America's New Agenda How the US Can Fix its Damaged Reputation Abroad

Eight years of Bush administration leadership has severely damaged the reputation of the United States abroad. The incoming president will inherit this deficit as well as a host of other foreign policy crises. To gain back trust, he will have to address nonproliferation and climate change.

By Strobe Talbott


Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima: "It didn't take the actual experience of Armageddon to spur the international regulation of national arsenals."
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Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima: "It didn't take the actual experience of Armageddon to spur the international regulation of national arsenals."

The president of the United States inaugurated on January 20, 2009 will inherit the most complex, difficult and dangerous array of foreign policy challenges ever facing a newcomer to the Oval Office: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rising Iran, a Pakistan that has lost control of its own borders, a languishing Arab-Israel peace process, a Syria covertly cooperating with North Korea on a nuclear weapons program -- and that is just in one region of the world. In dealing with those and other problems, the United States, under its next president, will need all the help in can get from other nations. Therefore the incoming chief executive will have to move quickly to improve -- and indeed repair -- America's image in the world.

Polls taken in recent years show a precipitous decline in respect for and trust in the United States. Those two essential ingredients for leadership of the international community have been severely damaged during the administration of George W. Bush. During his first term, President Bush withdrew from, nullified, "unsigned" or backed away from a range of agreements, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was originally signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev and was observed by the five presidents who followed Nixon.

The Bush administration's decision in 2003 to invade and occupy Iraq in defiance of the UN Security Council and over the objections of many US allies was the high-water mark of US unilateralism -- and, correspondingly, a new low in America's standing in the eyes of the world. Toward the end of his first term, as Iraq turned from a military "cakewalk" into a political quagmire, President Bush realized the need for course-correction and fence-mending. At the start of his second term, he sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Europe and then made a conciliatory trip of his own. The administration re-engaged cautiously in multilateral diplomacy aimed at peacefully dealing with the threats of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Bush entered his last year in office hoping to score diplomatic points in the Middle East and elsewhere. But those hopes dimmed with his public opinion ratings at near-record low and time running out.

Daunting as the US foreign-policy agenda will be, the next president will have several advantages on which to capitalize in the first months of 2009. One will be a honeymoon with the US Congress; another will be a grace period with international public opinion; and a third will be the potential for significant improvement in transatlantic relations.

If the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified by the European Union's 27 member-states, it will enter into force at about the same time that the 44th US president takes the oath of office. The treaty will place the European Union on an upward trajectory. In addition to restructuring and improving the efficiency of governance, the treaty enhances Europe's ability to speak with a single, clearer voice. The new EU Common Security and Defense Policy will bolster the European Union's coherence in the role it plays in the world. This will principally occur through the creation of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the new president of the European Council, and the European External Action Service.

The Lisbon Treaty's entry into force will be especially propitious because it will come at a time when many reservations about European integration have finally been dispelled. US officials went out of their way to make this point to their European interlocutors in the run-up to the NATO summit in Bucharest earlier this year. While there have been plenty of ups and downs in the past -- especially in the relationship between the alliance and the European Union -- Bucharest appears to be a turning point, and US support for a strong European Union is likely to be assured for years to come. There will continue to be friction on issues such as US support for Turkey's accession to the European Union, an American position with wide support across the American spectrum. But these matters will not -- or at least should not -- be allowed to obscure the central points that a stronger, more cohesive, indeed more assertive European Union will be a positive factor in the emergence of more effective structures of global cooperation -- a goal that Bush's predecessors going back to the end of World War II saw as an American priority and that his successor must reinstate with urgency and conviction.

Starting Off Right

At the heart of any effort to restore faith in the United States must be a concerted effort to reaffirm American dedication to international law and multilateral institutions as part of the bedrock of American foreign policy. Of immediate concern, the next president should, shortly after coming into office, affirm full adherence to the Geneva and UN torture conventions, restore the right of habeas corpus for US-held detainees, and "re-sign" the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court.

These steps—in addition to being important in their own right—will burnish the United States's credibility as a leader in undertaking two multilateral initiatives that are of surpassing importance to the global community: rescuing the nuclear nonproliferation regime and avoiding a catastrophic tipping point in the process of climate change. The United States has a triple responsibility both for these problems and for their solution. It is, after all, the most heavily armed nuclear weapons state; it has been, until recently (when it was overtaken by China), the largest producer of greenhouse gases; and it is the only country that has the capacity to lead the multilateral effort necessary to cope with both challenges.

Arms control and nuclear nonproliferation are endangered enterprises. Fortunately, the presidential contenders in both parties have signaled a desire to revive US-Russian arms control negotiations. To make up for lost time, the winner in November should undertake an array of initiatives, starting with one directed at Moscow. Drastic reductions in the American and Russian nuclear stockpiles are important as an example to other countries.

The goal of eventually abolishing nuclear weaponry is written into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which the US Senate ratified nearly 40 years ago. Until recently, disarmament has been treated as an object of lip-service. That is beginning to change. Over a year ago, four prominent statesmen-- Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn (two Republicans and two Democrats) -- have advocated total, universal disarmament as a serious, if long-term, objective of US policy. The next US administration may find that it has more political running room than its predecessors to negotiate with Moscow on nuclear weapons levels -- and the closer to zero the better.

The United States should also resume negotiations with Russia on anti-missile missiles. More than 40 years ago, American statesmen persuaded their Soviet counterparts that the most dangerous -- not to mention most expensive -- kind of arms race is one in which each side tries to deflect the other's spears with an elaborate array of shields. In signing the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, the Soviet Union reluctantly accepted that logic.

Then-President Ronald Reagan, however, did not. Even though he left the ABM treaty intact, he gave political respectability to the scientifically and strategically dubious notion that a space-based super shield could make nuclear-tipped spears "impotent and obsolete." In 2002, Bush pulled the United States out of the ABM treaty. Unless the next administration comes up with new, negotiated means of averting an unregulated offence-defense competition, we are likely to see Russia and China respond by deploying additional intercontinental missiles and taking a variety of measures to overwhelm, penetrate, and blind US defenses. There could eventually be a similar trend among potential nuclear weapons states.

There is a growing number of countries in that category. The 1990s, the first post-Cold War decade, could turn out also to have been a prelude to the post-NPT era, and it will be one of nuclear anarchy. Today there are nine countries with nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and, presumptively, Israel. Over the next decade or so, though, a dozen or more other countries might blast their way into the club. The bilateral animosities that might trigger "small" nuclear wars already include India-Pakistan and North Korea-US. In the relatively near future, that list could include Iran-Israel, Israel-Egypt, Iran-Egypt, Iran-Saudi Arabia, and China-Taiwan.

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and, by extension, the likelihood of one of those conflicts will depend more than anything else on the peaceful resolution of the current standoff with Iran. With the clock ticking and Iranian centrifuges spinning, this is certainly one of the most urgent problems that will be confronting the new president. On the one hand, there has been some reason for optimism about the diplomatic effort, based primarily on cooperation between the United States and its EU partners in seeking negotiated solutions.

The problem is that Iran has barely budged, and at times, its stance seems to have hardened. Depending on who wins the US presidency in November, the approaches to Iran could vary considerably. But for a satisfactory outcome, there clearly will have to be increased pressure on Teheran even if there is also a US-Iranian dialogue. That means more -- and tougher -- sanctions. European leaders will be challenged to deal with skeptical publics and disaffected business communities when Washington asks them to sign on to such a program. European leaders will be well within their rights to ask Washington for assurances that its nonproliferation and arms control efforts will go beyond dealing with Iran. That means reaffirming with concrete actions the "NPT bargain," which calls for the weapons states to work for the abolition of nuclear arms. But European leaders will still have to undertake the hard work of selling sanctions at home.

The stakes could hardly be higher. It is all too easy to imagine two US allies at some point seriously reconsidering their past decisions to forgo the bomb. The more worried Turkey becomes about its neighborhood, and the less it feels part of the West and protected by NATO, the more likely it is, over time, to seek its own nuclear capacity. In Japan, senior officials of the ruling party, along with members of the foreign policy elite, have begun suggesting that there should be a national debate about whether their country should acquire nuclear weapons.

The unraveling of the NPT may pose a danger less spectacular than a single, sudden and apocalyptic "exchange" of H-bomb-tipped rockets between the United States and the Soviet Union. But the new danger is more plausible than the old one, since it is harder to maintain a stalemate in the deadly game of mutual deterrence when there are multiple small players rather than two big ones.

For this reason, it is necessary to do everything possible to raise the barriers to the different stages of nuclear weapons development. Of vital importance is a moratorium on the production of fissile material pending a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. To attain that goal, America should join its principal allies and partners in direct, sustained negotiations not only with Iran but also with North Korea to bring them back into the NPT as fully compliant non-nuclear weapons states. If those talks are to have any chance of success, Washington will need to establish full diplomatic relations with the governments in Tehran and Pyongyang. Regime change will have to be left to the peoples of those countries.

Another valuable but languishing pact is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The single most short-sighted and harmful act by the US Senate in recent years was its refusal to ratify this treaty in 1999. At that time there were Republican senators who privately acknowledged the recklessness of their party's action. Perhaps they will be more outspoken and persuasive in 2009, the 10th anniversary of that colossal blunder.

Moreover, it is essential to resurrect the CTBT from the limbo to which the Republican-controlled Senate consigned it eight years ago by refusing to ratify it; and to stop dropping hints that the United States might break out of the CTBT -- that is, begin testing again—in order to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. The need for a next generation of armaments would be less compelling were there a consensus that the United States should lead the way toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Unless the next president works with the Senate to put the CTBT back on a path toward ratification, it will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to prevent other nuclear states from resuming testing -- and to keep the nuclear aspirants from testing for the first time. The more nations that have nuclear weapons, the greater the risk that some will fall into the hands of sinister non-governmental organizations, or "non-state actors," such as Al Qaeda. Terrorists with a few primitive nuclear devices are, in their own way, scarier than a superpower with thousands of sophisticated ones. By definition, a suicide bomber is going to be attracted, not deterred, by the prospect of mutual assured destruction. Therefore, the NPT needs to be supplemented by new agreements and enforcement agencies that will keep tight control over lethal technology.

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