Schroeder in Germany Lula

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“Schroeder in Germany, Lula in Brazil, now Roh’s victory in S. Korea…latest ‘wake-up call’ to U.S., but not clear what’s being heard.” So read the headline summary little more than a week ago in the Nelson Report, the news and gossip sheet of choice for DC’s Asia policy hands and trade policy mavens. (Yes, such a thing actually exists and it’s an extremely entertaining and informative read.)

In his inimitable style, Chris Nelson was pointing to an increasingly clear trend which has yet to garner much notice in the mainstream press: the growing number of elections around the globe in which the winning candidates ran on some variant of anti-Americanism.

Each of the cases Nelson noted have deep local determinants. Germany has a deep-seated — and quite welcome, thank you — anti-militarist tradition dating back to the de-nazification period. And Schroeder cleverly played to this sentiment in pulling out a devilishly thin margin of victory. Brazil — like most of Latin America — is in a deep economic crisis. And it only makes sense that as the boom years of the 1990s were tied to the free-trade and open currency market mantras coming from Washington that much of the bust would be credited — rightly or wrongly — to America too.

The Roh victory in South Korea (ROK) is perhaps the most sobering, as Roh is the first Korean head of state since the partition to be elected on a platform which called into question key aspects of the US-ROK security alliance, which has been a linchpin of America’s position in East Asia for half a century. An Asia hand TPM spoke to said Roh had gotten elected “by playing the Schroeder card.” There too there was a recent incident of American soldiers acquitted for criminal acts against South Korean civilians.

So, yes, in each case, the roots of the election result were multi-causal. But add these and other election results up and you start to see that hostile reactions to America’s newly strident and confrontational stance in the world are becoming an important force in world politics and an important force in the domestic politics of many of our allies.

Think of it this way: when was the last time one of our friends — or someone friendly, rather than unfriendly, to our current policies — won an election in a major country around the world?

Does this matter? Is it our fault? These are difficult questions to answer, certainly. It would be wrong to say or assume that just because people don’t like what we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing it. What’s more, much of this is clearly in response to our policy toward Iraq. And as I concluded — quite to my own surprise — last June, I think military action against Iraq probably is necessary — if it is done in the right way.

The point here, I think, is in that last clause. If it is done in the right way. Much of what we’ve done in the last eighteen months since 9/11 has been absolutely necessary. The question is how we’ve gone about it. And I think the election results noted above are some of the first signs that there are costs to how we’ve gone about it, for the petulant unilateralism, the mania to tear up every global treaty which might possibly constrain us in any way.

Think how much time and diplomatic capital might have been saved if the White House had figured out three, or six, or even nine months earlier that it’s guns-blazing-screw-the-UN policy toward regime change just wouldn’t work.

The standard answer to this on the pacifist left would be to say that clearly we’re doing something wrong if everybody’s getting so pissed at us. On the right, you’d have another knee-jerk response about blame-America-First, appeasement and various and sundry other yadas. But clearly there should be some thoughtful middle-ground. It’s one thing to be a hawk and have your hawkishness rooted in a cold-eyed realism and a willingness to use force, quite another to have it stem from emotional impulses arising from the fact that you grew up as a pencil neck and constantly had your lunch money stolen from you by the cool kids.

I can’t give you the precise lunch money victimization statistics for various civilian political appointees at the Pentagon, for staffers in the Office of the Vice-President, Richard Perle or even Frank Gaffney. But I suspect most folks who are familiar with these guys will know what I’m getting at. This isn’t about blaming America first. It’s about making sure America is as smart as she can be in her own interests, about managing the realities of the unipolar world system in ways that most benefit our long-term interests rather than simply doing what we can force through in the near-term. What we’re learning is that there’s a price you pay for telling everyone else in the world they can #$%& themselves and trying to govern the globe by sporadic applications of blunt force.

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