Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Chimera of Chimerica and Obama's Foreign Policy

Really, I've just been looking for an excuse to put up that title. But check out Acorn, my co-blogger at INI:

It is one thing to argue that the US-China bilateral relationship is one which is most important to the world, but quite another to call it “G-2″ suggesting it would engage, in some form, in the task of global governance... an important reason why the US-China relationship is seen as important is because it is a problem. It is important to the rest of us in the same way as Pakistan is for international security. So just like how you wouldn’t entrust Pakistan with the job of ensuring international security, you wouldn’t entrust the United States and China with the task of global governance.

Unfortunately, this G-2 mindset... is influencing the Obama administration’s foreign policy. “US-China consultations regarding India and Pakistan,” the former argued, “can perhaps lead to more effective even if informal mediation, for a conflict between the two would be a regional calamity.” Sure enough, the joint statement at the end of President Obama’s summit with President Hu Jintao included a words that said that “the two sides welcomed efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia.” Clearly, there is an attempt by the two countries to get China involved in India’s relations with Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan.

On Taiwan, you have a statement that goes:
The two countries reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China joint communiqu├ęs which guide U.S.-China relations. Neither side supports any attempts by any force to undermine this principle. The two sides agreed that respecting each other's core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.
This is just one joint statement. But it seems to reflect a durable assessment among the Obama team that the G-2 relationship is of primary importance due to China's role in global imbalances, Treasury holdings, climate change, and regional/security issues. These items are apparently of such importance to the Administration that they are willing to sacrifice relations with India, Taiwan, and other local powers--as well as the human rights agenda--even for little substance in return.

My own impression is that an "allies-first" approach of deepening ties to local democracies is more in line with American values, ensures the spread of democracy and human rights as sources of stability for the entire region, and grants greatest bargaining power with respect to China. I suspect that China's domestic constraints are greater than America's in some sense, and little cooperation will be forthcoming. But I'm no foreign policy expert, and the China-first strategy may well work out.

But whether or not this works out for China and America; certainly it's India (and Taiwan) that has room to be concerned. While Bush and Clinton saw the potential for a serious potential partnership with India; the new Administration seems largely intent on viewing India as either an adjunct to Af-Pak (Holbrooke) or a bargaining chip to be wagered to further the crucial China policy. Surely Obama is aware that China and India are going through one of the worst patches of bipartisan relations since the 1962 war--and a failure to consider that is a sign that India has little strategic significance to America beyond Thomas Friedman-ish platitudes of "largest democracy, peaceful Muslims, etc. etc." One can't really fault America for this. It's a failure of Manmohan Singh's foreign policy to think beyond America and consider strategic partnerships with democracies and China-skeptic powers around Asia. The Pakistan-China geopolitical nexus represents an existential threat to India's survival and economic progress, and the US has demonstrated where they stand on that, push come to shove.

I was initially impressed by Obama's foreign policy. There were seeming turnarounds in relations with rogue states like Iran, Cuba, and North Korea; and you heard great things about his team and their professionalism. You have a President who can seemingly get out of any bad scrape through a well-delivered speech.

But whether it's the lack of Asian trade policy, the reversal of the stance against settlements in Israel, or the now-ambiguous Af-Pak strategy; I think it's fair to say things look murkier. Obviously it's a little soon to pass judgments, nor do I think that Glenn Beck-style rants hold. Most Administrations have a crappy first year and this seems to be going better than most.

Still, I think it's fair to say that the more overblown hype is gone. Here is Andrew Sullivan almost two years ago:
Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm [sic]. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.
Yet a recent poll finds that far more Pakistanis rate the US as a threat than India or the Taliban. Having a lower impression in Pakistan than India is quite an accomplishment, and suggests that American policy--for instance the drone strikes so beloved among the doves in the Administration--rather than the identity of the American President drives resentment and blowback. Obama's star power has moved the US in global polls (with the telling exception of Pakistan), but it remains to be seen how much of that increase is durable, and to what degree that assists America in achieving foreign policy goals or cubing terrorism.

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