For most of the second part of the 20th Century,
representatives of foreign governments had grown accustomed to dealing with
a certain type of US official. Ask a Russian diplomat, a Japanese bureaucrat
or a French intelligence officer, and they will probably describe the American
Assistant Secretary of State, a Treasury official, or a CIA agent the following
way: "He was a very tough-minded negotiator who paid attention to details and
knew how to stand his ground. But he was also very clear-headed, non-ideological
and pragmatic. We could do business with him and we were confident that he'll
be able to deliver on his commitments."
The above is more than just a description of what social scientists call an
"ideal type." I've heard it from foreign officials who had negotiated with US
Cabinet secretaries in the past. And in fact, if you just consider two prominent
US public figures who have been in the news lately former Secretary of State
James Baker and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson you would probably use very
similar terms to describe them.
Mr. Baker, who was one of the leading architects of the 1991 Gulf War and the
ensuing Madrid Peace Conference, has co-chaired the Iraq Study Group (ISG) which
recommended, among other things, that the Bush Administration engage Iran (and
Syria) as part of an effort to stabilize Iraq and the Middle East.
Mr. Paulson, who joined the Bush Administration after spending his career as
a successful investment banker on Wall Street, has just returned from Beijing
where he tried to persuade the Chinese, among other things, to let their currency,
the yuan, to rise further and faster.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson remind me of their predecessors in State, the Pentagon
or Treasury Henry Kissinger, Robert Rubin, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall
come to mind. They were all astute statesmen who helped maintain and strengthen
US geo-strategic and geo-economic position.
Committed to what diplomatic historian Walter Russell Mead described as the
"Hamiltonian" approach to foreign policy (named after former Treasury Secretary
Alexander Hamilton), which is based on a realistic promotion of US national
security and economic interests, they sometimes may have used tough rhetoric
in their dealing with other governments but they always refrain from transforming
US policies in global ideological crusades.
And much of their success lay in their skills as negotiators it's not surprising
that many of these and other successful US officials were lawyers and business
executives whose main goal was to reach agreements with partners and foes
alike that would make it less likely that the US would be forced to use military
power or economic sanctions as a way of resolving international crises.
And that is exactly what Mr. Paulson with his trip to China and Mr. Baker with
his ISG have tried and failed to do. Mr. Paulson, who led a team of American
heavyweights (including the Fed chairman) to meet top officials in Beijing,
had hoped that a successful outcome of the talks would create a positive political
momentum in Washington to help contain the pressure from protectionists on Capitol
Hill who want to "punish" China for keeping its currency artificially low against
the US dollar which, they argue, is responsible for the huge US deficit.
According to reports from Beijing and Washington, the talks ended with only
minor progress: commitment to continue the economic dialogue with Beijing on
resolving differences over trade and investment issues, like regulatory transparency
and trade in services. There wasn't any dramatic "breakthrough" that could demonstrate
to the economic warriors on Capitol Hill that "something" will be done to bring
down the widening deficit with China.
Ironically, Mr. Paulson's mission may have raised too much expectation in Washington
for Chinese action on the yuan that was clearly not going to be fulfilled and
thus expected to create the kind of political momentum that the administration
wanted to avoid: rising pressure on Capitol Hill to impose tariffs or other
sanctions on China.
Mr. Baker and his group of 10 Wise Men had expected that their 79 recommendations
would be embraced by President George W Bush and his aides and help erode the
power of the neoconservative ideologues in Washington, and create the conditions
for extricating most of US combat forces from the military quagmire in Iraq
and eventually for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East to the conflicts
in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Syria.
If Mr. Paulson and his Team America attempted to launch a preemptive strike
against the China Bashers in Washington, Mr. Baker and the ISG were leading
a countercoup aimed at ousting the neocons from their positions of influence
in the US Capital.
The signals coming out from the White House indicate that President Bush and
his aides are not going to adopt the proposals contained in the ISG report.
If anything, it seems that Mr. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and
other officials have rejected the idea of engaging Iran and Syria, and are planning
to increase the number of US troops in Iraq, hang tough when it comes to Teheran
and Damascus, and continue advancing the Crusade for Democracy in the Middle
East. There are also no signs that the Democrats in Congress are going to support
the reports prepared by Mr. Baker and his colleagues.
So why do natural winners like Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson end up looking now
like losers, if not whiners? The fault is not in our two stars but in their
boss in the White House. Mr. Bush remains committed to a global strategy that
continues to see the US as a hegemon in the Middle East and East Asia in which
other regional and global actors, like China or Iran, need to be contained and
If America faces counter-pressures around the world, it only needs to cut its
losses, buy some time and wait for an opportunity to push "forward." Under such
conditions, negotiations with some players like Iran (or North Korea) are
seen as counterproductive. Negotiations with other players like China become
ad-hoc, since American refusal to recognize China as a strategic equal and partner
would leave the Chinese with no incentive to make major concessions involving
its core national security and economic interests (like the value of the yuan).
Moreover, whereas Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson are both "Hamiltonian" in their
basic global policy orientation with its emphasis on making the world safe for
Corporate America which was shared by both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill
Clinton, Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice still seem to be advancing a "Wilsonian" foreign
policy approach with its emphasis on a futile ideological crusade of making
the world safe for democracy.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson may be the right people at the right time to try
resolving major US global problems. Too bad that the wrong president is at the
wrong time in the White House.
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