The American Paradox

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American historians love no game better than "name that Period." From Reconstruction to the Progressive Era, from the cold war back to the distant Era of Good Feelings (1817-1823), every epoch gets its moniker. I'd like to venture a name for the period that began in 1989 and is still going strong: the Age of Paradox.

The era started with U.S. victories in the cold war and the Gulf War and the country celebrated by tossing out the presiding Commander in Chief, George Bush. Since Bill Clinton's election in 1992, U.S. wealth and power have soared, but the nation's political life has been riven witness the government shutdowns of 1995, when the Republican Congress and Democratic President couldn't agree on a budget, or Clinton's 1998 impeachment, a nadir of partisan hostility.

To these symptoms of division, add the flabbergasting election of 2000. In the closest race in 40 years, the electorate gave a hairsbreadth endorsement to Al Gore, candidate of the status quo when the status quo has never been better. But it wasn't enough to overcome the schizoid math of the Electoral College. Moreover, the incoming President arrives with an enormous question mark hung over his legitimacy by a fractured Supreme Court. Equally important, the balance between the parties in Congress is about as close as at any time in history. It seems that Americans don't know what they want, or at least know they don't want to empower any party with the kind of majorities needed to take strong steps. Nothing will color U.S. foreign policy more deeply in the next four years than these internal divisions.

George W. Bush, the first man elected to the Oval Office in the 21st century, is a conundrum. Scion of a grand East Coast family, son of a President and grandson of a senator, Bush may be the least worldly Chief Executive in three-quarters of a century. He has left North America only three times in his life. Those around him admit he has shown little curiosity about events beyond America's borders. But he brings with him a galaxy of foreign policy stars internationalists who criticized the Clinton-Gore record but whose inclinations share more with the outgoing crowd than they like to admit.

Things will change. To keep the right wing of the Republican Party pacified, the new Administration will probably shelve such ambitious treaties as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions instead of fighting for them with a hostile Senate. United Nations-bashing will likely increase, at least until the new President learns how useful the U.N. can be for U.S. policy. The new team will also be challenged by a world grown more complicated since the last Republican Administration, when foreign policy meant, above all, focusing on singular, albeit massive, threats such as Soviet power. International terrorism, the disintegration of Africa, the spread of infectious diseases let alone Caspian oil or Indonesian chaos were not problems in 1992.

Tension may grow with European allies. European leaders worry most that the U.S. will forge ahead with a destabilizing National Missile Defense (nmd) program on the one hand, and, on the other, pull out of Balkan peacekeeping, as suggested by the incoming National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice. That scenario could well materialize, but neither development is inevitable.

Bush will want to show fervor for missile defense. But the warming between the Koreas, failed tests of the system and Pentagon grumbles at its cost could slow the nmd freight train. Dropping Bosnia peacekeeping chores would have dire results: nato enlargement would falter and, as Europeans lose interest, the alliance could crack. But Rice's remarks set off transatlantic squalls, so this idea may yet be relegated to the purgatory of study and review.

With the Senate split 50-50, no one knows yet how the all-important committees will function, and the Republican margin in the House of Representatives is the narrowest in almost 70 years. A few optimists believe that the virtual tie means a coalition of the center will get some business done. Many more expect gridlock to set in or, worse, foresee every issue becoming highly politicized. The tortured electoral denouement, the sense that a high injustice has been done, means that for many Democrats, the race to retake Congress in 2002 began last week, and there is little premium on handing the Republican President any successes. Fading piety for the bipartisan foreign policies of the past will also have an effect: some 70% of members of the new House will have taken office since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and they have little reverence for the half-century before, when the rules were different.

It's often said that U.S. institutions were designed to deliver weak government. Oddly, at the zenith of their success, Americans seem to be one-upping the Founding Fathers and saying the weaker the government, the better. What remains to be seen is how the U.S.'s friends cope with these deepening paradoxes of the age.

Daniel Benjamin, a former Time correspondent, is a scholar at the United States Institute of Peace