A reality check for Washington
Updated: 2011-11-22 07:55
By Stephaan Richter (China Daily)
As the United States is winding down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it wants to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific region. The somewhat grandiose and quite self-serving announcement demonstrates two principal weaknesses.
First is the country's inability to make actual hard choices. And second is its illusory belief that, in contrast to all other countries, it does not have to live with the consequences of its past actions.
In a long article, titled "America's Pacific century", which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently penned in Foreign Policy magazine, she argues that her country now wants to "lock in a substantially increased investment" in the Asia-Pacific region. The article highlights: "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action."
The article would have reflected strategic acumen and a clear-headed sense of priorities had it been published in, say, February 2009, or even October 2009, within the first year of US President Barack Obama taking office.
From a budgetary perspective, one wonders which planet Clinton is living on. Without a doubt, the past 10 years represented the maximum the US will be able to dedicate to foreign (including military) affairs for the foreseeable future. To assume anything other than severe cutbacks at a time when the infrastructure in the US is crumbling, and when police, firefighters and teachers are being laid off, attests to the misbegotten priorities of the American elite.
Ask leaders in Asia, and you'll receive truly disbelieving looks. Many are rendered speechless by the patrician attitude which the current US administration exhibits, after having stood with the George W. Bush administration's ill-fated strategies for too long. Its effort to pivot out of the morass it finds itself in the disastrous part of Asia and turn to the dynamic part of Asia comes very late.
Asian leaders, most of whom have had to contend with scarce financial resources for most of their careers, know from up close that governing means choosing. And they are fully aware of the fact that, once the Obama administration decided to engage in Afghanistan as deeply as it did, it had pretty much spent the "fresh" money it could devote to overseas matters.
And if you talk to leaders in Europe, they are amused by the highly transparent American effort to sell the US turn toward Asia as a not-so-gentle reminder that the Europeans better fall in line, lest they be left behind by the American-Asian tandem.
Senior European officials say calmly that the US government is far from alone in shifting its attention to Asia. In other words, it's a competitive world out there - and let us see who fares better in Asia over the long haul.
In addition, there is a widespread feeling, both in Asia and in Europe, which the US government ought to relent on its penchant, or apparently rather need, to deliver great-sounding speeches and publish heroic articles. Who are they trying to convince? Others? Hardly. Themselves? That's probably much closer to reality.
As any psychoanalyst can tell, the boastful US rhetoric is primarily indicative of one thing: a desperate desire to hold on to a world and options - financial, economic or diplomatic - that are no longer truly in reach of the US. As mighty as the country still is, especially militarily, its tendency to be overly ambitious in its rhetoric actually diminishes its national power.
Outsiders see an emperor presenting himself, in great earnest, without clothes. Worse, this global aspiration-by-rhetoric-alone leads to a serious imbalance on the domestic front. The American people are oversold a bill of goods - namely, global supremacy (as a presumed return on their hefty investment) - that is turning out to be increasingly hollow every day. Under such circumstances, it seems inevitable that they will lose faith in (read: withdraw support for) foreign engagements as soon as it turns out their country cannot live up to its rhetoric.
The bombast with which US politicians, from Secretary of State Clinton to the lowliest member of Congress, regularly hold forth on foreign relations would have to be called comical, if it weren't so tragic. They are increasingly taken with little more seriousness than the declarations that Silvio Berlusconi has made about Italy's public debt problem: They become the more boastful the less realistic they are. And the US military, meanwhile, gets stretched increasingly thin.
This situation is all the more unfortunate - and risky - considering the US has invested heavily in foreign relations. But, truth be told, it's mostly been an investment in the business of foreign relations. Hence, the over-reliance on defense spending (and sales to foreign militaries, as well as the extremely well-paid contractors in war zones). And one shouldn't forget the all-too-mercenary character of its so-called development aid machinery.
Too often, it primarily benefits the Beltway bandits, that is, contractors and consulting companies in the Washington perimeter who avail themselves of the government's largesse. Foreign policy as a for-profit business? That's the gruesome reality of today's Washington - and the clear opposite of what the country's wise founding fathers had in mind. It's a tragedy, really. Their concept was great: to focus on commerce to build alliances, not armies - and to be adaptable with regard to the constitution on social issues. In today's Washington, their path has been sadly turned onto its very head.
The author is president of the Globalist Research Center, a Washington-based think tank that explores key issues on the global agenda.
(China Daily 11/22/2011 page9)