Foreign Policy After Jan. 20

On election night last November, PBS-TV’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer asked three veteran journalists to size up the media’s coverage of the presidential race. Marvin Kalb, who directs a center at Harvard University for the study of the press and politics, complained that foreign policy had been ignored during the campaignignored by the candidates, presumably for their own advantage, and ignored by the press, which neglected its responsibility to ask those candidates how they would conduct foreign affairs.

The other panelists did not dispute Mr. Kalb’s assessment. To put it paradoxically, the evidence of the absence was clear. Now, however, a new president must deal with international relations, and he cannot do that alone. In making and implementing foreign policy, every president needs the support of a sympathetic, or at least a consenting Congress. Since the 207th Congress is about as closely divided as a Congress can be, Mr. Bush can only hope to lead by persuasion. All the same, he could make a place for himself in history if he were to persuade the Congress and the country to adopt a really new approach to foreign policy.


A Republican administration can be expected to inscribe upon its banners, Free Trade! That would not be novel, though, because free trade was actually the main target of the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy. In fact, from John Adams’s anxiety about the raids of Barbary pirates on American vessels to Bill Clinton’s exertions last year to get the China Trade Act passed, the principal objective of the United States overseas, and hence the primary aim of its foreign policy, has been the protection of U.S. citizens and interests abroad.

That view is too narrow for a world power on the interconnected globe of 2001. No one would suggest that Washington should take the national security and U.S. trade interests for granted, and it will not. But the time has come for the makers of U.S. foreign policy to widen their perspective and focus upon the international common good.

In making foreign policy decisions and agreements, the President and the Congress should look at the total impact of these actions. It will not be enough to weigh the advantages of an agreement for the United States or for the party with whom it contracts. Third parties should also be considered, for in today’s world even bilateral relations are multilateral.

There will be plenty of opportunities to apply this broad principle of concern for that universal good with which the U.S. national welfare is now so intertwined. There should be, for instance, a sharply critical reflection on the U.S. share in the world arms trade. Since the United States already has a vast supply of sophisticated weapons, the manufacturers of munitions look elsewhere for marketsand they find them. U.S. arms keep turning up in small wars all over the world. Can the Bush administration tighten effective controls on this deadly trade, and will it do so?

Enough has been said about the positive side of economic globalization. But when the men in Mozambique are wearing blue jeans, the implications are cultural and not merely economic. Americans need greater awareness of the negative side of this international phenomenon, which has produced sweat shops in developing countries and tensions in authoritarian nations like China, where rising profits coexist uneasily with abuse of human rights.

Bill Gates, the founder of the Microsoft Corporation, who is regularly described as the world’s richest man, has rattled U.S. exporters of high technology by pointing out that African villages need electricity and improved methods of agriculture more than they need computers. His critics dismiss this observation by arguing that the poorest countries can have both clean water and digital products. Perhaps so, but the first of these benefits is more essential than the second.

In any case, Mr. Gates’s questionings can serve as a reminder that all citizens, not just the president and members of Congress, should favor a widening of the perspective of U.S. foreign policy. Firm support of the United Nations is the best available way of promoting what the Second Vatican Council called cooperation with the international community. No doubt, some U.N. practices need reevaluation, but despite its shortcomings this organization is the only instrument we have, or are likely to have, for developing a world that will be more or less free of wars.

The United Nations embodies an ideal, and ideals are indispensable. Pope John Paul II made that point on Dec. 8 in the first paragraph of his message for the World Day of Peace. There is a growing hope that relationships between people will be increasingly inspired by the ideal of a truly universal brotherhood, he said, adding at once, Unless this ideal is shared, there will be no way to ensure a stable peace.

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