Building strategic relationships

The Washington Times
Helle Dale
March 26, 2008

Building strong alliances is often a matter of listening to what your international partners have to say, and on your side, making efforts to explain your own position. It does not mean turning your own policy inside out where bedrock principles or national security are at stake. But where there is room for the resolution of differences and the accommodation of concerns, the effort will create a fountain of goodwill. Sticking the finger in the eye of people we are otherwise planning to ask for cooperation is clearly not the way to go.

These concepts are usually pretty obvious when viewed from the vantage-point of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where dealing with foreign leaders is the order of the day. Particularly in the second half of the Bush administration, the need to reach out to allies has been clear, and efforts have been made to mend relationships. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, this need is not nearly as apparent, as domestic concerns take precedent. The tension can sometimes make for baffling and contradictory policy.

That is why the leadership shown by Sen. George Voinovich and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the highly contentious issue of visa waivers is especially laudable. By taking a fresh look at an issue that had been a festering sore in relations between the United States and some of its new allies (and a few old ones as well), they came up with a solution that will greatly benefit all.

In legislation passed earlier this year, Congress paved the way for a resolution of the visa waiver problem with a number of U.S. allies. On March 17, the governments of Hungary, Lithuania and Slovakia signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that commit the U.S. government to help them qualify for the visa waiver program in return for increased security cooperation. Those nations follow the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia, which recently did the same. It’s a huge step forward in bilateral relations with these countries. Other important allies like Poland and South Korea are waiting in line.

As Hungarian Ambassador Ferenc Somogyi stated at the signing, “Liberty manifests itself in the freedom to travel,” something that the citizens of the old East Bloc were denied. “Equality means equal access to each other’s countries, as well as not to be considered second-class members of the European Union.”

Since 1986, the program has allowed visa requirements for certain visitors to be waived and granted 90-day visa-free travel for business or pleasure to citizens of certain countries who can reliably be expected to return home. Most of these have been the case with wealthy countries, mainly in Western Europe, but also Australia, Japan and some in the Middle East.

All other aspiring visitors have had to go to the U.S. embassy, pay a fee and interview with a consular officer. They sometimes find themselves rejected for reasons that are good but sometimes for reasons that are not so obvious. The inequity in this arrangement has become more noticeable as some of the non-visa-waiver countries became members of the European Union and reliable allies of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet at the same time, they felt they were being treated like second-class citizens when they tried to enter the United States.

The alliance-building represented by progress on the visa waiver issue has been surprisingly controversial in some quarters. In Congress, the visa waiver issue got entangled in the immigration debate, causing some members of Congress to balk at the thought of letting more foreigners in without visas. To ensure that we can better track who comes and goes, a requirement was added to the law mandating that major international U.S. airports install exit tracking.

Meanwhile, the European Union has been in high dudgeon at the thought of its members negotiating bilaterally with the United States. The European Commission has argued that Brussels would be the right agent to confront the U.S. Congress on behalf of the Central and East Europeans, an approach that would have yielded only stalemate. This fact was not lost on the countries in question, which preferred to brave the displeasure of the EU to losing the opportunity for a deal with the United States.

Irrespective of who will be the next president of the United States, allies like the countries making their way into the visa waiver program will be indispensable in a complex world. The slow but steady progress on this contentious issue is an example of how receptivity and flexibility can help build those crucial relationships.