Three American Foreign Policies Don't Add Up

By William Pfaff - International Herald Tribune

PARIS - There are three American foreign policies, each leading in a different direction: the official policy of the Clinton administration, articulated by the president and the secretary of state, a Pentagon policy, and the foreign policy of the Congress.

The difference between the congressional and administration foreign policies was responsible for the devastating defeat of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty last week. The president's policy deals with a world which exists outside the Senate imagination. The Senate majority deals in a fantasy of that world.

The foreign policy of Congress is incoherent, but so far as it has a general orientation this has, during the Clinton presidency, moved sharply in the isolationist-nationalist direction, without an understanding of where that road goes. The policy of Congress otherwise serves the wishes of commercial pressure groups and special-interest lobbies with even greater alacrity than does the White House.

The Pentagon's foreign policy roughly approximates the president's but has its own priorities, sometimes succeeds in imposing those priorities despite the intention of the president and Congress, and sometimes allies itself with Congress to check the president.

Basic Pentagon policy is to preserve ''preponderant'' American military strength everywhere in the world, so as to preempt or suppress any challenge to the United States. It is discreet although unsubtle, conducted through military diplomacy, officer exchanges and schools, training missions and joint exercises.

It cultivates military leaders abroad, which often means being in touch with the real power in developing countries. It tends to assume that the U.S. military is the real custodian of American interest, while Congress indulges in demagoguery and presidential administrations pursue partisan agendas.

Pentagon policy is supposed to influence military forces abroad to respect human rights and civilian authority. Indonesia has not been one of its successes, nor was Guatemala before.

There are two kinds of isolationism in America. One of them, debated in responsible policy circles, is usually called neo-isolationism. It would limit U.S. interventions into the affairs of other countries, recommending that the United States tend its own garden and concentrate on cultivating its own virtues. It is a serious national option, but not one likely to be chosen.

The other isolationism is the kind which dominated Senate debate last week. It might be called instinctive isolationism, gut isolationism. It was the foreign policy from America's beginnings until the mid-20th century, except for a burst of imperialist enthusiasm from 1898 to 1905 and the ''war to end war'' in 1917-1918.

In its modern form it tends to be chauvinist, nationalist, unilateralist, untrusting of foreigners and paranoid. It wants the United States to go its own way in the world but also to have its own way. It wants U.S. missile defense, would bring U.S. troops home from the Balkans and Western Europe, and it would defend American interests with sanctions, trade boycotts, political bullying and, when necessary, Tomahawk missiles. Patrick Buchanan is running for president on a platform of gut isolationism.

In the test ban treaty rejection, the Senate majority demonstrated its distrust of arms limitation agreements in general. Its members favor reliance on U.S. arms and a new U.S. missile defense system, rather than on treaties, even if building that missile defense wrecks existing nuclear arms limitation agreements.

Most Americans are comfortable with the idea of keeping the world at arm's length. The disadvantage is that doing so is bad for business and employment, and arguably for national security as well. Traditional isolationism is no longer very practical.

Communications are too developed, international society's interests too intertwined, trade interdependence too great, for instinctive isolationism to be a real policy choice.

However, the lesson of the test ban affair is that while Senate isolationists cannot impose their own policy they can do much damage to mainstream American internationalism. They have done the same thing with their refusal to pay United Nations assessments.

This is why the United States has become what might be called a lame duck superpower. It proclaims ambitious global policies and American leadership but increasingly lacks the ability to deliver on its promises.

The present administration, or whatever administration follows in 2001, can ask for international cooperation and proclaim American world leadership, but you can't lead the world when the Senate won't ratify the treaties or pay the country's bills. In America, only the Pentagon has both a foreign policy and the means to carry it out.

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]