At the heart of the Kerry-Bush foreign policy debate lies a disagreement about allies. Sen. John Kerry maintains he could persuade other nations to help more with Iraq; President Bush believes that he has rounded up all who were persuadable. The Democratic nominee's advisers point to the collapse of America's image abroad. Republicans tend to blame this rift on foreign fecklessness. The Democratic camp assigns weight and importance to the multilateral organizations that make up the international system. Republicans flirt with the conceit that we live in a unipolar world -- that the United States is the international system.

There's some truth on both sides, and foreign fecklessness is undoubtedly a problem. But having spent almost two years writing a book about the World Bank, I know that Kerry's side has one thing right: A sophisticated U.S. leader can marshal the international system to advance American interests. Over the past decade, moreover, we've seen one administration -- Bill Clinton's -- that excelled at this art. We've seen another -- the current one -- that has fumbled it repeatedly.

To understand what this contrast means for America's standing in the world, consider a moment analogous to the one we face today -- a moment when the United States faced a crisis, and our allies were estranged from us. No such analogy can be perfect, to be sure, since nothing quite matches the extraordinary climate since 9/11. Yet there is one crisis that comes quite close: the challenge that the nation faced in 1995 in Bosnia.

Bosnia's war opened a deep rift between the United States and its allies. In the early stages of the conflict, the Europeans took the lead, proudly telling the Americans to stay out of their continent. But as the fighting grew bloodier, and particularly after the massacre of 7,000 civilians in Srebrenica in July 1995, the United States muscled its way in, hitting Serb forces with airstrikes, a tactic that the Europeans had resisted. When the Americans convened peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, transatlantic relations fell to a new low. Richard Holbrooke, the lead U.S. negotiator, sidelined his European counterparts so ruthlessly that even the British delegate exploded at the American "bastards."

How did the Clinton administration react to this breakdown? Part of the answer is that it turned to the World Bank, in a way that came almost naturally. Clinton himself was on good terms with Jim Wolfensohn, the bank's larger-than-life supremo; in August 1995, as the Bosnia crisis boiled, Clinton celebrated his 49th birthday at Wolfensohn's home in Jackson Hole, Wyo. At the Clinton Treasury Department, Deputy Secretary Lawrence Summers had been the World Bank's chief economist. David Lipton, the undersecretary responsible for Treasury's international operations, had worked at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank's sister institution.

The Clintonites first reached out to the bank at the start of September 1995 -- two months before the Dayton peace talks. Airstrikes on Serb positions had signaled the start of the pressure that would push the parties to the negotiating table, and Lipton had immediately realized that he would need the bank's assistance. He knew exactly how the bank could help: It could be a source of money to finance reconstruction, but it also could provide expertise in infrastructure, micro-finance and all the nuts and bolts of nation building. Just as importantly, he recognized that a reconstruction effort fronted by the World Bank would be more likely than an American-led one to attract international sympathy and money.

The contrast with the subsequent Bush Treasury, which only began talking to the bank after the invasion of Iraq, could not be more revealing. What's more, the Clintonites' early contact paid off. Within a week of Lipton's call, a team of World Bank experts held a meeting in Warsaw to plan reconstruction with Bosnian officials, and in October, when airstrikes forced the warring parties into a ceasefire, the bank immediately led a group of donors into Bosnia. The team landed after dark one evening and headed into town with headlights off in order to avoid snipers. The visitors dined with Bosnia's leaders in the sand-bagged presidency building, where white-gloved waiters served them processed cheese and other relief rations.

Getting the World Bank into Bosnia early arguably made Bosnia's peace possible. In November, the bank's lead Bosnia manager, Christine Wallich, flew from Sarajevo to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton to write the economic part of Bosnia's new constitution; she shuttled between the rival delegations, sometimes tracking them down in Packy's All-Sports bar, where the Croats gathered to cheer their hero, Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls, while the Serbs waited to cheer Vlade Divac of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Wallich's most important contribution was to prevent the Bosnian Muslims from quitting. They doubted American promises that reconstruction would follow a peace deal, but each time negotiations threatened to break down, Lipton and Holbrooke reassured them that the World Bank was there to help. Indeed, Wallich had braved the snipers' bullets in order to plan Bosnia's reconstruction.

After three weeks locked up at the air base, the negotiations appeared deadlocked; Holbrooke scheduled a press conference announcing the talks' collapse. This ultimatum pushed the Serbs and Croats into final concessions; everything now hinged on the Bosnian Muslims' position. With an hour or so to go before the press statement, Holbrooke went to confront Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's Muslim president: He could accept the deal and so finish the war, or he could condemn the Dayton talks to failure.

"It is not a just peace," Izetbegovic declared, and Holbrooke's heart was in his mouth. But the yearning for reconstruction, for a return to normalcy after four years, seemed to push Izetbegovic on. "My people need peace," he said slowly. Holbrooke took that for a "yes" and made swiftly for the exit.

Returning to Sarajevo, Izetbegovic sought to explain his final compromise. Among the main benefits of the Dayton accord, he explained, was "a substantial aid package for the reconstruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina." His acceptance of the deal had been balanced on a knife edge, and without the promise of substantial World Bank aid, he might have rejected it.

It is hard to imagine the Bush administration using the bank in this way, but the Clintonites were not yet done with it. Having turned to the institution to secure the peace, they used it to spearhead reconstruction. Much as in Iraq in 2003, the international community would underwrite the peace only if the peace process was internationalized. So the Clinton administration invited the European Union and the World Bank to co-chair a pledging conference.

The first remarkable thing about this conference was that it took place in December, just one month after the Dayton negotiations. Last year, by contrast, the World Bank hosted a similar pledging conference for Iraq, but it was not held until October 2003 -- seven months after the invasion -- because the Bush administration's efforts to marshal the bank's help were belated and clumsy.

The second thing to note about the Bosnia pledging conference was how close it came to failing: Most Europeans still regarded the Dayton accord as an American treaty and were not inclined to pay for it. But thanks to an early start in Bosnia, the World Bank's staff had analyzed the country's reconstruction needs in painstaking detail and thus persuaded every participating government, with the exception of France, to pledge money.

Having raised the funds for Bosnia, the bank coordinated the even harder task of spending them. Again, this suited the Clinton team just fine: The United States could not expect rival flag-waving aid outfits to do what America ordained; a multilateral institution was needed to broker cooperation. And although Bosnia's reconstruction later ran into difficulties, the bank's early leadership still gets good marks. When I visited Bosnia last year, Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs were united in praising the bank's achievement. Again, the Clinton Treasury had been right. Since its founding in 1944, the bank has managed projects in just about every difficult country in the world. Naturally, its experience had proven valuable in Bosnia.

Indeed, the World Bank can be valuable in many contemporary crises, which are more often about imploding weak states than about expansionist strong ones. The mystery is that the Bush administration has failed to grasp this truth, missing the chance to use the bank as a tool of U.S. interests.

Why is this? The answer, I'm afraid, is that Bush and his officials have an instinctive antipathy to multilateral bodies. That is why the Pentagon failed to consult the World Bank's experts when it was planning for postwar Iraq, even though the bank had had experience in reconstruction efforts for Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan as well as Bosnia.

It is also why the Bush Treasury has picked a series of fights with the bank, most of which are based on faulty premises. To take the most extreme example, the Treasury spent much of 2001 arguing that the bank was an incompetent public-sector institution with no idea how to measure the effectiveness of its aid; then it launched a new American aid program called the Millennium Challenge Account, which copies many of its effectiveness measures from the work of World Bank researchers. The Bush administration's disdainful attitude toward the bank blinds it to the institution's usefulness; the same could probably be said for its dealings with the International Monetary Fund and United Nations agencies.

This may not be a polite note on which to end. But, having steeped myself in the World Bank's recent battles -- from the AIDS crisis to the Asian financial meltdown to the post-9/11 preoccupation with failed states -- I cannot escape this conclusion. The Clinton administration was staffed with people who understood the frustrations of multilateral institutions, but also knew how to work with them; the Bush administration is staffed with people who just get frustrated. So I tend to believe John Kerry's claim that he will extract more cooperation from allies. The Clinton period proved it's possible.

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Sebastian Mallaby is a member of The Post's editorial page staff and the author of the just-published book "The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations" (Penguin).

A yawning divide: Once at the heart of a bustling city, the bridge that connected the two sides of Mostar over Bosnia's Neretva River had stood since the mid-1500s. It was destroyed in 1993 during the civil war. Bridging the gap: Rebuilt with funds from the World Bank and others, the bridge has become a symbol of reunification. At right, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, center, during a visit earlier this month.