hawks. U.S. foreign policy is starting to look less and less benign.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. Los Angeles Times Syndicate International

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