President Bush travels to Europe and the Middle East next week in quest of principles and practices for a new world order. It is a journey that should bring home anew, to him and the nation, the freedom and responsibilities suddenly thrust on America by the end of the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet threat frees America from the burden of containment. This new reality will be the focal point of the president's visit to Paris beginning Monday for the 34-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), where the Soviet Union is due to agree by treaty to destroy the conventional military advantage it has possessed in the European theater since World War II.
But sudden freedom is disorienting. Since the opening of the Berlin Wall a year ago, America's politicians and diplomats have resembled in many ways those newly arrived Soviet emigrants to the West who have trouble adjusting to being able to do and say what they please. America's leaders have still to make clear in persuasive terms what will replace the Cold War as the organizing principle of America's role abroad in the future.
Besides self-congratulatory speeches and high-flown diplomacy in Paris, there needs to be a clear appreciation that not just the Soviet threat has collapsed. The Soviet empire and the Soviet Union have collapsed as well. The Paris conference will be a genuine success only if it provides clear indications how the affluent, technologically advanced nations of Western Europe and North America can and will meet their responsibilities to help reduce suffering and prevent conflict in the central and eastern zones of the European continent.
The nations of the West are asking the new democracies of Eastern Europe to practice capitalism without capital. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris reported last week that Eastern Europe's access to international credit had "declined nearly to the vanishing point" in the first eight months of the year.
That happens to be the period in which Communist dictators were tossed out and democratic elections held in the ex-satellite nations. The OECD report makes clear that Western banks and financiers were far more comfortable lending to "reliable" Communist leaders than they are in advancing funds to shaky-looking democrats in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria.
"The credit standing of these countries has clearly been downgraded in the past year by the private markets," which had been providing about $5 billion a year in credits and loans, the report notes. While total borrowing in the international marketplace declined 12 percent in the first eight months of the year, borrowing by countries in Central and East Europe dropped 66 percent.
President Bush has done well to add a stop in Prague on this trip to show his concern for Eastern Europe. But he will not announce major new economic help there. Moreover he diminishes for Americans the symbolic importance of the CSCE summit, the successor to the Helsinki conference of 1975, by making Paris a stopover on his way to the Persian Gulf to spend Thanksgiving with the troops he has deployed to Saudi Arabia.
The practices that will make the new world order a reality are being worked out in the Gulf, as Bush leads the international coalition that opposes the brutal aggression of Iraq's Saddam Hussein against Kuwait. This is something different from subordinating American interests to international law or one-worldism, as Bush's conservative critics fret.
The president has rightly accepted the responsibility that has come to America as the world's only remaining superpower. The constraints that the dual hegemony of the Cold War placed on power-hungry rulers like Saddam have disappeared. New international norms had to be established at the first opportunity and shown to be sustainable. This is not a bid to become the world's policeman permanently. Rolling back aggression in the Gulf is America's best chance for avoiding such onerous duty.
Think back to the long-ago days of June, when pundits and officials argued that Lithuania's insistent demand for independence from the Soviet Union would establish the post-Cold War pattern of international behavior, as the superpowers chose new confrontation or conspired to maintain order at the costs of Lithuanian freedom.
In fact, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Lithuania's leaders have chosen to muddle through. The United States has gladly blessed a fuzzy course that is likely to bring independence later than Lithuanians want but sooner than Moscow was originally prepared to accept. No broad pattern was set by the Lithuanian muddle, beyond confirming that U.S. support for Gorbachev grows as the Soviet leader's ability to influence events declines.
In ways that were not available to it for half a century, the United States today has a freedom to choose how and where it will invest its prestige and effort abroad. With that comes the responsibility to know when that investment is necessary for American and global interests -- as it is in quite differing ways in Eastern Europe and the Gulf -- and then to make it.