Words are "the money of fools," Thomas Hobbes claimed. The English philosopher risks being proved right by the prolonged semantic haggling on Iraq at the United Nations. Such posturing in the Security Council adds to a growing global confusion over the nature of power and the source of legitimacy in the international system today.
The Bush administration has made words a central feature of its foreign policy, often to good effect. Tough rhetoric advanced White House goals with Russia, China, Iran and Europe. Implied threats of preemptive action helped secure support in the war on terrorism from weak or recalcitrant Arab, African and Asian nations.
The "axis of evil" designation may have hastened ferment inside North Korea's fracturing dictatorship. And President Bush's determined denunciations of Saddam Hussein could conceivably crack Iraq's tyranny and avoid war. Signs of internal weakness proliferate in Baghdad.
But governments are like individuals: Great strengths become great weaknesses when pushed too far. An overemphasis on rhetoric and doctrine -- on "talking about nothing but terrorism, terrorism, terrorism when I needed to talk about my problems too," as one political leader who attended a Pacific Rim summit with President Bush last week in Mexico complained to an aide -- holds its own dangers.
Bush acknowledged some of the dangers of the political use of rhetoric last week when he disclosed in Crawford, Tex., that he had told visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin that "no nation's efforts [on] counterterrorism should be used to justify suppressing minorities or silencing peaceful dissent." Hong Kong was (rightly) on Bush's mind; the warning he uttered carries around the globe, to uncertain effect.
Within hours a tragic collision of assumptions and realities in the global war on terrorism occurred in Moscow: Russian security forces gassed and killed many of the hostages they were supposed to save from murderous Chechen bomb-wielders.
The action saved most of the hostages. But, caught in a tough spot, President Vladimir Putin adopted sledgehammer assault tactics and a shield of secrecy straight out of the Soviet past. This does not help Putin's cause in Chechnya or Bush's war on terror.
This is the crux of the risk of using overly broad rhetoric and focusing too relentlessly on even the worthiest of goals: When everything is related, everything is related. A Russian hostage siege, French niggling on commas in a U.N. resolution on Iraq and Bush's abandonment of once bold ideas for new strategic relationships with India, Mexico and Latin America bounce off one another to complicate the administration's overall response to foreign challenges.
The growing complexity of and connections among those challenges resemble the international environment of 1973 far more than the period in 1990 when the United States was preparing to go to war against Iraq for the first time.
In 1973 the fourth Arab-Israeli war and the oil embargo it triggered both reflected and accelerated fundamental political and economic change around the world. The Bush administration must be prepared to deal with a paradigm shift of similar magnitude out of Gulf War II and the war on terror. The future of the United Nations, stability in Saudi Arabia, the shape of the global oil business and much else are in play.
Those who advance such unpredictability as reason for not ending tyranny in Iraq are mistaken. "Stability" built on tolerating terror and unequaled defiance of international law is no stability at all. Bush is right on that score.
But the administration must be prepared to deal with the many moving parts of the panorama of change it has set in motion. It must have a heightened awareness of the effect of its strategy, actions and, yes, words on other nations and their interests.
Why does Mexico make a show of being reluctant to vote with Washington on Iraq at the Security Council? In part because President Vicente Fox feels Bush has given him nothing on immigration and cross-border welfare measures. These would help protect Fox against Mexico's leftist parties, which crucify him for supporting U.S. "imperialism." Fox drags his feet out of self-interest, not a desire for revenge. (And self-interest will keep Mexico from casting the deciding vote against the U.S. proposal on Iraq.)
Mexico sits along several important fault lines in geopolitics. Fox worries that U.S. neglect of Argentina helped bring Brazil's left to power last weekend and casts a long shadow over Mexico's own political future. Bush's attention to Iraq and terror is obviously necessary. But just as he has no license to skip tough decisions on America's economy and general welfare while hunting al Qaeda, Bush cannot take other trouble spots for granted.
Bush has used the rhetoric of war both nobly and ignobly. As a statesman, he alerted the world to a unique danger and proposed to remove it. As a politician, he bludgeoned the Democrats (no great feat this year) and smothered domestic debate.
It is the classic combination for political success -- doing well by doing good. But the foreign policy challenges ahead demand greater peripheral vision and more skillfully coordinated responses than the administration displays today.