"GEORGE BUSH," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany after his
White House meeting last week, "is a straightforward man."
Bluff, increasingly cocky as he gains confidence in office, but to a degree
innocent in a Reaganesque way, the new president has impressed a string of
foreign visitors, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his
willingness to tell it like it is, from nuclear weapons in space to toothpaste.
The words may come out a little garbled, but everyone knows what he means.
.The difficulty is that as the weeks go by, the world according to George W.
seems less and less congenial to those who must share it. What brought this
home was the metaphorical two fingers he gratuitously raised to the Kyoto
treaty on climate change. There was no reason for him to be so blatant in
The Clinton administration might have signed the treaty, but there was not
the slightest chance of its being implemented. It would never have come to a U.
S. Senate vote, let alone ratification. If he had to say something - and he
did not - Bush could have mouthed some pleasantries about wanting to be a good
team player, but being hobbled by Congress. No one would have turned a hair.
Indeed, this is what Environmental Protection Agency Sirector Christine Todd
Whitman advised him to do, citing the need to establish international goodwill
at this early stage in his presidency.
Instead, he said straight out that he wanted to find some way of getting
out of the commitment to cut greenhouse gases. Having shocked the world with
that, he followed up 24 hours later with what he clearly saw as a
justification, but was interpreted elsewhere as another two fingers.
"We're in an energy shortage here," he said. "We'll be working with our
allies to reduce greenhouse gases, but I will not accept anything that will
harm our economy and hurt our American workers."
So there we have it, a classic rendition of the old "America First" policy.
The world cannot say it had no warning. At no time during the protracted
election campaign did Bush evince any great interest or enthusiasm for foreign
cooperation. He promised "consultation" on many topics, including the much
debated missile defense policy; he promised to show "respect" for other
countries and their way of doing things and to leave them alone. But he did
not promise collegiality in any form.
Since he took office, it is his vice president, Dick Cheney, and his
defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who have emerged as most adept at bending
his ear. Where there has been a choice between (1) a suspicious view of the
world and (2) the "let's all try to get along together, we're all human after
all" approach of Bill Clinton, Bush has opted for the former.
The administration angered the Russians by accusing them of nuclear
proliferation through technology sales to Iran, then initiated a sweeping set
of tit-for-tat spy expulsions reminiscent of the Cold War. Bush told the
Chinese vice premier that he had not quite made up his mind about new weapons
sales to Taiwan, but China's view would be neither here nor there. And he told
the president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, that he would not sign up to
further rapprochement with the North.
Because Bush's first high-profile policy reversal was on the environment,
the explanation favored by American liberals was the debt he was perceived to
owe to "special interests" - the big companies that had so generously
bankrolled his presidential campaign. This was the explanation picked up, and
pilloried, in much of the developed world when he went back on his campaign
promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, citing the cost to U.S. business
The real reasons why Bush is acting as he is, however, are probably
different and, from a European perspective, more worrying. He is acting out of
conviction; he is simply behaving as the ideological conservative that he is,
an unsophisticated Middle American conservative not well-versed in the
diplomatic arts, but convinced that his heart is in the right place.
The primacy accorded to U.S. business - the embodiment of "free enterprise"
- is just one aspect of that overall philosophy.
Bush makes no bones about being a conservative. But he purports to see
himself as representative of the mainstream. In Europe, this may be hard to
comprehend. But the political center in America is very much further to the
right than it is in Europe, and in the aftermath of Bill Clinton's presidency,
Bush is probably correct - for the moment. His environmental U-turn raised
scarcely a murmur of condemnation in the United States, except from
predictable fringe organizations. The prevailing response was "Good on yer,
Like it or not, this is the face the world must adjust to. There is just a
hint, though, that Americans may be starting to have second thoughts.
Ominously for Bush, his already mediocre popularity ratings have slid in the
past month, and negative opinion has hardened.
He says he doesn't pay attention to polls and insisted before he took
office that their findings would have no place in the Oval Office. Maybe, but
you can bet they are causing some scurrying elsewhere in the White House.
Mary Dejevsky wrote this commentary for the Independent of London.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle