GEORGE BUSH has often been a target of for his alleged lack of vision in foreign policy. Bill Clinton's recent characterization of United States diplomacy, as "reactive, rudderless, and erratic," was only the latest assault on a president whose decisiveness during the Gulf war seems a distant memory. Even Republicans, such as former President Richard Nixon, have faulted the president for responding rather than shaping events.
In many respects, these criticisms are misplaced. The White House has advanced a number of clear goals, ranging from broad themes like a "New World Order" to more specific formulations such as "Europe: Whole, Prosperous, and Free." A close reading of presidential speeches reveals careful and meticulous attention to enunciating principles that will guide US policy.
Nor do criticisms about President Bush's "prudence" on issues such as aid to the Soviet Union hold up when placed in context. The White House revealed its major assistance package for the Commonwealth of Independent States less than 100 days after Yeltsin's government took power - a period roughly comparable to the 15 weeks it took Harry Truman to launch the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Yet, in spite of these efforts, neither the administration's pronouncements nor policies have taken hold in the public mind. The perception remains that the White House lacks a coherent blueprint for framing US diplomacy. As an observer wrote recently in the New York Times, "Never has the lack of vision in Washington been more obvious."
Rhetoric aside, many of these laments reflect a yearning for a simpler, less complicated era. A more likely explanation for the administration's perceived lack of vision rests with the nature of the times rather than a Bush failure to articulate a coherent framework. If the thought of being hanged tends to concentrate the mind, the existence of a clear and present danger provides a compelling focal point for foreign policy.
In 1941 the danger Germany posed to Britain was so extreme that Churchill remarked: "I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby." Similarly, George Kennan authored the doctrine of containment in 1946 to alert his countrymen to what he saw as a grave threat: a Soviet push into Europe, Asia, and the Mideast. In these examples the enemy was clearly defined, the threat immediate (or seen so), and lines of battle clearly drawn.
We no longer live in such a world. The collapse of the Soviet empire eliminated the great geopolitical threat to the US. We are now confronted with a complex patchwork of problems. Some are related; some are not. Some are global; some are regional. Some are serious and immediate; others are less important now but could become dangerous in the future.
Consider the staggering diversity of a few issues on the US foreign policy agenda: preventing nuclear proliferation within the former Soviet Union, stopping Airbus subsidies in the European Community, coping with Israeli settlements on the West Bank, preventing an influx of migration under a North American Free Trade Agreement, encouraging Japan to play a larger role in Asian security, improving communication links with Cuba - not to mention involvement with South Africa, the global environment, and so o n.
These are disparate problems that need to be resolved on their own terms. It is wishful to assume Bush or anyone else can articulate a vision capable of integrating these issues into a consistent, coherent strategy. The attempt to do so will end up producing either a few bland generalities of little practical significance, or an extremely detailed set of guidelines that will miss the forest for the trees. Recent efforts to draft Japan, or Islamic fundamentalism, into an adversarial role are even more mis guided.
The administration has an objective of maintaining US leadership while ensuring stability in the post-cold-war world. However this goal requires a more differentiated strategy than in simpler times. Americans must realize we no longer face one enemy, but a diverse set of problems and opportunities. No amount of intellectual gymnastics will be able to craft a grand, unifying strategy that can be reduced to a bumper sticker. Politicians and pundits would be better served if they gave up the search for such
a vision and focused on addressing the specific principles the administration has advanced for coping with particular regions and issues. Though less romantic, the result would be more relevant.