America aspires to put the world to rights but is ruled by an insular agenda, says John Carlin
"How to make enemies and not influence people" might be an appropriate formulation to describe America's performance on the world stage this past week.

First, in chronological order, you had Jesse Helms behaving like a Communist potentate, as the New York Times put it, in blocking the nomination of President Clinton's eminently qualified candidate for the post of ambassador to Mexico. Then Bill Clinton announced that the US would not join 100 other nations in signing a treaty banning the production and use of landmines. And finally, in the face of protests from the Mexican government and human rights organisations everywhere, a Mexican was executed in Virginia.

Helms, by one of those aberrations that history sometimes throws up, is chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His blunt refusal to allow the Senate to hold a hearing on William Weld's candidacy for the Mexico post has been the talking point of Washington all summer. Weld, a fellow Republican and former governor of Massachusetts, threw in the towel on Monday. What was the reason Helms gave for his objection to Weld? The inane belief that Weld would fail to prosecute the war on drugs in Mexico because of his position in favour of the medical use of marijuana. A deeper reason was that Senator No, as the liberals call him, wishes to keep moderate, rational-thinking elements away from positions of influence in his own party.

The Mexicans, who never miss an opportunity to wax indignant about Uncle Sam, were upset. The Americans lost an able man for an important and delicate job. But the broader significance of Helms's display was that it provided the international community with another vivid reminder of just how petty- minded and insular Washington's foreign policy has become. The fact that Helms was elected in the first place to the most influential foreign policy job in the US Congress - and then tolerated for the last three years with barely a squeak from Washington's establishment - is in itself an insult to the rest of the planet. A friend down the years of corrupt and murderous leaders in Latin America and Africa; an unashamed gay-basher; a man who describes foreign aid as "pouring money down a rat hole", the 75-year- old senator from North Carolina would have viewed Mother Teresa as a Communist, Princess Diana as a sponging welfare queen.

In President Clinton's decision to exclude the US from last week's historic landmine treaty there is no room for comfort. Just last month he said: "Ridding the world of these often hidden weapons will help to save the lives of tens of thousands of men and women and innocent children in the years to come." His resolve crumbled, however, when it was brought to his attention that the thousands of innocents in question were not Americans. They were Angolans, Mozam- bicans and people from other strange places whose plight, in the absence of Diana, would not be making it on to the network news. Whereas, should one American soldier perish as a consequence of a North Korean sortie across a mine-free field, the image of the body bag would be broadcast into every American home. "Another Somalia!" the commentators would shriek, and then who knows where that would leave Mr Clinton's place in history, never mind his friend Al Gore's presidential bid.

General Ronald Griffith, the vice-chief of staff of the US army, was among those who explained to Bill Clinton the mistake he would be making in joining the ban. "Mines would be used only in situations where we're protecting the lives of American forces," he said in a recent TV interview, making the argument every signatory of the landmine treaty chose nobly to forgo. The equation is clear. The death or mutilation of one or two American soldiers, people who voluntarily opt for a life of danger, equals more than the death or mutilation of the 26,000 civilians blown up by a landmine every year.

To be fair to Americans, however, they do not shirk from killing their own people when need be. Alone in the Western world, the US embraces capital punishment. The death toll this year from executions by lethal injection, electric chair and hanging should guarantee the land of the free a place once again in the international top four of legal killer nations, behind China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Mario Murphy, a Mexican citizen, contributed his name to the grim list when he was put to death in Virginia on Wednesday night. He was one of six people convicted of a murder in 1991 but, though he pleaded guilty and turned state witness, he was the only one of the six to be condemned to death. The Mexican government, suspecting racial prejudice, mounted a vigorous campaign for a stay of execution. After Murphy had received his dose of poison the Mexican foreign ministry, responding to national outrage, took the unusually strong step of instructing their ambassador in Washington to deliver a letter of protest to the US government.

What all this tells us is just how supremely disdainful the US is of international opinion. It was, perhaps, ever thus. Every American child is infected early on with the belief that he inhabits the greatest nation in human history. You would think, though, that with the Cold War over America would have fewer enemies today, when in fact it has more. The hatred is, in some cases, less intense but the distaste more widespread.

Madeleine Albright's first visit as US Secretary of State to the Middle East two weeks ago served only to harden Arab beliefs that, far from playing the role of honest broker in what remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the US government seeks first and foremost to appease the wealthy, fearsomely politically influential Jewish lobby at home. In Africa governments are bitterly aware that, while the US was eager to pour guns and money in to help tyrants such as Mobutu and Savimbi combat perceived Soviet expansionism, today the cash has dried up. The same goes for Central America, another former theatre of US proxy war. Peking describes as "neo-McCarthyist" the spirit that has prompted Washington prematurely to identify China as a new evil empire in the making.

What has been most striking about American behaviour abroad in recent years, however, is how it has managed to antagonise traditional allies such as Canada, Western Europe and Japan. The June G7 summit in Denver offered a classic case in point. Mr Clinton addressed the assembled heads of government with the teenage braggadocio that goes down well with the God-bless-America crowd at Democratic Party conventions. The American economy was "the strongest in the world", he boasted, before dispatching his White House aides to distribute charts showing how robust US growth was compared to the feeble efforts of the Europeans and Japanese.

His refusal at the Nato summit in Madrid a few weeks later to countenance more than three new alliance members was widely interpreted as an act of imperial arrogance. Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister, confided to his Belgian counterpart his views on Bill Clinton's Nato policy without realising a microphone was turned on: "I know the rules. It's not for reasons of state. It's all done for short-term political reasons." Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, privately thought the same and publicly deplored America's "hegemonic tendency", while Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, said with pointed understatement that the superpower had been "a bit lacking in sensitivity in dealing with the Europeans".

Nowhere more so than in Mr Clinton's decision last year to sign the Helms- Burton Act, a law in which the US arrogates to itself the right to impose sanctions on non-American companies that do business with Cuba. The elevation of Helmsian pig-headedness to national policy has outraged nations in Europe, the Americas and beyond. A new congressional move, also backed by Helms, to impose extra sanctions on a common market of 15 small Caribbean nations, Caricom, if they go ahead with plans to trade with Cuba has prompted untypically fierce responses. "A declaration of economic war," the Prime Minister of Barbados called it.

For a condensed version of all the follies and vices to which American foreign policy has stooped, Cuba - after Jesse Helms - is the best place to look. At one level America's obsession with the small, harmless, increasingly decrepit tropical island expresses a national neurological disorder marked by a need to manufacture enemies; and by an adolescent bully's anxiety to be treated by the smaller boys in the neighbourhood with shows of obeisance. At another level Washington's policy towards Cuba responds to the calculations of politicians eager not to lose right-wing support and election campaign contributions from the aggressive Cuban-American lobby.

The Cold War masked the base motives that guided US foreign policy because then each move could be dignified by the overarching imperative to defend the free world. Now the truth that often lurked beneath is laid bare. That US policy towards the rest of the world is shaped by ignorance, provincial prejudice, childish notions about the supremacy of the American Way of Life and, above all, by the games of America's mostself-obsessed city, Washington DC.