At the beginning of his second term, the president of the United States is facing generation-shaping challenges on the world stage. Recent attacks on the homeland and the dictates of war have forced a massive reorganization of national security structures, including the entire intelligence apparatus. Difficult nation-building projects are draining U.S. resources and energies in the aftermath of recent conflicts, and a global threat persists from an enemy ideologically opposed to Western ideals of freedom and democracy. The president's doctrine for overcoming those threats remains controversial, and is often criticized both at home and abroad as overreaching.
If the situation sounds dire, take solace in the familiar echoes of history: The president described above is not George W. Bush. It was "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" Truman. And the year was not 2005 but 1949, when a new generation being shaped by global conflict rose to the challenge. The question posed by the second inauguration of President Bush is whether this administration is capable of fashioning a worthy successor to the Truman Doctrine, which gave rise to the Marshall Plan and the Cold War strategy of containment, a strategic grand slam that secured the United States' role as the superpower leader of the Western alliance and led to victory over communism. Many analysts believe that the stakes are now the highest they've been in the intervening half-century.
"I do think the situation today parallels the start of President Truman's second term in office in January 1949, when decisions and the events that prompted them shaped the history of the next four decades," said Simon Serfaty, who holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Like George Bush, Truman embarked on his second term with only a limited domestic mandate, Serfaty noted, and his popularity in Europe was tenuous.
"But in an extraordinary series of decisions in 1949, Truman put forward ideas and molded a successful strategy that was neither American nor European in nature, but rather 'Western.' That solidarity between America and Europe remains the best recipe for global security today," said Serfaty. "My concern now is that the United States is no longer in control of events, but rather, events are controlling us. And if the present outreach by the Bush administration to allies in Europe is spurned, or is unsuccessful, then the issues we face together will worsen, the bad feelings across the Atlantic will grow, and the Western alliance that is already splintering may never recover."
Style, or Substance?
Certainly, moves by the Bush administration since the November election have indicated an eagerness to turn the page on the chapter in international relations that opened on 9/11 and ended with the diplomatic meltdown over Iraq. Before his election victory was a month old, Bush traveled to Chile for a summit of Asian and South American leaders and then to Canada to reach out to the U.S.'s nearest ally. Both trips were efforts to mend relations frayed over the Iraq war and its aftermath. In February, Bush is scheduled to go to Brussels, where he will visit European Union and NATO officials before moving on to Berlin and Moscow to meet successively with two major opponents of the Iraq invasion -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Administration officials have even suggested that Bush may soon invite French President Jacques Chirac, his chief antagonist over Iraq, to the White House.
After the exit of Secretary of State Colin Powell was announced, Bush also moved to mollify international concerns by appointing Condoleezza Rice to the post. Rice, the national security adviser and close Bush confidant, is considered more internationalist and alliance-friendly than are the neoconservatives at the Pentagon and in the vice president's office. Rice added to that goodwill by choosing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns as her No. 2 and, reportedly, No. 3, respectively, at Foggy Bottom. Both men have impeccable multilateralist credentials.
When the administration's offering of $15 million in assistance to the victims of the Asian tsunami in December was judged miserly, Bush within days upped the ante to $350 million and dispatched his brother Jeb and Powell to the region as high-level emissaries. Those actions revealed a willingness to quickly switch gears and show more sensitivity to world opinion -- something little in evidence in his first term. Within hours of the victory of moderate Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential election on January 9, Bush extended an invitation to Abbas to visit the White House, an invitation that had been denied to former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Bush's outreach signaled a potential U.S. re-engagement in the Middle East peace process long sought by European allies.
The question now is whether those moves are mostly stylistic flourishes designed to temporarily mask the hard edges of U.S. foreign policy -- or whether they are signs of a substantive effort to adjust the Bush Doctrine in the face of demands by allies for more consultations and consensus-building.
The answer could well shape the history of the early 21st century and determine whether the United States reclaims leadership of the industrialized democracies. Either America will lead the West in a collective effort to confront crises in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and in North Korea -- not to mention the long-term challenges of terrorism and the proliferation of doomsday weapons; or, a United States determined to address disparate crises with ad hoc coalitions of the moment will continue to go its own way, unfettered by traditional alliances and suspicious of international legal structures.
"If you look at the Bush administration's actions after the election, I think they've clearly realized that their often-brusque style has been counterproductive, and that by reducing our attractiveness overseas, it has diminished American soft power," said Joseph Nye, a former dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. "Given that President Bush has declined invitations to admit any mistakes, however, it's difficult to know whether his administration is pursuing a more multilateral course at the moment simply because the U.S. military is overextended in Iraq and they have run out of good options, or whether they are aware of the damage done to America's image and are quietly trying to change course. That's the million-dollar question."
Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, the intellectual home of influential neoconservatives in the Bush administration, most of whom will remain in the second term. Speculation that Bush's outreach campaign amounts to a substantive change in foreign-policy direction, she says, is a gross miscalculation of the nature and core beliefs of Bush and his senior advisers.
"There has been a change in atmospherics: The substance of Bush's foreign policy has been expressed more politely, the outreach to other leaders has been enthusiastic, and that's all to the good," Pletka said in an interview. "But I have seen zero evidence of a change in the underlying policy. The basic idea that the United States is going to use its muscle to promote democracy as a long-term solution to Islamic extremism in the Middle East has become so mainstream as to be conventional wisdom today, and I would call that a resounding victory for neoconservatives."
A Controversial Doctrine
Certainly, the Bush administration has failed to win wide acceptance, even among its traditional allies, for the Bush Doctrine. From the very beginning, the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine for fighting the global war on terror and countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction was based on a bold premise: that American power, unconstrained by traditional bonds and honed to a domineering edge by a transformed high-tech military, could not merely check or contain, but decisively defeat those threats.
In announcing this doctrine, Bush took aim not just at Al Qaeda, but also at any terrorist organization with global reach. His doctrine also included those nations that sponsored terrorism, exhibited "rogue" behavior, and pursued weapons of mass destruction. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush named three of the worst offenders as part of an "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- and then in his 2002 National Security Strategy document, he implied that the United States would be prepared to attack them pre-emptively, if need be. The Pentagon, meanwhile, continually insisted that any such campaigns would result not from close consultations with traditional alliances such as NATO, but rather with an ad hoc "coalition of the willing."
When all of those controversial premises seemed to coalesce around the Iraq war, the Western alliance essentially split. In a second term, the Bush administration confronts a choice between trying to recast the doctrine in a way that mends the rift and wins wider international support, or continuing to fashion a more "go-it-alone" approach that emphasizes American "exceptionalism."
Ironically, the Iraq difficulties may provide Washington and its allies with the chance to undertake a sobering period of reflection, and the opportunity to seek a middle ground where their interests still intersect. "Despite a lot of happy talk from the Bush administration, I'm pessimistic that they are willing to take concrete steps to improve our alliances. But even if their mind-set has not changed at all, it's difficult to imagine the next international crisis they would be willing to provoke," said Philip Gordon, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
"The reality of the situation is that the United States military is badly overstretched, we're facing huge deficits and running out of money, and we have few allies in Iraq," Gordon said. Those difficulties have provided a certain breathing space, he said, for all sides to contemplate where the Western alliance goes from here. "At some point, our allies are likely to stop fearing our power, and start worrying more about the weakness of a United States that remains bogged down in Iraq. That would be a sea change in international affairs."
To reclaim a middle ground on which a united Western alliance can once again stand firmly, some analysts say, the Bush administration needs to consult more closely with traditional allies, and to show greater deference to international law. That seemed to be the message behind the Bush administration's planned trip to the European Union and to NATO in February, as well as behind recent declarations in support of the Geneva Conventions against torture. Follow-on initiatives designed to win international support might include greater U.S. participation in efforts to reform the United Nations, and a long-promised Bush plan for reducing emissions that contribute to global warming. Re-engagement in the Middle East peace process, meanwhile, could once again cast the United States in the role of "peacemaker," a position from which it derived significant global legitimacy in the past.
"I think the Bush administration underestimated the degree to which the legitimacy of American power is linked to a fundamental respect for international law," said David Hendrickson, a professor at Colorado College and the co-author of "Iraq and U.S. Legitimacy" in the November/December 2004 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. "There were times in the past when we departed from international law, but they were generally viewed as the exception and not the rule. For the Bush administration to treat international law disdainfully with doctrines like 'pre-emption' and memos seeming to authorize torture not only alarmed our traditional allies, but it diminished us in world opinion."
For their part, allies will need to meet the Bush administration halfway, at least in part by taking seriously U.S. concerns about the volatile mix of rogue states, terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction. Already, Britain, France, and Germany have taken the lead in negotiations designed to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, while Japan and South Korea are closely involved in similar negotiations with North Korea. The next step is for the United States and its allies to fashion coherent approaches, and agreed-upon packages of carrots and sticks, that can lead to successful conclusions to those negotiations.
"I think we're at a point where both the United States, and its European allies in particular, realize that while they may not necessarily love each other, they need to work together to solve the problems that confront us all," said John Hulsman, a research fellow in foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "In terms of the United States, there is simply no other place but Europe where Washington can look and find five or six major players and allies."