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Telling the World What to Do: Is US a Model or a Busybody?

Where does the United States draw the line between world leadership and arrogance? The question has bothered foreign policymakers for a long time, but it has seemed especially troublesome lately.

It is now six years since the disappearance of the Soviet Union thrust the US into the position of unchallenged global superpower. This has made a big difference. During the cold war, we were trying to defend the world; now much of the time we look like we are trying to run the world.

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People are glad to be defended; they will usually put up with what is required of them. They are not glad to be told what to do and especially not when it's accompanied by exhortations that "Father (or Mother) knows best." (This is understood by anybody who has ever tried to cajole a child into eating something "that's good for you" when the child doesn't like it.)

Examples abound. The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on how far to go in using the lure of US markets as a lever to force minimum environmental and labor standards on less-developed countries. There are a number of considerations:

* The US would get better access to foreign markets - a plus.

* Foreigners would get better access to US markets - a plus as far as it provides more and cheaper goods to US consumers and jobs to the US workers who distribute the foreign products - a minus as far as it deprives other American workers of jobs.

* Foreign environmental and labor standards would rise - a plus to the extent that happened.

* The people and governments of underdeveloped countries would take offense over Yankee interference in their internal affairs - a minus.

This bundle mixes unrelated things. It poses in classic form the question of where to draw the line: whether we should make trade policy strictly on its own merits, or whether we should link it, and thereby vastly complicate it, with unrelated objectives, worthy though they may be.

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But if we don't make the linkage, does this mean we should tolerate any level of misery in foreign factories or pollution as the price of access to foreign markets? No. For a long time, US law has forbidden the import of goods made by prison labor. Coverage of that law could be broadened if we chose.

Deciding where to draw the line is the crux of leadership, whether we are dealing with hot-button emotional issues or multibillions of dollars.

There are numerous other ways in which we try to tell the rest of the world how to behave.

We try to determine family-planning programs for other countries. We require other countries to get the presidential seal of approval before they can get help in the war on drugs. We refuse to pay our legally obligated dues to the United Nations until that body reforms its administrative structure.

We even apply American legal sanctions against sovereign countries, supposedly immune from US law, which violate our unilateral embargoes of Cuba, Iran, and Libya.

Many, not all, of these actions stem from American attitudes rooted in history and culture. Some stem from ethnic groups grinding axes for (or against) their ancestral homelands. The protesters who attended the visit here of Chinese President Jiang Zemin last week came from a strikingly broad range of the political spectrum. They could probably not have agreed on anything else. In Washington, they said they want a deeper relationship with China but that they want to build it by a vigorous commitment to human rights and democracy. They chose a peculiar way to go about it.

This suggests a deep-seated anti-Chinese bias. The protesters on the right wing of this coalition are strong supporters of Taiwan. Fifty years ago Taiwan had a dictatorial government with a brutal human rights record, and scarcely an American voice was raised in protest. Now Taiwan is prosperous, reasonably free, and democratic.

But it still has a lobby in Washington, a part of whose mission is to foment bad relations between the US and the People's Republic of China.

Tibet also has a lobby here, consisting mainly of exiles and refugees who seek US support for independence. They have been able to secure the appointment of a coordinator of US policy toward Tibet. Nobody else had felt a need to have a policy toward Tibet, much less a coordinator of it.

Much of America's influence in the world comes from its prestige as a country with many admirable characteristics. But this influence is strongest when the country is viewed abroad as a model, not as a busybody.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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