Sunday, September 30, 2007

ROGER COHEN: The Politics of Confidence


The unpopularity of George W. Bush has led many to believe global America-hating will ebb once he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009. That’s a dangerous assumption.

It’s dangerous because the extent of American power will continue to invite resentment whoever is in the White House, and because America’s perception of the terrorist threat will still differ from that of its Asian and European allies. Asians are focused on growth, Europeans on integration: different priorities cause friction.

The Iraq-linked damage to U.S. credibility is too severe to be quickly undone. The net loss of Western influence over the world means the ability of Bush’s successor to shape events is diminished.

Still, the next U.S. leader will enjoy a honeymoon. To prolong it, several steps are essential. The most critical is a switch from the politics of anxiety to the politics of confidence.

Bush and Cheney never emerged from the 9/11 bunker. Their attack-dog snarl alienated a globe asked to step in line or step aside. The expectation of fealty must give way to the entertainment of dissent.

The next leader has to be curious. Presidential body language needs to say “I’m one of you.” Facebook engagement must supplant fearful estrangement.

Even a bit of curiosity reveals that kids from Toledo to Tokyo talk about the weather. The consensus on global warming is such that America’s refusal to lead the green debate has been disastrous.

Bush’s successor must confront one of this century’s central challenges: the transition to a low-carbon global economy. Developing countries, especially China, think we made the mess and should clean it up. Only the United States has the capacity to draw India and China into a post-Kyoto push for cleaner air with undiminished growth.

Climate is universal. So are many problems, like growing inequality. The world resembles a pool table: movement of one ball propels others. Yet the institutions to deal with it — the U.N. Security Council or G-8 — are antiquated.

“International institutions are designed for the world as it was rather than as it is,” says David Miliband, the British foreign secretary.

The 44th president should push to modernize them in ways that reflect the weight of China, India and Brazil, and economic progress in Africa. Proposing Japan for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council is not enough.

The war on terror has been a divisive phrase. It has brought some successes — America has been kept safe — but has amalgamated jihadists bent on the West’s destruction with national movements like the Palestinian whose goal is distinct. Islam now sees America as enemy.

The next president can help move beyond polarization by speaking of counterterrorism rather than global wars, focusing on a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, and coaxing the European Union to admit Turkey.

A decent medium-term outcome in Iraq demands regional diplomacy involving Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the latter, nonproliferation must prevail. It has prevailed in the past — in South Africa, Libya, South America. It must be made to work in Iran. The alternative is an unacceptable Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.

Europe has influence in Tehran. There are now three leaders — Gordon Brown in Britain, Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Angela Merkel in Germany — with a genuine liking for America. None were involved in the Iraq acrimony.

The next president must work with them to squeeze the mullahs. Iran demands unity. So does the propagation of Western values: pluralism, rule of law, independent media, market economies.

Liberal democracy has taken a battering. A countermodel now exists: the authoritarian-capitalist, or Leninist-capitalist, systems of China and Russia. They have benefited from Iraq’s democracy-as-mayhem.

China is pushing no-strings-attached “harmony” in its quiet quest for natural resources and global influence. Petropower has upped Russian testosterone.

Both countries have a 19th-century view of the 21st century: sovereign great powers will dominate. To manage these ambitions, the next president must cultivate rather than trample on America’s global alliances.

Monk-power in Myanmar suggests that the magnetism of open societies is undimmed. Africa knows enough of despotism to doubt a China model. The American idea can still resonate. The coming leader must embody rather than impose it.

Pressure on the next administration to turn inward will be strong. Protectionism has appeal to a hard-pressed middle class. Retreat attracts a nation scarred by Bush’s radical and bungled overreach.

But the world will be much more dangerous without the responsible exercise of U.S. power in the name of barrier-breaking instead of barrier-building. The next president must sell that conviction.

Multilateralism without a global arbiter has been tried. It produced World War I and World War II.

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