A return to table manners
By Pentti Sadeniemi
The armchair pundits of international politics are already coming around to the thought that the attitude to the surrounding world held by the administration of President George W. Bush has either changed or is at least in the process of changing.
The right to unilateral action is not being specifically underlined as it was in Bush's first term, tactlessness and insensitivity are already giving way to the normal pleasantries, and certain pros are being seen in cooperation, and not just the cons.
The dust that gathered on diplomatic skills in the intervening period is being brushed off.
It is difficult to be completely confident about the extent or depth of the change, since this administration is not known for acknowledging a shift of course or a reversal of former doctrines.
Bush's last speech on the situation in Iraq and the "war on terror" repeated almost word for word what he has been claiming from the very outset. No adjustments to policy, no doubts about its successful outcome.
In as much as a change is nevertheless in the air, it would appear to have several root causes. The new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice uses the same sort of language as her predecessor, but the difference from Colin Powell is that Rice also has the ear and confidence of the President.
There is less interest in spoiling for a fight with foreign governments, when domestic differences over Iraq are gathering momentum all the time. Similarly, a second-term President no longer needs an injection of drama for his own campaign, and even mid-term Congressional elections are still some way off.
The bitter lessons learned in the first term could be a still more significant reason. Bush's foreign policy was then guided by a series of assumptions that were posited on the thinking of the so-called neo-con fraternity.
The members of this conservative school of thought readily describe themselves as "former liberals who have been mugged by reality", and who have thus changed their outlook on the world.
However, after the conquest of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, reality came back and smacked them around again. Although many of them have not noticed this themselves, or at least are reluctant to admit it, within the administration it does seem to have been recognised.
The initial assertions proved to be quite unfounded and seriously hurt the interests of the United States.
The starting-point for neo-conservative thinking was the overwhelming military supremacy of the United States, coupled with a belief in the nation's hold on absolute moral authority as the very cradle of democracy and freedom. This double-bill gave the United States what was seen to be an equally absolute hegemony in the world.
The position of dominance was not supposed to be wasted on simply leading international discussions. The United States had instead to take a different approach, acting unilaterally without regard for the protests of others, the shackles of international law, or - above all - the decisions of the United Nations.
The thinking was that success would bring retroactive acceptance and would also get friends to come on board, who could then be rewarded according to their alacrity in providing support.
It did not happen like this. The international pre-eminence was almost squandered through the belief that no rules should tie the hands of the leader. The moral high ground was lost in the false notion that the supreme guardian of human rights could grant itself special dispensations in its own respect for those rights.
The sense of national self-conceit whipped up by the neo-conservatives only led to a situation where the widespread and genuine admiration felt towards the United States began to melt away with astonishing speed.
Sustained success in Iraq might have actually strengthened the political dogma that winners always find friends to pat them on the back. However, the difficulties piled up.
Military might enabled the relatively easy taking of Baghdad, but its capabilities were rapidly exhausted. For all the awesome firepower available, it no longer served to calm things down on the ground or improve the Iraqis' economic straits.
It may yet be that something can be salvaged of the neo-conservatives' grand design, if in the next year or two Iraq can be turned around into at least a halfway stable and constitutional state.
The results thus far, however, look to be a fairly precise reverse-image of the original intentions.
The world was not presented with proof of the absolute nature of U.S. supremacy, but rather the opposite - the finite limits to the application of that pre-eminence.
The war of conquest did not bring new friends, but instead alienated old allies. What actually emerged were even some cautious efforts to balance the might of Washington, as we could deduce from the recent joint military exercise held by Russia and China.
Iran's mullah leadership was not driven into a diplomatic corner by the war, as had been the intention. By contrast, Tehran actually gained more room to manoeuvre, an unexpected measure of influence within Iraq, and a powerful new motive to seek entry to the nuclear-arms club..
The situation that has come to pass is not good for the United States or for its friends, nor indeed for the rest of the world.
Fortunately, the damage done is probably not irreparable. In their hubris, the neo-conservatives believed their school of thought held all the answers, and the exposed intellectual bankruptcy of their ideas is unreservedly good news, provided that it is at least quietly acknowledged in Washington. As mentioned earlier, there are already signs of this happening.
The democratic world truly does need a leader, and that leader can only be the United States. Where necessary, the U.S. can perfectly legitimately act alone, provided that the case is an exceptional one and not a permanent exemption from the restraints of international law.
The return to common values will not require much more than a decision to dismantle the Guantánamo Bay detainment camp and other similar institutions, which have in any case almost without exception harmed the interests of the United States.
It is hardly on the cards that the Bush administration would perform such an obvious U-turn. The shattered confidence in the President himself could hardly be completely restored in the remaining three years of his term.
Nonetheless, even a partial change of course would be of great benefit. Bush's successor, whoever that may be, should in any case be given the wherewithal to recover the position of leader of the Western world, a rank that the occupant of the White House can only lose through relying on incompetent advisers.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.8.2005
PENTTI SADENIEMI / Helsingin Sanomat