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(07/07/2002 - Prestowitz) Why Don't We Listen Anymore?

Why Don't We Listen Anymore?
By Clyde Prestowitz
7 July 2002
The Washington Post
Page B01
(Copyright (c) 2002, The Washington Post Company)

"The way things are going, it will soon be the United States against the world."

That comment, by a top political leader in Kuala Lumpur, was just one of hundreds of expressions of a new and disturbing alienation from America that I heard during a recent swing through 14 Asian, European and Latin American capitals.

What a contrast to the supportive attitudes abroad immediately after Sept. 11. Then, the sometimes anti-American French journal Le Monde captured the world's sentiment with a headline proclaiming: "We are all Americans." Ten months later, sympathy for the victims of the terror attacks remains. But the American image is increasingly perceived as ugly, and support abroad for U.S. policies is plummeting -- in response to such U.S. actions as the threat last week to withdraw its peacekeepers from Bosnia unless Americans are exempted from jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court.

Of course, anti-Americanism is not new, but what I found disturbing after 35 years of visiting these cities was that foreign leaders who have been longtime friends of the United States are the ones voicing dismay.

While most foreign observers express affinity for Americans as people, they show increasing resentment of the United States as a nation and frequently remark with regard to Sept. 11 that "now America knows what it feels like." They show a sense of satisfaction that, for once, America understands what it's like to be vulnerable. And they hope our tragedy might instill some humility and blunt American arrogance on issues such as energy conservation, global warming and global poverty.

Many people abroad are now convinced that the United States aims to control their destiny and that, despite its talk of democracy, human rights and free trade, the United States really thinks only of its own narrow interests. In Seoul, American hostility toward North Korea is seen to be undermining President Kim Dae Jung's efforts to engage the North. Several top South Korean leaders emphasized to me that Washington either doesn't understand or doesn't care that South Korea cannot afford to take over a collapsing North Korea. "How can we make Washington understand that we need a long transition and that we must prevent, not precipitate, a sudden collapse of the North?" asked a key Korean negotiator.

Others in Asia see the United States, prodded by constituencies at home that are obsessed with China's military, as too narrowly focused in its approach to Beijing and inattentive to sentiments in the region. In China there is widespread disappointment and resentment over the recent U.S. designation of China as a "strategic competitor rather than a strategic partner" as well as over the president's declaration that America "will do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. Both are seen as needlessly hostile. "We want to sell to America, not attack it," said one official in Shanghai. As for Taiwan, no one I met in Asia believed there is any danger of invasion. Indeed, they said, it is the Taiwanese who are "invading" mainland China, where they are the biggest investors and the biggest group of non-mainland residents; nearly 500,000 of them live in Shanghai alone. The only circumstance most observers can imagine that could provoke an attack would be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, something that, ironically, recent U.S. policies are seen to be encouraging.

In six weeks of traveling, I was struck by how often I heard the criticism that while the United States speaks of principles, it often undermines its moral suasion by acting cynically in pursuit of its national interests. Recently, for example, the White House welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir. Only a few years ago, Washington was lambasting Mahathir both for the imposition of capital market controls during the financial crisis of l997 and for human rights abuses in the jailing of his deputy prime minister on charges of engaging in homosexual acts. Today the former deputy prime minister remains in jail and the capital markets remain somewhat restricted, but Mahathir is a favorite in Washington because he is tough on terror. For some, the former U.S. stance confirms Washington's penchant for meddling in the affairs of others while the current stance proves the insincerity of its proclaimed devotion to human rights and free trade.

U.S. trade policies have reinforced the perception of U.S. arrogance and double standards. Generations of U.S. trade negotiators have pounded on Japan, the European Union and others to reduce agricultural subsidies and to open their markets in politically sensitive areas such as computer chips, movies, beef and rice. Now, pleading political necessity, the United States has outraged these nations by increasing its own agricultural subsidies and restricting imports of steel and lumber.

Looming far above all other causes of alienation from America, however, are two transcendent issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American unilateralism.

The gulf between the American view of the Middle East and that of virtually everyone else could not be wider. That helps explain why when President Bush recently called for new Palestinian leadership as a precondition for a Palestinian state, U.S. allies said they would deal with whomever the Palestinians elect, Arafat included.

Americans tend to see Israel as an allied country. The events of Sept. 11 and recent suicide bombings have only strengthened the close American identification with Israel. But people I met overseas, while condemning suicide bombings and sympathizing with the Israeli victims, also noted the plight of the Palestinians and the fact that they have been under occupation of questionable legality for nearly 40 years. One newspaper editor in Singapore even compared the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians with U.S. treatment of Native Americans during the settlement of the American West. Everywhere I went leaders emphasized that calling for an end to Palestinian violence without mentioning the Israeli expansion of settlements is unfair and counterproductive. Yet our friends abroad see the United States as unwilling, for domestic political reasons, to oppose or pressure Israel.

The United States often treats the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a local conflict that can be contained, but it is spilling over. It is radicalizing attitudes in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Strategically important and traditionally practitioners of a liberal Islam, neither nation has significant economic or political ties to the Middle East. Yet no conversation there can get past the Israeli-Palestinian situation that has caused many, including longtime friends of America, to conclude that the United States is attacking Islam itself. My objections -- that the Israeli-Palestinian fight is about territory, not religion, and that it was the Palestinians who rejected what appeared to be a good peace offer from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak two years ago -- were discounted. People said the offer was not acceptable and was only seen as such by Americans because of a religious bias generated by the pro-Israel and Christian right lobbies in Washington. In Europe, the situation is not so emotional, but an official in Paris remarked that in view of France's large Muslim minority, "U.S. policy in the Middle East could be seen as a security risk by my government."

The perception abroad of a new American unilateralism is even more serious. A number of U.S. actions -- our rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming; refusal of initial offers of NATO help in Afghanistan; rejection of agreements to create an International Criminal Court, ban land mines and restrict chemical and biological warfare; as well as the U.S. declaration of a "first strike" policy that might include an attack Iraq -- have convinced foreign observers that the United States no longer feels any need to consult its friends or, indeed, any need for friends at all.

A top European business leader and former EU commissioner who has long been counted among America's best friends said, "After World War II, America was all-powerful and created a new world by defining its national interest broadly in a way that made it attractive for other countries to define their interests in terms of embracing America's." In particular, the United States backed the creation of global institutions, due process and the rule of law. "Now," he said, "you are again all-powerful and the world is again in a period of restructuring but, without talking to anyone, you appear to be turning your back on things you have championed for half a century and defining your interest narrowly in terms of your own immediate military security."

Another former EU commissioner and current corporate chairman in London said, "You no longer want allies or institutions, but only volunteers for posses to chase various gangs of bandits." Citing the world order the United States helped create, he added, "If you now turn your back on it all, we can only feel a sense of disappointment and betrayal, and of deep foreboding."

Foreigners are also frustrated by their inability to influence American thinking. As one former European ambassador to the United States said: "Domestically . . . you have the wonderful system of checks and balances that gives all concerned [with a policy] an ability to influence the outcome. But in foreign policy . . . many of us who will be deeply affected [by American policy] have no opportunity even to make our voice heard, let alone to influence anything."

This lament suggests a partial remedy. While America can't make itself universally loved, a Mexican cabinet minister noted that it would be very costly to be universally disliked. "In an era of global interdependence, even a hyperpower needs friends," he emphasized. The United States needs to pay more than lip service to the views of others. When the White House finds it necessary, as it sometimes will, to swim against the stream of international opinion, it should take pains to explain why and offer alternatives. Often the form matters as much as the substance. As an editor in Tokyo noted, "Imagine how different the reaction to U.S. rejection of the Kyoto treaty would have been if the U.S. had explained the treaty's flaws publicly and made a counterproposal, rather than just saying the treaty wasn't good for the American economy."

Congress could play an important role. It has extensive powers to advise and consent on foreign policy, as well as to direct funding. In exercising these powers, it holds extensive hearings. Yet it rarely calls foreign witnesses. Imagine having the U.S. trade representative and the European trade commissioner square off in front of a congressional committee. It would be a memorable event: Congress and the American people would be better informed, while our friends overseas might feel less frustrated by dint of telling us publicly what they now only confide in private. Most importantly, by paying more attention to its friends America would avoid squandering precious goodwill and ensure that the global lineup will never be "America against the world."

Clyde Prestowitz is founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute. He was a U.S. trade negotiator in the Reagan administration and is the author of a forthcoming book on how the world sees America.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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