Trust is vital in international relationships

Posted: Feb 03, 2003 12:00 AM
Who can be trusted? The arms verification process, as U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix pointed out in his surprisingly tough report card on Iraq, is "not a game of catch as catch can." Rather, it is a process of verification for the purpose of creating confidence. It is not built upon the premise of trust. Rather, it is designed to lead to trust, if there is both openness to the inspectors and action to present them with items to destroy.

Who trusts Iraq? As Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, "Not a single nation, no one, trusts Saddam and his regime. And those who know him best trust him least."

No more good cop, bad cop routine. Now the Bush administration speaks with one powerful voice. The holes in Iraqi compliance are too large, too determined and too repeated for any rational person to deny. "Unlike South Africa," notes Blix, "which decided on its own to eliminate its nuclear weapons and welcomed inspection as a means of creating confidence in its disarmament, Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance -- not even today -- of the disarmament, which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace."

But can the world trust the United States? For the average thick-skulled, internally focused American (me), it has taken a long time to recognize how many in free and democratic societies ask themselves this question. The fundamental reason for this rising anti-U.S. sentiment lies not in any particular disagreement about this or that past U.S. action, but in the huge and growing fact of our disproportionate military power, driven by our incomparably energetic entrepreneurial economy, sustained by a strongly nationalistic people. Americans retain confidence in the value of our own history, the legitimacy of our institutions, in the story of America we keep on telling together.

The power gap will only grow as the U.S. military continues to learn how to take advantage of our rapidly advancing technical know-how.

So it is notable that Colin Powell, in his Davos address, took this question from European elites head on: "About whether America can be trusted to use its enormous political, economic and, above all, military power wisely and fairly," America, he reminded them, "has earned the trust of men, women and children around the world."

In Afghanistan, where 10,000 American soldiers are welcomed, working to train Afghan police and military to take over the role of maintaining peace: "As soon as our troops are needed no longer, they will depart."

"The people of Bosnia, the people of Kosovo, of Macedonia, they too know that they can trust us to do our jobs and then leave. The same holds true for the people of Kuwait. Twelve years ago, we helped liberate their country, and then we left. We did not seek any special benefits for ourselves. That is not the American way."

Fifty years ago, he pointed out, we did the same for Europe.

Fears about the so-called U.S. arrogance and unilateralism (which is another word for nationalism) will no doubt remain. Power makes people uncomfortable. But in our case not so very uncomfortable. The French cater to Iraq and criticize America loudly in part because they know they can: Americans aren't going to threaten France, so why not make nice to the people who might hurt you?

Even deeper, if the United States can be trusted to take action, why not indulge in doubts, second thoughts and moral quibbles? The regime in Iraq puts "millions of innocent people at risk," Powell reminded Europe in Davos. "Multilateralism cannot become an excuse for inaction." Not, at least, in a world where the U.S. can be trusted to act.