Get Real, America

If you’ve been listening to the story-line composed by American officials promoting the Bush administration’s foreign policy, you might have concluded that two recent international developments are all part of the Freedom Narrative. The two developments are the Chinese opposition to the security accord between Washington and Tokyo that announced for the first time that easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait was their “common strategic objective” and the strong U.S. lobbying against a plan by the European Union (EU) to lift its 15-year arms embargo on China.

According to the neoconservative ideologues, the leading global democratic power (the United States) and its courageous liberty-loving ally in Northeast Asia (Japan) are standing up to a repressive regime (China) that is threatening to strangle a fledgling democracy (Taiwan).

Neocons’ Take

At the same time, the spineless and greedy Europeans seem to be ready to appease another dictatorship. In this narrative concocted by the neocons, there is the Community of Democratic Nations headed by America and joined by (among others) Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Britain, India, Ukraine, and New Europe, and then there are (among others) China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.

If the U.S. will only remain committed to its democratic principals and use its power to spread them worldwide, Old Europe and other wavering players are bound to jump aboard the Freedom Train, while the forces of democracy will rise up in China, Russia, and Iran. You just wait and see!

This is, of course, a heartwarming fairy tale that recalls the legend of President Woodrow Wilson, who, once upon a time, dreamt about ridding the international system of balance-of-power politics and establishing a make-believe world in which the commitment to democracy would overcome selfish national interests.

That idealistic fantasy ended up being transformed into the nightmares of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and World War II. But a century later, a new generation of Wilsonians are trying to impose their wishful thinking on a complex international reality. In fact, much of what is happening in the world today, including the U.S.-Japan accord on Taiwan and the U.S.-EU tensions over China, would be familiar to the likes of Lord Castlereagh and Prince Metternich, who helped engineer the post-Napoleonic wars balance of power in Europe that Mr. Wilson had so despised.

For the architects of the Congress of Vienna and those who helped maintain peace and stability in Europe for close to a century, the news today would sound quite familiar. It’s the balance of power, stupid!

Hence, the US has tried to strengthen its hegemonic position by going to war in Iraq. It challenged the opposition to its policy from the EU, Russia, and China and imagined that in the aftermath of a military victory in Iraq, it would “forgive Russia, ignore Germany, and punish France.”

But instead, the war has exposed U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military weaknesses. That reality is now being exploited by the new emerging global powers and forcing the U.S. to coddle Russia (please, don’t sell military technology to Iran and Syria!), embrace Germany (please, press NATO to help us in Iraq!), and give a big kiss to the French (please, don’t orient the EU against us!).

By going to war against Iraq, the Americans ignored core interests of the Europeans, especially the need of the French and Germans to secure their strategic and economic backyard in the Middle East. So the EU, by moving to lift the embargo against China, is sending a clear message to Washington: If you continue to dismiss our concerns in the Middle East, don’t expect us to act differently when it comes to our own interests in Asia.

The result is that one rising global power (EU) is strengthening the bargaining power of another new global player (China) that feels threatened by the Americans (over Taiwan).

At the same time, the American-Japanese accord is an attempt to counter that challenge as Washington takes advantage of Tokyo’s worries over Beijing’s growing economic and military power in Asia. Indeed, this new triangular global relationship suggests that the post-Cold War unipolar system is starting to crumble and is now taking a multipolar shape. Wilsonian campaigns on the part of Washington would be the most disastrous response to this changing reality.

Instead of “punishing” Russia for its alleged blow to democracy (recall that President Vladimir Putin was elected in a free vote by a larger majority than President George Bush enjoyed in the last election), Washington should embrace Moscow as a strategic partner in a way that could counter pressures from the EU and China.

Long-Term Interests

A new effort to cooperate with the Europeans over Iran and Israel/Palestine would make it perhaps more likely that the EU would be willing to accommodate American concerns over China. And Washington should see to it that the strategic partnership with Tokyo doesn’t play into the hands of Japanese nationalists whose attitudes toward China run contrary to American long-term interests.

It also goes without saying that Americans should start a serious debate on the direction and shape of U.S. military commitments to Taiwan.

Indeed, we should recognize that in the real world out there, nations are willing to work with Washington – and even adopt its democracy rhetoric for a while – when it’s in their interest to do so. We should do the same and ensure that U.S. resources are utilized to advance America’s core interests and not to fulfill dangerous fantasies.

Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.

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