A Politically Deflated Bush Faces a Resistant World

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a while since a top U.S. official delivered one of those wordy sermons to China or Russia about their responsibility to fix their governments, fight political corruption, and protect human rights.

With President George W. Bush being forced to deal with rising domestic criticism of his administration’s performance at home and abroad, it has become much more difficult for him and the leading officials in his administration to promote the notion that his values and policies should serve as the standard that other governments should follow.

Indeed, while the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina tarnished the image of what once upon a time was supposed to be world’s most powerful and competent government, the so-called Plame-gate scandal that has already led to the indictment of one White House official has raised the specter of Watergate-style political corruption, adding to a long list of cases of sleaze and fraud involving Republican figures with ties to Mr. Bush.

And the Bushies could not serve in the role of the world’s moral authority in the same week that the Washington Post reported the CIA was running secret camps in eastern Europe where it was interrogating terrorist suspects. This news, together with what was already known about Abu Ghraib, only raised more questions about the credibility of the U.S. in upholding human rights and the rule of law in its conduct in the war on terror.

And so the politically deflated Mr. Bush, with his approval ratings at home reaching a historic low beneath 40 percent, will meet Latin American heads of state this week and prepare for his trip to Asia, where he will take part in a summit with the region’s leaders in South Korea, followed by a visit to China. He and his aides are probably discovering that they now have to deal with more than just the slow erosion in American “soft power” and the U.S. government’s ability to market its professed values worldwide.

The U.S. reservoir of “hard power” also seems to be depleting. The growing mess in Iraq and the increasing signs that the administration has failed to achieve its goals there challenge the axiom that has been accepted by many observers since the end of the Cold War – that the world’s only remaining military power could continue to maintain its role as an undisputed political hegemon.

At the same time, the ballooning U.S. budget and trade deficits financed by the central bankers of China, Japan, and Korea are weakening the enormous leverage the U.S. once held over other major economies, which, in the past, allowed it to play a leading role in liberalizing the global economy.

At a time when he is one of the least popular figures in the hemisphere, Mr. Bush was bound to feel the combined impact of the expanding deficit in “soft” and “hard” power during the Summit of the Americas in the Argentine town of Mar del Plata.

The neo-liberal economic model of American-style free markets has lost its appeal in Latin America, where left-of-center governments are in control in Brazil and Argentina and another leftist figure could be elected the next president of Mexico. Even more disturbing to Washington is the growing popularity of Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chavez, who has been using his country’s rising oil profits to promote his anti-American and anti-globalization message.

The U.S. plan to form a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is regarded in Latin America today as nothing more than an illusion. And there are mounting anxieties in Washington that the possible elections of leftist governments in Bolivia and Nicaragua could help Mr. Chavez and his ally, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, in stirring up anti-Americanism in the hemisphere, which could certainly be fueled by the emergence of indigenous Indian political parties in the region. While Mr. Bush’s America is finding itself more isolated than ever in its own strategic and economic backyard, with China and the European Union (EU) increasing their trade and investment links to the region, Beijing is continuing to boost its economic and political leadership role in East Asia – a development that will be highlighted during the East Asia Summit in Malaysia, from which the U.S. is being excluded.

At the same time, the Chinese and Russians have been strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as part of a strategy to challenge the American presence in Central Asia. While some American neoconservative strategists have been toying with the idea of “using” India and “unleashing” Japan as part of an effort to “contain” China, it’s becoming clear that while New Delhi and Tokyo are interested in enhancing their ties with Washington, they will resist being dragged into a U.S.-engineered confrontation with Beijing.

Moreover, the Bush administration has yet to come up with a coherent approach toward China, and its inconsistent policies reflect the opposing pressures it faces from ideological and interest groups in Washington. Hence the China-bashing coalition of neoconservative hawks, economic nationalists, and Christian Right activists is pressing Mr. Bush to get tough with the Chinese, while corporate America and free-traders are calling on the administration to engage China. The result is a policy mess in Washington.

Ironically, it’s China that has become the leading diplomatic player in the effort to help the Bushies resolve the North Korean nuclear crises. At the same time, the Bushies have been forced to lobby for cooperation from the Europeans in trying to manage the current confrontations with Iran and Syria.

That Washington is discovering it has no other choice but to rely on diplomatic assistance from China and the EU is a reflection of the constraints that seem to be operating now on American global power. As more and more Americans recognize that reality, it’s possible that Washington could take steps to adjust to the new global balance of power. If that doesn’t happen, America’s adjustment could prove to be more costly, as China, the EU, and other more powerful and assertive global powers choose to challenge Washington instead of cooperating with it.

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