U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's decision not to attend the international racism conference in South Africa has sparked renewed criticism of the Bush Administration and what is perceived as a "go-it-alone" approach to international issues. The debate is resonating both at home and abroad.
Bush Administration critics say Secretary of State Powell's decision to skip the U.N. conference in Durban is the latest example of an administration bent on pursuing a solitary course in international relations.
The French foreign minister this week condemned what he called "high-handed American unilateralism." A recent editorial in The Guardian newspaper in London accused the Bush Administration of what it called "reckless, unilateralist behavior" on arms control and environmental issues.
Criticism of President Bush began to mount in March with his decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. It intensified with the announcement that the United States was abandoning a United Nations draft accord on enforcement of a treaty limiting biological warfare.
In recent weeks, Democratic congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, have also focused on what they regard as a dangerous unilateralist approach. "Instead of asserting our leadership, we are abdicating it," he says. "Instead of shaping international agreements to serve our interests, we have removed ourselves from a position to shape them at all."
President Bush rejects the notion that the United States has adopted an across the board go-it-alone strategy and says he will gladly support international treaties that are in the U.S. interest. "We have put our foreign policy on sound footing," he says. "We are strengthening our relationships with our allies and moving to build a world that trades more freely."
The criticism has some political analysts concerned about the president's international image.
Martin Schram is a commentator with the Scripps-Howard News Service and a regular guest on VOA's Issues in the News Program. "[It is] probably good domestic politics but I don't believe that is going to be seen as being good world leadership," he says. "The problem for him may be down the road, if push comes to shove, and people look at what is America's role as a world leader, and that is what I think the concern really ought to be. Because a world leader has to lead, and you don't lead by just walking away from a treaty."
But many others are speaking out in defense of the president, saying his first responsibility is to act in the interests of the United States.
Ted Carpenter monitors international and defense issues for the Cato Institute, a public policy research organization here in Washington.
He says there is a strong case to be made for the United States objecting to both the Kyoto treaty and the U.N. draft accord on biological weapons. "For instance, the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol is fundamentally flawed," he says. "Not only would it fail to include most of the countries that would be the most likely candidates to develop and use biological weapons, the intrusive inspection provisions are virtually a blueprint for commercial or industrial espionage against America's bio-tech industry where America is light years ahead of most competitors."
Analysts also point out that the political fallout of the president's decisions on international treaties is playing out differently at home than it is abroad.
Stuart Rothenberg is publisher of a political newsletter here in Washington. He says in some ways the president may actually be benefiting at home from the criticism being leveled at him from abroad. "The president is on pretty firm ground because the Europeans just have a very different view of where they want society and politics to go," he says. "But at the moment, I think particularly the Europeans have gone out of their way to mock the president so openly that it really invites Americans to defend their chief executive."
The administration's next challenge on international cooperation may come in mid-September when a special United Nations General Assembly session on children convenes in New York. A State Department spokesman said this week that U.S. officials expect to take part in the session despite concerns that the final declaration may express support for abortion counseling services.
Because of the president's opposition to abortion, the administration has cut off U.S. aid to international family planning agencies that provide abortion services.
Analysts view the special U.N. session as a test of whether the administration is willing to work with international leaders or prefers to go it alone, risking further criticism from abroad.