April 24, 2008

April 24, 2008 | Commentary on Europe

U.S. relations

In the course of presidential election politics, the present inevitably takes a beating. In the discussion of American global leadership, virtually no good news ever gets into the debate, to the extent foreign policy is discussed at all.

And yet, several recent positive developments deserve to be noted. One vital positive sign was the agreement within NATO at the Bucharest summit in early April to endorse missile defense and the willingness of two European nations to host installations, Poland and the Czech Republic. The governments of both countries went out on a limb, with their own publics and with their European neighbors, many of whom still don't understand why the proliferation of missiles as well as nuclear technology would present any threat to them. The relationship with the United States, however, proved to be more powerful than the arguments of the opposition.

Furthermore, on April 13 and 14, Italian voters elected a strong ally of the United States to lead their government, Silvio Berlusconi, who is back as prime minister for the third time. His new government will take power next month. He handily defeated Romano Prodi's unwieldy nine-party coalition of communists, Catholics and assorted other minor parties, which fell victim in January to internal squabble and inefficiency and which lasted only two years. Mr. Berlusconi is often caricatured as a buffoon - "God help Italy," said the Economist - and yet he is likely to offer Italy both political stability and more fiscal responsibility.

Internationally, Mr. Berlusconi can be counted on to restore Italy's position as an important ally of the United States. While Italy no longer has troops deployed in Iraq, where it was an early and staunch supporter for the United States, it is likely that Mr. Berlusconi will heed the call to contribute more troops to Afghanistan and ease up on the conditions of their deployment - a sore point within the NATO alliance where a few countries carry the heavy burden of providing security while others limit themselves to building schools and bridges. Meanwhile, Italy is also leading a deployment in Lebanon, where rules of engagement imposed by the Prodi government have left Italian soldiers ineffective.

Equally encouraging from an American point of view was the parliamentary election in South Korea on April 9, which brought to power President Lee Myung-bak's Grand National Party and affirmed his presidential leadership. This is likely to help restore the important U.S.-South Korean relationship - as well as put South Korea's fiscal house in order. The president himself was sworn in on Feb. 25, and in both the presidential and parliamentary election, South Korean voters offered their new leadership a landslide mandate.

An early affirmation of the U.S.-South Korean relationship came on Mr. Lee's visit to the United States April 15. Repairing the relationship between Seoul and Washington is one of his stated objectives, which marks a sea change from his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who saw everything in the light on inter-Korean relations, and felt there was nothing particularly objectionable about anti-Americanism.

As a result, the past five years under Mr. Roh was a rocky period that is well behind us. Public opinion in South Korea is already registering in favor of continued U.S. military engagement. Unfortunately, two important issues between the two countries are still in limbo here in Washington: visa waivers for South Korean visits to the United States and the South Korean Free Trade Agreement, which is falling victim to U.S. presidential election politics on the Democratic side.

Meanwhile, the North Korean leadership has been apoplectic about the warming relations between Seoul and Washington, and its propaganda agencies have railed against Mr. Lee as a "traitor" and a "sycophant toward the U.S." The South Korean and the Italian elections, as well as the missile defense developments in Poland and the Czech Republic, are part of a positive trend that started several years ago. The election of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany has made a vast difference in U.S.-German relations, which had plummeted to a post-World War II low under Gerhard Schroeder. Likewise, the election last year of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has meant a positive sea change in relations with the United States.

This does not mean that the U.S. government will be seeing eye-to-eye with our international friends and allies on every question - far from it - but it does mean that a growing number of nations are coming back to the realization of the indispensable nature of the United States as an international leader.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times