(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)