President Bush's most recent foreign trips, to Latin America and Asia, went off as expected. He was accompanied by 2,000 people, several airplanes, two helicopters and a tightly scripted schedule. He met few locals and saw little except palaces and conference rooms. When the program changed, it was to cut out dinners and meetings. Bush's travel schedule seems calculated to involve as little contact as possible with the country he is in. Perhaps the White House should look into the new teleconferencing technologies. If set up right, the president could soon conduct foreign policy without ever having to actually meet foreigners.
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It is conventional wisdom that this lack of genuine communication with the world is a unique characteristic of George W. Bush. After all, Bill Clinton forged genuinely deep relations with his counterparts abroad. Though he traveled in equal grandeur, he showed much greater interest in the countries he visited. (In India he became a hero even though he had slapped sanctions on the country, an extraordinary case of personal diplomacy trumping policy.) George Bush Sr. had his famous Rolodex and dialed foreign leaders regularly to ask their views on things. Bush Jr. has set a new standard.
Bush's tendencies seem to reflect a broader trend. America has developed an imperial style of diplomacy. There is much communication with foreign leaders, but it's a one-way street. Most leaders who are consulted are simply informed of U.S. policy. Senior American officials live in their own bubbles, rarely having any genuine interaction with their overseas counterparts, let alone other foreigners. "When we meet with American officials, they talk and we listenwe rarely disagree or speak frankly because they simply can't take it in," explained one senior foreign official who requested anonymity for fear of angering his U.S. counterparts.
[. . .]
Apart from the resentment that the imperial style produces, the aloof attitude means that American officials don't benefit from the experience and expertise of foreigners. The U.N. inspectors in Iraq were puzzled at how uninterested American officials were in talking to them—even though they had spent weeks combing through Iraq. Instead, U.S. officials, comfortably ensconced in Washington, gave them lectures on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction. "I thought they would be interested in our firsthand reports on what those supposedly dual-use factories looked like," one of then told me (again remaining anonymous for fear of angering the administration). "But no, they explained to me what those factories were being used for."
In handling postwar Iraq, senior American officials in Washington avoided any real conversations with U.N. officials who had been involved in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Mozambique and other such places.
To foreigners, American officials increasingly seem clueless about the world they are supposed to be running. "There are two sets of conversations, one with Americans in the room and one without," says Kishore Mahbubani, formerly a senior diplomat for Singapore and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Because Americans live in a "cocoon," Mahbubani fears that they don't see the "sea change in attitudes towards America throughout the world."
Yes, well, all of this is consistent with what we know of President Bush's personality, isn't it? That doesn't excuse the rest of us, of course, but the President sets the example for everyone else.
In one of his recent columns David Brooks addressed the intellectual exhaustion of the GOP. The piece is worth reading if you haven't yet looked at it (and if you happen to subscribe to TimesSelect).
Since I don't usually post about subscription-only articles unless they're especially interesting, I won't say anything further about the Brooks piece. But it did remind me to do something that I should have done a while back. Brooks mentions an article by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam "The Party of Sam's Club" that appeared in The Weekly Standard about a month ago.
The Douhat/Reihan piece is extremely interesting. It shows that there are some Republicans who are thinking seriously about the future of the GOP. The article points out that the GOP doesn't have a domestic agenda that appeals to a majority of its own constituents. They argue in so many words that the economic insecurity of the average Republican voter needs to be addressed if the GOP is to have a future as a majority party.
I've blogged about the topic of economic insecurity a few times. This post in particular "It's the Insecurity, Stupid!" talks about the work of Jacob Hacker.