Michael Brenner: Asia Rises, America Fantasizes

Asia is on our mind. President Obama’s troubled sojourn highlighted the compelling truth that the road to the global future runs through Asia. For the United States, it will be a hazardous one — risky for America and risky for the world. There is no GPS available. So here are just a few guideposts that may help intellectual navigation.

Juxtaposing ‘aged’ Europe to a vibrant, young Asia is a shorthand formulation that conceals as much as it reveals. Obviously, in civilizational terms Asia is much older than most of Europe. We are talking about those parts of Asia, especially China and India, whose striking economic development now is transforming them from debilitated societies into thriving societies. The phenomenon is as important in terms of their sense of self (and how others imagine them) as it is in tangible terms. The Europe of the EU is much wealthier than the newcomers (Japan is in a separate category) and will remain so for quite some time. The notion of Europe as one big retirement home is highly misleading. Indeed, within the imagery of the West it glows more attractively than the US for many peoples.

More meaningful is the political will to translate economic capacity and attendant rise in national self confidence into assertiveness on the world stage. It is true that there is a discernible historical pattern of rapid economic growth leading to a greater readiness to throw one’s weight around internationally — at times, taking the form of outward expansionism. Whether and how that dynamic plays out in China’s case is the big question that looms over us. The aim of American and European strategy (and Japan as well) should be to encourage the channeling of those energies into the revamping and extension of collective arrangements for organizing a stable world system. That means yielding a measure of the influence we now exercise and it means pulling into focus the strategic perspectives of the three centers of development and democracy.

Europe’s deficit of political will stems in good part from its dependency relationship on the United States. It goes much deeper than reliance on American leadership for dealing with security threats. It includes deference to American ideas, mores, and power of initiative. This is unhealthy for all parties. Yet Washington does all it can to perpetuate it. The United States’ interests would be better served by having a more independent, confident partner that can pull its weight in addressing the multiple challenges of achieving an accommodation with the powers of the East on terms satisfactory to all.

We should differentiate the economic sphere from the politico-security sphere. Admittedly, they intersect in several places and those intersections pose issues that are among the most difficult to assess and to manage, e.g. China’s oil appetite as it affects policies toward Iran, Central Asia, disputed isles in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Generally speaking, though, it is not particularly helpful to superimpose static models from the past on emerging realities. Comparing expansion of the Chinese or Indian navy with Imperial Germany’s bid to challenge Britain’s rule of the seas tells us little of value about what naval expansion means in today’s world.

The thorniest, most complicated issues are in the economic sphere. We are already encountering them in the mounting war of words over currency matters. Here, the United States is suffering from a domestic structural deficiency that is driving its external monetary and trade policies. China is the target of American criticism and unilateral action. That is due to a number of factors: China’s huge dollar holdings; its chronically large trade surpluses; its skirting the norms if not explicit rules of exchange rate management; and the implicit understanding that China counts today more than anyone else because of what it may be tomorrow.

A resilient, stronger American economy free of its financial deformations could make more cool headed decisions as to what are appropriate actions now in the light of longer-term considerations. Our manifest impulse to do just the opposite owes to weakened self-confidence on all planes, as well as to habit. That in turn is aggravated by the state of political paralysis at home. Last week’s action by the Federal Reserve to engage in another round of massive Quantitative Easing evinced the durability of the entrenched attitude that Washington can impose its will on the world by arbitrary, unilateral actions when deemed necessary. The result was not only to exacerbate relations with Beijing; it also infuriated the Europeans who saw the Fed’s move as both misguided and a betrayal of accords agreed just weeks earlier. Behaving in a way that makes Europe and China allies of convenience in opposing American policies is the antithesis of what we should be doing.

The state of affairs outlined above makes clear that the Asian challenge is far more subtle than its rendering in models that reduce historical (and historic) transformations to contests over who is king of the hill. That is not the nature of this game. Nobody will be crowned as No. 1 after a series of jousts. This mentality leads nowhere but into blind alleys. Indeed, it can easily become counterproductive.

Some reflection on this challenge points to the unhappy conclusion that the United States is not ready for it. That is true in many respects: intellectually, politically, and at the level of national identity and self-image. Leaving aside the intangibles, there are a couple of uncomfortable truths about American foreign policy-making that should be acknowledged. One is that we are overly absorbed by short term matters that consume a vastly disproportionate amount of time, energy and diplomatic capital. The endless ‘war on terror’ is the outstanding case in point. The Asian challenge is not and cannot be met amidst the poppy fields of Helmand province or on the high valleys of the Hindu Kush. The other is the total lack of a strategic vision that moves beyond the flimsy, lazy constructs of a ‘unipolar moment,’ a second American century, soft hegemony through a globalized economy designed according to American specifications that serve American interests, etc.

Second, only one person can begin making the necessary changes in outlook and action. It is the president. Yet, neither Mr. Obama nor the members of the team he selected show signs of being up to the task. A marker of our times was the president’s op-ed. in last Saturday’s New York Times. It was an insipid statement of how his forthcoming trip to Asia was going to open markets for American goods. The piece was worthy of a senior vice-president for marketing reporting to the corporate board before heading off an extended tour of foreign buyers. It was unworthy of the President of the United States at a time of severe crisis in our financial and political affairs. It was a telling sign that doesn’t auger well for a serious reexamination of our place in the world. Obama’s transformation into the sales rep for America, Inc. is demeaning. To think that that the idea passed muster with Mr. Donilon, Ms. Clinton, or whomever else he listens to in the post-Rahm era is a further reason for distress.

From The Huffington Post