America’s Unilateral Delusions Making Comeback?

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security_council1.jpg
(US President Barack Obama chairing a historic session of the United Nations Security Council on 24 September 2009)
There is a giddiness that has taken hold in some foreign policy circles in Washington that the Obama administration is showing more courage all of a sudden and is finally breaking away from its courtship of China and is flirting with unilateral paths to ratcheting up pressure on Iran.
This new trend is evident in pushing forward a large arms sale package to Taiwan, in a planned Obama meeting the Dalai Lama, and in Hillary Clinton publicly chastising China’s minimalist participation in global efforts to redirect Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
The US Congress has also quickly pushed an Iran Sanctions bill that after passing both the Senate and the House of Representatives now goes to reconciliation — but this bill is outpacing important and fragile coalition building efforts on Iran strategy involving the Europeans, Russians, Japanese, and yes — even China.
There are some who worry that America’s eagerness to throttle Iran without respecting and working through the resolutions machinery of United Nations will undermine the ability of other key powers — particularly Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Japan — to maintain public support for America’s position. Some in Europe are worried that American unilateralist tendencies are perking up again.
The larger trends in both China policy and on Iran are worrisome. In the China case, America — all of a sudden — seems to be tethering itself to policies designed to frustrate China’s own political and policy goals, inevitably raising the price of China’s cooperation with the United States on other vital fronts and undermining the chances of the US achieving some of its most important global objectives.
Dealing with China can be frustrating — particularly as China continues what is mostly a mercantilist path to its own development — with little appreciation for how its economic course is undermining global economic stability.
But a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama, who I agree is a symbol of peace and tolerance around the world, should not be confused with real power nor be seen as an event that helps the US achieve its higher ordered goals.
Power is earned by the achievement of goals and objectives that the US sets out for itself. Most of these goals — whether in changing the vector of Middle East instability, establishing a new global arms control and WMD nonproliferation regime, or achieving binding protocols on climate change remediation — will require support from other key global stakeholders. That means China. That means Russia. And that means ongoing maintenance of vital European relationships.
The US-China relationship has veered from being overly acquiescent to Chinese priorities and sensibilities to now what looks like American spitefulness towards China — with no sense of underlying strategy of what America’s core national security and economic objectives are and how these converge or diverge from Chinese interests.
In the economic sphere, America and China need to engage in a serious work out effort that simultaneously decreases the most dysfunctional parts of massive economic imbalances but that also helps to restore American growth, innovation, and consumption. But that takes balance, trust building and strategy.
That’s not the course the US is now on in the antics we are seeing all of a sudden from the Obama team.
The Obama national security group is no doubt frustrated with China’s foot-dragging on a number of key issues, particularly Iran and climate change, and to some degree is threatening Chinese leaders with the prospects of instability in its relations with the US.
But the problem with that strategy is that America’s planned health care overhaul, America’s homeland investment and revitalization efforts, and America’s multiple wars are financed today by China. China’s economy is rapidly growing — and China is ascending in terms of global power.
The US needs to get back to thinking through key interests and needs to find ways other than public humiliation and international embarrassment to manage a complex relationship with a rapidly more powerful China.
Without multilateral efforts that include China, the US may get giddy and intoxicated by the self-righteous fumes of asserting its positions on climate, or Iran, or terrorism — but ultimately, the US will achieve nothing.
— Steve Clemons
(Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note and directs the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program and Great Powers Initiative. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons)

Comments

22 comments on “America’s Unilateral Delusions Making Comeback?

  1. David says:

    Rhetorical response, John, nobody can. Beginning to wonder if the United States has a militarist gyro at the very core of its modern existence that precludes actually doing anything geopolitically that makes sense for the 21st century. Everything Obama attempts to do that does make sense gets villified. Everything he does that is acceptable to the gyroscope gets praised.
    I don’t remember a right wing machine having so much success so quickly in undermining a president. Granted, Obama has made some mistakes, most notably in saving the financial overlords but not Main Street, but take on Wall Street, the MIC, pharma, the health care giants, or the status quo in general, and the wrath of the gods gets unleashed.

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  2. John Waring says:

    I would like someone to explain to me how selling arms to Taiwan makes a bit of sense.
    Of the four countries that are the world’s largest producers of steel, China produces more than the other three combined.
    On the eve of WWII Japan produced six million tons of steel per year, and had to import most of its raw materials. The USA produced 76 million tons, and imported almost no raw materials. After they lost four carriers at Midway, the Japanese never caught up. After we lost our battleship fleet at Pearl, we build the Iowa class battleships, plus a dozen fleet carriers.
    The moral of this story is that, when push comes to shove, China may have the upper hand in any armed conflict over Taiwan. Once China’s military technology catches up with its industrial might, China may be able to blunt our technological superiority with sheer mass. If China can force the USA into a war of attrition, the game may cost too much for us to play. The facts on the ground appear to be rapidly eroding our ability to maintain our policy of strategic ambiguity vis a vis Taiwan.
    We need to be arguing about the artificial exchange rate that’s part of the reason we have a real unemployment rate of 20%. We either fix the macro economic imbalances, or face a potential crash-and-burn scenario. We need to stop arguing over Taiwan and help them get the best deal they can with the mainland.

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  3. trblmkr says:

    JohnH–They should in both cases. I don’t see Honduras obstructing in the UNSC, sending us poison pet food, bribing Namibian leaders to guarantee natural resources.
    OK, you got me, the US is being two-faced but the repercussions differ by an order of magnitude.

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  4. JohnH says:

    trblmkr–the US don’t need to “engage” with Honduras because Honduras is already within the US sphere of influence. So what’s preventing the US from insisting on “political reform’ or ‘pluralism’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘freedom of ______’?”

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  5. trblmkr says:

    JohnH
    The difference is that proponents of ‘engagement’ with China sold us on that notion by saying it would result in ‘political reform’ or ‘pluralism’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘freedom of ______’.
    I don’t recall similar claims being made in the case of Honduras.
    As to demonization, the Chinese government has showed no hesitation in encouraging ultra-nationalism and rioting in the streets against the US, Japan, France(Sarkozy meet with Dalai Lama) and their embassies when it suited them.

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  6. Outraged American says:

    So what’s better, negotiating and providing economic support,
    like China is, or bombing, costing millions of lives and trillions
    of (BORROWED) dollars like the US is?
    And to call US intervention in the Middle East and South Asia, all
    justified because of one tragic day — 9/11 AKA “The Day That
    Changed Everything” lest you forget why we’re mucking around
    in about seven different countries with more to come under the
    guise of the War on Terriers (TM Carroll) — “stabilizing”, makes
    me truly question the sanity of the poster.
    War is never stabilizing. Economic cooperation and negotiation,
    when done fairly for the benefit of the PEOPLE of the countries,
    as opposed to tinpot despots like Dick Cheney, is stabilizing.
    China’s going to win this round. Actually China’s already won
    the game.

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  7. William says:

    I disagree. I believe you’re making an argument over tactics rather than strategy. I believe the Administration’s strategy is one of engagment with China. Whatever our current indebtedness to China, a reasonable balance must be maintained in the pas-de-deux of relations — as you yourself noted. The Chinese have been feeling their oats lately, e.g. the snub given to the President in Copenhagen, and it’s useful to remind them that it takes two to tango. As for Iran, I’ve seen no evidence of the U.S. contemplating a unilateralist approach. If anything, the Administration’s multi-party approach has continued.

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  8. JohnH says:

    trblmkr–don’t worry about it. The words ‘political reform’ or ‘pluralism’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘freedom of ______’ don’t appear anywhere in statements about US ally Honduras either. They apply only when the US is actively demonizing another country.

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  9. trblmkr says:

    Mr. Clemens,
    I notice that the words ‘political reform’ or ‘pluralism’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘freedom of ______’ don’t appear anywhere in your post. This is indicative of how successful China has been in “changing the subject.”
    Early proponents of ‘engagement’ with China said all those goodies I’ve listed above would emerge if only we could open the trade doors(early 80s), grant MFN status(mid 80s), do away with the yearly MFN vote in Congress(early 90s), let China into GATT(mid 90s), or let China into the WTO.
    All of that has been done in the last 30 years but none of the above list has ocurred.
    Has ‘engagement’ succeeded so much in your opinion that you feel it’s no longer necessary to bring up these topics?
    You use that old chestnut “Some people” in Europe are concerned about our unilateral “antics” as you call them. But the EU has recently expressed its own misgivings vis avis China’s unfair trade practices and financial support of despots in Africa. Even Chinese book fairs in Germany are not safe from Communist Party meddling.
    Possibly, the EU countries will join us and not China in any future entente. But you don’t even entertain such a notion in your post.

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  10. Carroll says:

    Matt…
    How is the violence Iran unleashes on it’s own citizens different from ..say… the violence the US unleashed on the Kent State students?
    Or the Waco group?
    Or similar others?

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  11. Matt from CT says:

    “Why is Iran a threat to the United States?”
    Because both nations’ governments engage in using the other “Wag the Dog” for political effect, and it’s not clear that either understands the other well enough to avoid stepping in the dog’s poo one day.
    That said, let’s not underestimate the volatility of Iran’s government.
    One nation has a political system that grinds to a halt, by design, when politics gets too polarized.
    The other sends out the armed forces and beats people in the streets, rounds up the organizers, and declare it’s obviously the work of foreign agitators.
    Who do you trust more with nuclear weapons — the country whose politics reverts to a stable but deadlocked state, or the one that unleashes violence on their own citizens?
    I do hope I live long enough to see the tension in the relationship be removed. After Israel and Turkey, Iran is the most western looking nation in the middle east and the one with the most shared values and interests with the United States.

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  12. John Waring says:

    OA,
    Iran is not a threat to the USA. A country whose greatest military achievement was mass infantry attacks during the war with Iraq, a technique that become obsolete in the carnage of WWI, is not a threat to the USA. All a nuke will do is make them a big fat target.

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  13. Brian B says:

    Although I understand the significance of the situation by which China is bank rolling our financial situation right now, however, China needs to be held to account for their free-riding behavior. If they are not going to cooperate, on bit, on the the nuclear issues with Iran then I think the US has every right to push them into a corner to justify their actions. The US is creating a somewhat secure environment, whereby the focus is placed on the US as invadors and not on the Chinese intervention policies, around the world where China is able to come in and provide economic and infrastructure support in exchange for access to natural resources that they need to continue their economic development projects at home. The US, recognizing their free-riding, is now, in a round about way, asking China to offer support in stabalizing operations in the regions’ where they are benefitting economically.

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  14. Dan E says:

    When discussing to the issue of Climate Change with regards to negotiations between China, the US and Europe it is important to acknowledge one often overlooked fact: a large percentage of the carbon emissions being measured in China are actually being produced by American and European companies that have relocated their manufacturing operations into China to take advantage of lower labor costs, lower or non-existent environmental regulations as well as minimal business taxation.
    The emissions themselves are undeniably emanating from within the borders of China, so they can accurately be labeled as Chinese emissions, but the factories that are actually responsible for the production of the carbon emissions are American and European owned and operated. So it could be objectively argued that some of the carbon emissions from China are actually the responsibility of the US and Europe. Blaming the Chinese for all of the carbon emissions emanating from their country is both disingenuous and deceitful.
    With regards to Iran:
    Americans are conditioned to believe that our troubles with Iran spontaneously began in 1979. Iranians believe that their troubles with the US began in 1953. Our focus begins on the ‘effect’ of conditions in Iran from 1979 onward while their focus more accurately targets the ’cause’ of the conditions that date from 1953. We focus on the multilateral ‘effects’; they focus on the unilateral ’cause.’
    Just another example of how both the US government and media project a narrative derived from selective historical references rather than complete historical facts.

    Reply

  15. ... says:

    oa – the usa is clearly a threat to iran… that much is obvious… the usa always needs to find somewhere to go to war… it appears to be the american way…

    Reply

  16. JohnH says:

    Regarding the Pentagon and “defense” industry’s program to justify its ever increasing looting of the Treasury, which is the only explanation for America’s incoherent, counter-productive foreign policy, Normon Solomon said it very well:
    ‘For the United States, an epitaph on the horizon says: “We had to destroy our country in order to defend it.”’
    Sadly, the Pentagon and it contractors are just one looter in the long line that seems intent on destroying the country–Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture, etc. The main difference is that the Pentagon espouses noble values–“defending” the country–to justify its looting of the Treasury.

    Reply

  17. sue says:

    Steve,
    China would be eager to cooperate w/ US if US pays a little
    attention on what China cares: Sovereignty; specifically selling arms
    to Taiwan and meeting Dalai Lama. US knows how to irritate
    Chinese and got away with it for many years but they won’t get
    away forever. These American companies that sell arms to Taiwan
    make tons of money out of China. Would American government
    allow this happen? The question puzzling me is what American get
    out of this except a few companies make some money out of this,
    probably much less than what they got from China?

    Reply

  18. Outraged American says:

    Why is Iran a threat to the United States?

    Reply

  19. Steve Clemons says:

    giftedOne — I certainly am an American, through and through, but I’m also an internationalist. I stated the obvious in the NY Times piece. The administration put serious effort into orienting US-China relations in a direction that subordinated (and really hid from view) many key parts of the relationship that should have been in the mix, but not dominant. I am calling for balance and serious, complex engagement. We can’t swing from a relationship that is all love and kisses to one where we have an eruption of all the issues that were not being publicly and adequately dealt with. Both models are poor ones.
    And on your comments about China’s economic course, I don’t get your point. Much of the world is highly concerned about China’s imbalances and their own vulnerability to a continual slide of their own manufacturing platforms into China.
    All best, steve clemons

    Reply

  20. gifted0ne says:

    “They needed China on economic issues, climate change, Iran, North Korea. So they came in wanting to do this lovely dance with China, but that didn’t work.”
    “China is feeling very confident these days, but the one thing that the Chinese freak out about consistently are sovereignty issues,” said Mr. Clemons of the New America Foundation. “So anything related to Taiwan or Tibet will get them going.”
    How do these comments of your help to stop the unilateralist trend in American for. policy? don’t they show the same tone deaf, jingoistic hubris that gets the US in trouble globally?
    And you expect a non-American audience to accept the premise that China has “..little appreciation for how its economic course is undermining global economic stability.”
    Really? Lifting hundreds of millions of Asians, and investing billions in Africa is undermining global stability?
    LOL,..Steve Clemons you are an American through and through.

    Reply

  21. nadine says:

    “Power is earned by the achievement of goals and objectives that the US sets out for itself.”
    Yes. Has the US earned power or lost power in the last year? Does Obama even want to earn American power? He often sounds like he’d rather retire America from the great power business.
    “Most of these goals — whether in changing the vector of Middle East instability, establishing a new global arms control and WMD nonproliferation regime, or achieving binding protocols on climate change remediation — will require support from other key global stakeholders. That means China. That means Russia. And that means ongoing maintenance of vital European relationships.”
    So, what’s in it for them? They’ve made it quite clear their interests are different from ours.
    Obama’s method until now was offering free concessions and asking nicely. He had Hillary announce that human rights were off the table with China. He yanked the Polish and Czech missile systems without even telling those countries beforehand (heckuva way to support those vital European relationships).
    He got nothing back from Russia or China for these concessions. All he wound up doing was advertising weakness.
    If he’s at least backing off from this approach, it’s an encouraging sign that perhaps he has learned something from his disastrous first year in office.

    Reply

  22. Carroll says:

    “That’s not the course the US is now on in the antics we are seeing all of a sudden from the Obama team”>>>>>
    Obviously Obama’s new US strategy is when you find yourself in a hole keep digging.

    Reply

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