By Stan Crock The Bush Administration's Apr. 24 decision to delay the sale of some weapons to Taiwan demonstrates two hallmarks of Bush foreign policy. The first is that it will tackle arms control unilaterally, eschewing endless negotiations in gilded Geneva conference rooms. The second is that instead of relying solely on sticks such as economic sanctions, which America's allies increasingly despise, the Bush team also will offer carrots to reward behavior it likes. It's a shrewd and constructive game plan, with some commendable precedents. But it's hardly assured of success.
Take arms control. Washington refrained from selling Taiwan destroyers equipped with Aegis battle-command systems. It had several reasons: The destroyers wouldn't be ready for years, and Taiwan needs hardware now to beef up its military. Plus, the Taiwanese lack the training to use the high-tech gear.
CLEAR MESSAGE. But make no mistake: The question of whether Taipei ever gets the Aegis still is very dependent on what Beijing does militarily. The message to the Middle Kingdom is clear. If China wants to make sure Taiwan doesn't get the equipment, it should halt or considerably slow its missile buildup. Washington would effectively get arms control -- on both sides of the Taiwan Strait -- without spending time haggling over arcane details, as Uncle Sam did in arms-control deals with the former Soviet Union.
This is the same strategy the Dubya's team wants to use with Russia. Bush plans to sharply cut the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal in the expectation that Moscow will follow suit. This would increase security and save money for both sides quickly.
The seemingly Pollyannaish scheme actually has been tried before -- and worked. Bush's father, George the First, unilaterally eliminated theater nuclear weapons from Europe, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev followed suit without any written agreement. A number of George the Second's aides believe it's a far sounder strategy than struggling to reach a deal that may be hard to verify and that either side can abrogate at its convenience. Deeds speak louder than documents.
SPECIFYING BENEFITS. The carrot part of the arrangement is likely to be used with other nations that the U.S. has difficult relations with, such as Iran and Libya. Richard A. Haass, head of the State Dept. policy-planning shop, believes it's useful to specify what benefits countries in Uncle Sam's doghouse can expect if they act responsibly.
In a book last year, Haass complained that though Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright intended to construct a road map for better relations between Washington and Tehran, she never followed through. He advocates a clearly delineated action plan: If Iran does this, this, and this, the U.S. will reciprocate by doing this, this, and this.
The arrangement might start slowly. Iran might agree to meet with American officials at international gatherings and help with the probe of the Khobar Towers bombing. In return, the U.S. might grant business-to-business contacts and visits by high-profile individuals. Then broader issues of concern to the U.S. -- such as terrorism, regional peace, and weapons programs -- would be tackled. As a reward for progress on these fronts, the U.S. would specify how it would gradually ease sanctions. For example, it could back loans from international financial institutions, oil swaps, agricultural credits, and limited American investments in the energy sector.
TRADING FAVORS. For Libya, Haass postulates that the U.S. might ask for a repudiation of international terrorism, compensation for the families of passengers on Pan Am 103, and commitments to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In return, the U.S. might lift the ban on travel to Libya by Americans, remove Libya from the terrorism list, ease economic sanctions, and possibly normalize relations.
It's important, Haass notes, to focus not just on the lingering problems but also on the progress Libya has made so far. Strongman Muamar Khadafi did allow for extradition of suspects for the Pan Am 103 trial and apparently has halted Libya's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.
The precedent Haass cites is former President Bush's dealings with Vietnam. While Vietnam hadn't made progress on every issue, the U.S. didn't simply carp about the laggard areas. It recognized where improvement had been made, explained where more was needed, and outlined rewards, including an economic-aid package, student exchanges, and telephone links. "Cumulatively, these actions kept the normalization process alive, encouraging Vietnam without rewarding it for moves yet to be taken," Haass wrote.
ONE-CHINA FLUB. This is smart thinking. But how it fares will be less dependent on Washington than on Tehran, Beijing, and Tripoli. Tehran shows no interest in promoting peace in the Middle East or halting terrorism. Even another electoral victory by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami won't necessarily give him the clout he needs to produce such changes -- assuming he wants them.
Beijing is continuing on its nationalistic tear. The rhetoric of Middle Kingdom rulers is abetted when President Bush misspeaks, as he apparently did on Apr. 25, when he wandered from the standard "one China" mantra and declared in a televised interview that the U.S. would do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan. The President later returned in the interview to a more traditional formulation of policy, adding that Taiwan shouldn't declare independence. But the sound bite was sure to send blood pressure up in Beijing.
Finally, Libya refuses to apologize or provide compensation for the Pan Am 103 bombing. And there's the rub: If none of these nations show some movement toward the U.S., the carrots will remain uneaten. Still, the U.S. won't have lost anything. And having tried rewards, it might be easier to convince allies that sticks are the only option, if tensions continue to escalate. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online