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Monday, Oct. 3, 2005


Toward a sensible U.S. foreign policy

LOS ANGELES -- An admittedly general but perhaps not insignificant consensus in America on the necessary future direction of U.S. foreign policy appears finally to be emerging -- and not a moment too soon.

Sure, the idea is not exactly the intellectual equivalent of Einstein's theory of relativity. And, sure, it has been in formulation for a decade and a half, going back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But whoever said America was that quick? If the direction proves as sensible as it would appear to be right now, it was well worth waiting for.

The new foreign-policy consensus might be called "Global Getting-Along."

Catchy? Perhaps not. But the new consensus idea is quite different from the prior conceptual framework, known as communist containment, which ruled the U.S. foreign-policy roost until 1989, or -- more recently -- from unilateralism, which more or less ruled Washington during President George W. Bush's first term, though not of course the quieter, gentler administration of his father, George H.W. Bush (1989-93).

The new Global Getting-Along aims at avoiding major military conflict with anyone hefty enough to actually hurt the U.S. and it emphasizes international economic integration, global rule-making and a mature balancing of domestic vs. international priorities.

The rough consensus idea was nicely articulated last week by Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. This is the (sometimes but not always smug) New York-based intellectual temple of foreign-policy wisdom perhaps best known for its authoritative journal Foreign Affairs. Haass, a former top adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and special assistant to the first President Bush, laid out his thoughts at a World Affairs Council luncheon while promoting his latest book, "The Opportunity," which, to be honest, is so luminously solid, sensible and un-smug it almost seems . . . well, un-American.

The new consensus direction, Haass suggested, would have America steer clear of all unpleasant and risky foreign-policy directions. That would include clashing with any civilization, or preclude playing chicken with China. "There's no need for competition with China," Haass said. "There's every reason for cooperation," adding: "We can't do it by ourselves. Unilateralism is not an option."

He emphasized that the most significant and difficult world problems are shared headaches that will require multilateral solutions. "If you don't have almost total global involvement on a major issue, you have a hole in the net -- and no solution." Isolation, no more than unilateralism, makes no sense. But if America is to avoid the fate of other empires, it must not squander resources. Hurricane Katrina, as Haass notes, lifted the roof over more than homes and apartment buildings; it has "resurfaced the age-old American dilemma of how much we do abroad vs. how much we do here at home."

Referring to the current daunting U.S. budget deficit, he invoked the mild wit of the late Herbert Stein, top economic adviser in the Nixon administration: "That which can not go on forever, won't."

The mildness, sense of proportion and near-humility of the Haass presentation was a breath of fresh air. And its focus on relating maturely to emerging China (given the enormous stakes involved) went over extremely well with his Asia-conscious West Coast audience.

Interestingly enough, that sensible approach was mirrored the previous week by a notable speech from the Chinese side: "The development of our relationship is in the fundamental interests of our two countries as well as our peoples. It has and will continue to have the wide-ranging support from our governments and peoples. It is capable of removing the disruptions and moving ahead."

The speaker was none other than China's U.N. ambassador. The setting was a luncheon hosted by the Asia Society in New York. Like Haass, Zhou Wenzhong was modest, sensible and forward looking. "China never seeks hegemony. China never dreams a 'Soviet Union dream". . . China respects U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region and welcomes its active and constructive role in Asia. . . ."

Taken together, these two speeches comprise a promising perspective on the international relations of the future. They are important statements, by serious people, that could help the world develop a sense of where it has been and where it needs to go. The new consensus is not too good to be true. But it needs to be accepted as true, if the world wants to realize good.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a UCLA professor. Copyright Tom Plate 2005

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