AT a time when many are in despair, there is a new ray of hope. The US President has gone back to school. What George W Bush underwent this weekend at Camp David would be the envy of Harvard or Yale, for without doubt he learned more there than most college students learn in a year. Crisis is sometimes a strong motivation, pressure a good teacher.
A month ago Mr Bush, and most of his advisers, were unilateralists in foreign affairs. For them, US interests were of prime importance. US interests had primacy over the views and needs of every other nation, or the world community.
The President single-handedly rejected the Kyoto Accord on reducing greenhouse gases. His administration rejected a UN draft accord which sought to add enforcement provisions to the 29-year-old treaty against germ warfare. He informed Russian President Putin that the USA would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
US delegates rejected a treaty to control small arms. In none of these actions was US regard for world opinion or US willingness to negotiate with other nations in evidence.
No longer. As Mr Bush considers the options open to the USA in seeking to respond to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he has undergone a crash course on the complexity of international relations.
He learned at Camp David what his father knew before him: that in the contemporary world, if the USA wants to act, it can’t go it alone. The country needs not just allies, but a world consensus to back it up. Otherwise, a larger and possibly spiralling conflict may ensue from US intervention abroad.
He learned from General Colin Powell, the capable and wise man he selected as secretary of state, that if the USA wants to put together an international coalition, it has to listen to its partners. If it wants support, it has to allow its supporters to speak at the table when strategy is being debated, if only to set limits on what is possible.
It is reassuring to find that official Washington, almost with one voice, is saying that the struggle against terrorism will be long and complex, and concluding, therefore, that the nation needs be patient. It is comforting to realise that Mr Bush knows a lot more about Pakistan, with its political instabilities and its nuclear arsenal, than he knew a week ago; a lot more about Iran, which is cooperating more than we might have expected in isolating Afghanistan for us; a lot more about the complexities of politics in Russia, Israel and Egypt.
Mr Bush has in the course of a week moved from the level of freshman student of international relations to advanced graduate student in foreign policy. Soon his doctoral examination, to extend the metaphor, will take place in the real world, the one we all inhabit.
There is, now, reason to believe he will pass that test, that he will display a sophisticated awareness of how complicated are international politics.
There are good reasons to believe he has abandoned the naïve thesis that only the USA matters, even on the global stage. But Mr Bush must be steadfast when he sits for his examination.
There is always the clamour outside the window of the examination room, the call to go partying with the guys. In this case, it is the call of public opinion. Last week, a New York Times/CBS poll found that 85 per cent of Americans backed military action, and that almost two-thirds, 64 per cent, wanted military intervention even if innocent people were killed.
Surely, some of Mr Bush’s fraternity brothers have whispered in his ear that soaring presidential ratings in times of crisis – his own being at 84 per cent – have since Pearl Harbor never lasted more than eight months.
No doubt his father reminded him of family wisdom learned through bitter experience.
After all, the first Bush presidency went from a 90 per cent approval rating at the time of Desert Storm, to a 37 per cent rating just over a year later, a month before the presidential election his father lost to Bill Clinton.
Sooner or later, Mr Bush will have to choose between the new knowledge of multinationalism he has acquired and politics he already knows, which counsels compulsive attention to the polls. How he responds to that choice will determine his place in history, and the future of the American nation.
Huck Gutman is a bi-weekly contributor to the Perspective pages of The Statesman. He is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.