Thursday, May 30, 2013


Since the American blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan the pundits have made pessimistic assertions regarding the future and credibility of American power. The political gridlock in Congress combined with recession and the threat of home-grown terrorism only aggravated this wave of pessimism. No day goes by without a book appearing announcing the future relegation of the United States to a declining power.

I can see that many indicators may indeed point in that direction. The U.S. Army is overstretched where it should not.  The Americans are seen by foe and ally alike as cynical opportunists who, since the Shah, are seen as throwing former allies who become cumbersome, under the bus. Diplomacy misses  focus and looks more often than not like an incoherent repair job which is missing a Grand Plan.  Numerous scholars are highly critical of the ways thing are going since September 11.  President Obama raised hopes and proved indeed to be a sophisticated thinker but one can also over-think and end up in some Hamlet soliloquy in a graveyard.  The President is eloquent in the land and abroad.  His oratory skills dwarf the utterances of Republicans and Democrats alike but there is a need to connect if the words are mend to hit a target. Obama appears strangely unable to bridge the gap between good intentions and change on the ground.

Accordingly, China gets all the credit while it is really more show than fact.  The structural problems will appear sooner rather than later when the toxic consequences of pollution, foodstuff security, construction standards, labour conditions, censorship, bottom-up discontent, a public sector shadow economy, and a hostile neighborhood come home to roost.  The extraordinary growth which is needed to support the country is unsustainable in the long run, when an aging population becomes a burden and when investors start to look for other low-salary heavens. China does not invent.  It is a predator both of raw materials and intellectual property. The rivers are sewers.  It is about time one looks at the facts behind the numbers. 

On the positive side, China pursues a smart policy abroad. Chinese infrastructure, which can be seen everywhere, is more popular than drones which cannot be seen. America must review how it is seen abroad:  as a brass, indifferent force which pays scant attention to local cultures or creeds. This is also partially unfair, considering its involvement in NGOs or US Aid.  For a country which invented contemporary P.R. it looks almost absurd that so little is invested in the positive.  President George W. Bush did more for the fight against AIDS in Africa than any of his former or current colleagues. The Americans, rightly so, came to the conclusion that certain changes have to come from within. This policy of distance is not a choice for indifference. Peace efforts under or with American leadership have to be continued. Humanitarian and other forms of support should be increased. Military might should become the exception, not the rule. The "pivot" to Asia should be seen and presented as a desire for positive co-leadership with China (which is more unpopular in Asia than it is in Africa or South America). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton understood the glamour of soft-power when addressing town hall meetings in all parts of the world. Her successor is right to be cautious and to try to involve others rather than doing it alone in Kissinger mode (Les temps ont change).

Vali Nasr has written a book which is almost a pamphlet "The Dispensable Nation."  He considers a mix of economic engagement and diplomacy, and rightly suggests that diplomacy should not be limited to the partners we feel "comfortable" with but also with the ones that might kill us.  All the more so, since counter terrorism has proven to be a dead-end.  He points to the shifting geo-political reality wherein America's absence is always filled by China, be it in Iran,Syria, Pakistan, or the Indian Ocean which might as well become a Chinese mare nostrum. Turkey might soon become the American's indispensable partner in the ever worsening Middle East spiral.

In the short-term all this looks rather ominous but in the long-term America will regain its footing. It is already the creator/manifucterer by excellence, even if the spare parts are "made in China," but for how long?  Its economy is mutadis mutandis resilient. It does not suffer from a Han Chinese xenophobia. The problem is that the Americans got tired of wars in countries that they do not relate to, the more so that they are becoming energy independent. They have to find the path back to a coherent worldview, some intellectual strategy as George Kennan, Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger (with some reservations) had. They need to address multi-polarity which can be a force for the good rather than for the bad. China's threats are more directed to its own future than abroad (with the exception of Taiwan, Tibet -which could well become China's Iraq,after the demise of the Dalai Lama-, the South China Sea, the Dyaoyutais and the Autonomous Regions). If they are careful and patient enough, the Americans might as well have to look at China over their shoulder. A world on fire needs more than one to carry a bucket of water, so better know your neighbour and have plenty of buckets at hand.  Do not forget where the faucet is. I trust President Obama, who will meet his Chinese counterpart in the Annenberg capitalistic nirvana of Palm Springs next week, will be so gracious as to show Xi Jinping where the water outlet is.

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