How the World Sees President Bush

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Colin Powell will head up George W. Bush's foreign policy team

Whether they like him or not, at least the rest of the world believes they already know President-elect George W. Bush. The reason is obvious: He's relying mostly on the heavy hitters of his father's administration to manage his foreign policy. The most reassuring aspect of the troubled post-election for foreign powers has been the certainty of continuity — either with the Clinton administration or with the Bush administration that preceded it. Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Paris, London, the Middle Eastern power players and all the others believe they know what to expect of the new administration, and that removes the discomforts of uncertainty. They all filed the diplomatically de rigueur congratulations overnight, and their expressions of confidence in the new Bush administration were likely heartfelt — officials around the world reminisced enthusiastically about the scion of a president best remembered as a sober and steady hand on the tiller of foreign policy.

Reasons to fear, reasons to cheer

But whether they have good reason to be cheerful about Bush's victory differs from region to region. After all, the President-elect and his advisers made clear throughout the campaign that they will manage foreign policy on the basis of national interest, rather than the fuzzier humanitarian concepts erratically invoked by a Clinton administration that failed to establish a cohesive foreign policy vision.


Russia, for example, must expect a U.S. administration more willing to arm-wrestle and less inclined to view the post-Soviet Kremlin as an ally. And the Bush administration's proposal to build a comprehensive missile defense shield will place relations on a wary footing from the outset. But Moscow's own foreign policy demeanor has shifted toward defining its relations with Washington on more overtly competitive terms, and the symmetry created by a more hardball U.S. administration may in fact underscore stability as it did during the Cold War.


Beijing, for its part, is not expecting a sea change. Where the Clinton administration harangued China periodically about human rights, the Bush administration may be more likely to draw lines in the sand on issues such as the sale of missile technology to third countries. But the bottom line for both teams has been opening up China for business, and President-elect Bush was a hearty supporter of lifting the annual congressional review of trade relations between the two countries. And his administration would likely maintain a regional balance in pursuing separate U.S. relations with India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea and the Pacific Rim countries, all dedicated to maintaining stability and expanding trade.


The old Bush team was well-regarded in Europe, and although W.'s intention to hightail it out of the Balkans as soon as possible may irk some European NATO allies, many of those same allies took a dim view of the Clinton administration's gung-ho interventionism over last year's Kosovo crisis and may welcome the more cautious Colin Powell as a replacement for the crusading Madeleine Albright. But issues ranging from trade disputes and global warming to Europe's plans for its own umbrella military force and the opposition to U.S. missile defense plans suggest relations with Europe won't be smooth sailing.

Middle East

The Middle East may be the region most inclined to fear — or welcome — the changing of the guard in Washington. President Clinton has been the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, and wishful thinking has abounded throughout the Arab world about the meaning of a Bush victory. To be sure, Bush the elder was considerably more even-handed than Clinton has been in balancing relations with Israel and moderate Arab regimes, but the domestic political climate in the U.S. has shifted considerably behind Israel over the past decade, fueled as much by the administration's own enthusiasm for peacemaking as by Christian conservative support for the Jewish state. A Bush administration is likely to put a greater distance between itself and the minutiae of the region's peace efforts than Clinton did, but then again, with the Israeli peace camp looking set for a drubbing at the polls, there may be no peace process to speak of for some years yet.

Africa and Latin America

Developing countries, particularly in Africa, probably have the least to cheer about in a Bush victory. Clinton at least maintained an emotional interest in promoting African development and putting African issues on the global agenda, but Bush's national-interest-oriented foreign policy is unlikely to find much cause for active engagement with Africa. In Latin America, of course, there are more pressing security concerns. In particular, the Bush administration will inherit Plan Colombia, which dramatically increases military aid to the beleaguered regime in Bogota, ostensibly to combat drug cultivation, but which also has the potential to draw U.S. into the quagmire of that country's civil war.


One of the first questions that will land on the desk of the new administration will be Osama Bin Laden. U.S. investigators are still trying to tie him to the October bombing of the USS Cole, and if they do, the debate in Washington over the efficacy of armed retaliation will heat up. Back in Bush Senior's day, terrorism was primarily a state-sponsored business — when the bad guys struck, you immediately went looking for the sponsor and either bombed Libya or sanctioned Syria or whatever. The Bin Laden phenomenon of an international terrorist network independent of states is a distinctly post–Cold War phenomenon, and the world will be watching to see what new insights the Bush team brings to this particular battle.

While a Bush administration's foreign policy may be substantially different from Clinton's in key areas, he's anything but an unknown quantity. If anything, world leaders may be cautiously optimistic about seeing more coherence and predictability in a Bush foreign policy than they've seen under his predecessor.