In a recent op-ed, former Japanese defence minister Yoriko Koike said that the one man who could, perhaps unwittingly, endanger world peace, is not Vladimir Putin, but United States President Barack Obama.
According to Koike, by his ‘scholarly inertia’, Obama appeared to be unconcerned over the “fate of smaller faraway countries.” What she charges Obama with is the willful neglect of the world order which was created by the United States in the wake of World War II.
This system was based on a willingness of the US, the recognised global hegemon, to take the tough policies and implement rules and norms that ensured a generally stable global environment.
It is easy to understand the Japanese angst. The Russian seizure of Crimea could presage a similar Chinese move to snatch the Senkaku islands of Japan which Beijing claims. It was one thing for Putin to reclaim Russian-majority Crimea which had been detached from Russia in 1959.
But now, as it foments separatism in eastern Ukraine and talks of reconstituting the Soviet Empire, the US seems paralysed. Actually the tremors of America’s passivity are being felt across the globe. In the Persian Gulf, historic allies of the US Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms wonder whether the US intends to upend the regional order and place its bets once again on Iran. Or worse, end up doing neither moving to Iran, or backing its allies.
In Southeast Asia, there are few signs of an American Asian pivot. The ‘pivot’ idea is attributed to a 2011 essay by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her basic thrust was that as the Iraq war winds down and the Americans begin to pull out of Afghanistan, the US will be at a pivot point.
At this stage, Asia was not mentioned, but soon it became clear that the American pivot, later rechristened ‘rebalance’, would be to Asia. The pivot became part of a larger plan to refocus the US military deployments in the Asia-Pacific region after their diversion to the Middle-East and South Asia in the 2001-2011 period.
The obvious urgency for the pivot/rebalance was to counter the rising power of China, and reassure US allies like Japan and the Philippines, who were locked in territorial disputes with Beijing.
Almost immediately, the Asian pivot was overwhelmed by the Arab Spring following revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in quick succession. But while the situation was manageable in these countries, the revolts in Syria and Ukraine have taken a different turn and brought out the limits of American power. It was also significant that this was the point at which the muscular Clinton was replaced by John Kerry as Secretary of State.
The United States has gone through two harrowing wars and Obama’s main goal is to retrench and recuperate. But when you are the global hegemon, and one that is naturally keen to maintain its primacy for as long as it can, Obama and the US do not have the option of taking their ball and going back home.
It would be wrong to blame Obama alone for this situation. For example, his allies, such as Germany could have done more to control the Russians. But his bigger problem is the US Congress and the American public.
While he is trying to follow a policy of engagement and deterrence, his hands are tied by the Congress, which has pushed the blunt instrument of sequestration to control the budget.
So bitterly divided is the US these days that last year, because of the lockdown of the government, Obama was unable to attend the APEC Summit in Bali, leaving the floor to China’s leader Xi Jinping. America’s long and fruitless wars have been a major drain on its economy.
Its defence spending averaged 4 per cent between 1990-2012 but now, under the sequestration policy of the US Congress, the spending will fall steadily from 4.3 per cent of the GDP in 2012 to 2.8 by 2023.
The consequences of the shift is apparent from the comment of a senior Pentagon official in March that the Pentagon’s plans to pivot to Asia ‘can’t happen’ due to cuts to the defence budget. However, she later clarified that the US Department of Defence would “adapt and innovate” but still make the pivot happen.
Obama has finally made his Asian visit last week, which has included the first visit by a US president to Malaysia since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966. But there is not much to show for it.
There has been little or no movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement through which the US hopes to slow down, if not halt, the Chinese economic juggernaut. He has signed a 10-year defence agreement with the Philippines, but he has left unanswered the more important questions about the reliability of the United States as an ally.
The big paradox that the US confronts is the need to confront China and Russia at the same time. Clearly, even the mighty US does not have the energy and resources to do that. Beijing is, of course, quite self-confident because it is locked into the western economies and is, in that sense, sanctions proof.
But a wounded Russia will only rush into the arms of the Chinese. This would serve China well because it would now have access to Russian resources, as well as its military tech which it cannot obtain from elsewhere in any case.
Mid Day April 29, 2014