November 2010, Week 3


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Mon, 15 Nov 2010 10:56:28 -0500
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Obama in Asia 
Meeting American Decline Face to Face By
Juan Cole 
November 11, 2010

Blocked from major new domestic initiatives by a
Republican victory in the midterm elections, President
Barack Obama promptly lit out for Asia, a far more
promising arena.  That continent, after all, is rising,
and Obama is eager to grasp the golden ring of Asian

Beyond being a goodwill ambassador for ten days, Obama
is seeking sales of American-made durable and consumer
goods, weapons deals, an expansion of trade, green
energy cooperation, and the maintenance of a
geopolitical balance in the region favorable to the
United States.  Just as the decline of the American
economy hobbled him at home, however, the weakness of
the United States on the world stage in the aftermath of
Bush-era excesses has made real breakthroughs abroad

Add to this the peculiar obsessions of the Washington
power elite, with regard to Iran for instance, and you
have an unpalatable mix.  These all-American fixations
are viewed as an inconvenience or worse in Asia, where
powerful regional hegemons are increasingly determined
to chart their own courses, even if in public they
continue to humor a somewhat addled and infirm Uncle

Although the United States is still the world's largest
economy, it is shackled by enormous public and private
debt as well as fundamental weaknesses. Rivaled by an
increasingly integrated European Union, it is projected
to be overtaken economically by China in just over a
decade.  While the president's first stop, India, now
has a nominal gross domestic product of only a little
over a trillion dollars a year, it, too, is growing
rapidly, even spectacularly, and its GDP may well
quadruple by the early 2020s.  The era of American
dominance, in other words, is passing, and the time
(just after World War II) when the U.S. accounted for
half the world economy, a dim memory.

The odd American urge to invest heavily in perpetual war
abroad, including "defense-related" spending of around a
trillion dollars a year, has been a significant factor
further weakening the country on the global stage.  Most
of the conventional weapons on which the U.S. continues
to splurge could not even be deployed against nuclear
powers like Russia, China, and India, emerging as key
competitors when it comes to global markets, resources,
and regional force projection.  Those same conventional
weapons have proved hardly more useful (in the sense of
achieving quick and decisive victory, or even victory at
all) in the unconventional wars the U.S. has repeatedly
plunged into -- a sad fact that Bush's reckless attempt
to occupy entire West Asian nations only demonstrated
even more clearly to Washington's bemused rivals.

American weapons stockpiles (and copious plans for ever
more high-tech versions of the same into the distant
future) are therefore remarkably irrelevant to its
situation, and known to be so.  Meanwhile, its economy,
burdened by debts incurred through wars and military
spending sprees, and hollowed out by Wall Street shell
games, is becoming a B-minus one in global terms.

A Superpower With Feet of Clay

Just how weakened the United States has been in Asia is
easily demonstrated by the series of rebuffs its
overtures have suffered from regional powers.  When, for
instance, a tiff broke out this fall between China and
Japan over a collision at sea near the disputed Senkaku
Islands, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to
mediate.  The offer was rejected out of hand by the
Chinese, who appear to have deliberately halted exports
of strategic rare-earth metals to Japan and the United
States as a hard- nosed bargaining ploy.  In response,
the Obama administration quickly turned mealy-mouthed,
affirming that while the islands come under American
commitments to defend Japan for the time being, it would
take no position on the question of who ultimately owned

Likewise, Pakistani politicians and pundits were
virtually unanimous in demanding that President Obama
raise the issue of disputed Kashmir with Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh during his Indian sojourn.  The
Indians, however, had already firmly rejected any
internationalization of the controversy, which centers
on the future of the Muslim-majority state, a majority
of whose inhabitants say they want independence.
Although Obama had expressed an interest in helping
resolve the Kashmir dispute during his presidential
campaign, by last March his administration was already
backing away from any mediation role unless both sides
asked for Washington's help.  In other words, Obama and
Clinton promptly caved in to India's insistence that it
was the regional power in South Asia and would brook no
external interference.

This kind of regional near impotence is only reinforced
by America's perpetual (yet ever faltering) war machine.
Nor, as Obama moves through Asia, can he completely
sidestep controversies provoked by the Afghan War, his
multiple-personality approach to Pakistan, and his
administration's obsessive attempt to isolate and punish
Iran.  As Obama arrives in Seoul, for instance, Iran
will be on the agenda.  This fall, South Korea, a close
American ally, managed to play a game of one step
forward, two steps back with regard to Washington-
supported sanctions against that energy-rich country.

The government did close the Seoul branch of Iran's Bank
Milli, sanctioning it and other Iranian firms. Then, the
South Koreans turned around and, according to the
Financial Times, appointed two banks to handle payments
involving trade between the two countries via the
(unsanctioned) Tehran Central Bank.  In doing so, the
government insulated other South Korean banks from
possible American sanctions, while finding a way for
Iran to continue to purchase South Korean autos and
other goods.

Before the latest round of U.N. Security Council
sanctions South Korea was doing $10 billion a year in
trade with Iran, involving some 2,142 Korean companies.
Iran's half of this trade -- it provides nearly 10% of
South Korea's petroleum imports -- has been largely
unaffected.  South Korea's exports to Iran, on the other
hand, have fallen precipitously under the pressure of
the sanctions regime. Sanctions that hold Iran harmless
but punish a key American ally by hurting its trade and
creating a balance of payments problem are obviously

The Iranian press claims that South Korean firms are now
planning to invest money in Iranian industrial towns.
Given that Obama has expended political capital
persuading South Korea to join a U.S.- organized free
trade zone and change its tariffs to avoid harming the
American auto industry, it is unlikely that he could now
seek to punish South Korea for its quiet defiance on the
issue of Iran.

China is the last major country with a robust energy
industry still actively investing in Iran, and
Washington entertains dark suspicions that some of its
firms are even transferring technology that might help
the Iranians in their nuclear energy research projects.
This bone of contention is likely to form part of the
conversation between Obama and President Hu Jintao
before Thursday's G20 meeting of the world's wealthiest
20 countries.

Given tensions between Washington and Beijing over the
massive balance of trade deficit the U.S. is running
with China (which the Obama administration attributes,
in part, to an overvalued Chinese currency), not to
speak of other contentious issues, Iran may not loom
large in their discussions. One reason for this may be
that, frustrating as Chinese stonewalling on its
currency may seem, they are likely to give even less
ground on relations with Iran -- especially since they
know that Washington can't do much about it.  Another
fraught issue is China's plan to build a nuclear reactor
for Pakistan, something that also alarms Islamabad's
nuclear rival, India.

Rising Asia

If you want to measure the scope of American decline
since the height of the Cold War era, remember that back
then Iran and Pakistan were American spheres of
influence from which other great powers were excluded.
Now, the best the U.S. can manage in Pakistan is the
political (and military) equivalent of a condominium or
perhaps a time-share -- and in Iran, nothing at all.

Despite his feel-good trip to India last weekend, during
which he announced some important business deals for
U.S. goods, Obama has remarkably little to offer the
Indians.  That undoubtedly is why the president
unexpectedly announced Washington's largely symbolic
support for a coveted seat as a permanent member of the
United Nations Security Council, a ringing confirmation
of India's status as a rising power.

Some Indian politicians and policy-makers, however, are
insisting that their country's increasing demographic,
military, and economic hegemony over South Asia be
recognized by Washington, and that the U.S. cease its
support of, and massive arms sales to, Pakistan.  In
addition, New Delhi is eager to expand its geopolitical
position in Afghanistan, where it is a major funder of
civilian reconstruction projects, and is apprehensive
about any plans for a U.S. withdrawal from that country.
An Indian-dominated Afghanistan is, of course,
Pakistan's worst fear.

In addition, India's need for petroleum is expected to
grow by 40% during the next decade and a half. Energy-
hungry, like neighboring Pakistan, it can't help
glancing longingly at Iran's natural gas and petroleum
fields, despite Washington's threats to slap third-party
sanctions on any firm that helps develop them.  American
attempts to push India toward dirty energy sources,
including nuclear power (the waste product of which is
long-lived and problematic) and shale gas, as a way of
reducing its interest in Iranian and Persian Gulf oil
and gas, are another Washington "solution" for the
region likely to be largely ignored, given how close at
hand inexpensive Gulf hydrocarbons are.

It is alarming to consider what exactly New Delhi
imagines the planet's former "sole superpower" has to
offer at this juncture -- mostly U.S. troops fighting a
perceived threat in Afghanistan and the removal of
Congressional restrictions on sales of advanced weaponry
to India.  The U.S. military in Afghanistan is seen as a
proxy for Indian interests in putting down the Taliban
and preventing the reestablishment of Pakistani hegemony
over Kabul. For purely self-interested reasons Prime
Minister Singh has long taken the same position as the
new Republican majority in the House of Representatives,
urging Obama to postpone any plans to begin a drawdown
in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011.

The most significant of the Indian purchases trumpeted
by the president last weekend were military in
character.  Obama proclaimed that the $10 billion in
deals he was inking would create 54,000 new American
jobs.  Right now, it's hard to argue with job creation
or multi-billion-dollar sales of U.S.-made goods abroad.
As former secretary of labor Robert Reich has pointed
out, however, jobs in the defense industry are expensive
to create, while offering a form of artificial corporate
welfare that distorts the American economy and diverts
resources from far more crucial priorities.

To think of this another way, President Obama is in
danger of losing control of his South Asian foreign
policy agenda to India, its Republican supporters in the
House, and the military-industrial complex.

As the most dynamic region in the world, Asia is the
place where rapid change can create new dynamics.
American trade with the European Union has grown over
the past decade (as has the EU itself), but is unlikely
to be capable of doubling in just a few years.  After
all, the populations of some European countries, like
powerhouse Germany, will probably shrink in coming

India, by contrast, is projected to overtake China in
population around 2030 and hit the billion-and-a- half-
inhabitants mark by mid-century (up from 1.15 billion
today).  Its economy, like China's, has been growing 8%
to 9% a year, creating powerful new demand in the world
market.  President Obama is hoping to see U.S. exports
to India double by 2015. Likewise, with its economy
similarly booming, China is making its own ever more
obvious bid to stride like a global colossus through the
twenty-first century.

The Hessians of a Future Asia?

Unsurprisingly, beneath the pomp and splendor of Obama's
journey through Asia has lurked a far tawdrier vision --
of a much weakened president presiding over a much
weakened superpower, both looking somewhat desperately
for succor abroad. If the United States is to remain a
global power, it is important that Washington offer
something to the world besides arms and soldiers.

Obama has been on the money when he's promoted green-
energy technology as a key field where the United States
could make its mark (and possibly its fortune) globally.
Unfortunately, as elsewhere, here too the United States
is falling behind, and a Republican House as well as a
bevy of new Republican governors and state legislatures
are highly unlikely to effectively promote the greening
of American technology.

In the end, Obama's trip has proven a less than
effective symbolic transition from George W. Bush's
muscular unilateralism to a new American-led
multilateralism in Asia.  Rather, at each stop, Obama
has bumped up against the limits of American economic
and diplomatic clout in the new Asian world order.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney thought in terms of
expanding American conventional military weapons
stockpiles and bases, occupying countries when
necessary, and so ensuring that the U.S. would dominate
key planetary resources for decades to come.  Their
worldview, however, was mired in mid- twentieth-century
power politics.

If they thought they were placing a marker down on
another American century, they were actually gambling
away the very houses we live in and reducing us to a
debtor nation struggling to retain its once commanding
superiority in the world economy.  In the meantime, the
multi-millionaires and billionaires created by
neoliberal policies and tax cuts in the West will be as
happy to invest in (and perhaps live in) Asia as in the
United States.

In the capitals of a rising Asia, Washington's incessant
campaign to strengthen sanctions against Iran, and in
some quarters its eagerness for war with that country,
is viewed as another piece of lunatic adventurism.  The
leaders of India, China, and South Korea, among other
countries, are determined to do their best to sidestep
this American obsession and integrate Iran into their
energy and trading futures.

In some ways, the darkest vision of an American future
arrived in 1991 thanks to President George H. W. Bush.
At that time, he launched a war in the Persian Gulf to
protect local oil producers from an aggressive Iraq.
That war was largely paid for by Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait, rendering the U.S. military for the first time a
sort of global mercenary force. Just as the poor in any
society often join the military as a way of moving up in
the world, so in the century of Asia, the U.S. could
find itself in danger of being reduced to the role of
impoverished foot soldier fighting for others'
interests, or of being the glorified ironsmiths making
arsenals of weaponry for the great powers of the future.


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