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Obama's trip foretells the future
Expectations of American presidents and American power are wildly out of synch with the realities of globalization and a multi-polar world.  Obama's steady, dull progress in diplomacy is not the stuff of drama, but it is the future.
 
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison

President Obama’s trip to Asia seems to have underwhelmed many American observers. If so, they might need to recalibrate their expectations of future trips. In an increasingly multi-polar world, the task of pursuing U.S. interests will not lend itself to many fine displays of diplomatic fireworks; from here on, it is steady, dull work.

Indeed, it’s past time to adjust our expectations of what American foreign policy can achieve in general. If Washington makes no dramatic progress with Moscow or Beijing on climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, and other contentious issues, it’s for a simple reason: these governments do not perceive these global threats as we do. In many cases, they don’t perceive them as “threats” at all. That leaves the U.S. attempting to build international coalitions to act on issues that few other governments even consider problems.

Take Iran’s nuclear program. It’s no more worrisome to China and Russia than India’s nuclear program is to us.  Not only is Iran a client and trading partner of both, but they likely see an Iranian nuclear arsenal as a means of counter-balancing Western military power just as Washington sees an Indian arsenal as a check on China.    Likewise, they view global climate change as -- at worst – a remote danger that cannot compete with the need for economic security. When Washington puts these issues at the center of our relations with Russia and China, it sets itself up for one diplomatic “failure” after another. In the process, the public gains a misleading impression about the quality and goals of American diplomacy and remains largely blind to any real progress made cultivating constructive ties.

Obama’s Asia tour is a case in point. Abating concerns that the U.S. alliance with Japan is weakening under the new DPJ regime in Tokyo, Japan offered substantial new financial aid to U.S.-allied governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meantime, the gradual thawing of U.S.-Russian relations continued in Singapore, where Obama met again with President Medvedev at the APEC summit. Even China, which made minimal concessions on climate change, nuclear proliferation or its currency policies, joined Obama in producing the most significant Sino-American joint statement in decades, in which China acknowledged America’s security role in East Asia and the U.S. backed away from its past moves to contain the rise of China.

These count toward success in the real world.

Washington’s muted criticism of Chinese political repression is also a reflection of reality -- a function of our dependence on Chinese holdings of U.S. debt and of the importance to our economy of Chinese exports. Economic interdependence with China -- and its political fallout ¬-- is a result of globalization and our own profligacy. Unless we live within our means and move away from an economy fueled by the consumption of imports, we will be dependent on other states, and suffer the consequences.

Sooner or later, interdependence undercuts American military and political hegemony. We see new limits to American influence in the emergence of a Japanese government interested in creating an “East Asian community” modeled on the EU, which would make a U.S. military presence in the region even more obsolete. Similarly, as Taiwan becomes more economically dependent on China, this recurring flashpoint between the U.S. and China fades. Americans should welcome these developments -- much as we welcomed the liberation and integration of eastern Europe that began twenty years ago this month. But the loss of hegemony has a price.

Americans have tended to view globalization as vindication of the American economic model as well as a means of expanding American influence, both economic and cultural. In reality, the interdependence fostered by globalization limits American power around the world. What we seek from economic integration, instead, is expanding pockets of peace and cooperation. Viewed this way, Obama’s visit to China was successful. But its success was due in part to what he did not do while he was there. In an increasingly integrated world, the value of Presidential trips can no longer be measured by the frequency and volume of the moralistic posturing they engender. 

 

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