Friday, November 18, 2011

Grown-Up Foreign Policy

Indications from the President's trip to the Far East this week suggest a new approach to US relations with China, and the whole Pacific region.  In Hawaii last week, President Obama told the Chinese they needed to start acting like a "grown-up" economy, stop "gaming" the system, and play by the same rules of trade as everyone else. During the rest of his Asian trip, the President strengthened ties with other Asian countries, committed to an increased military presence in Australia, and reached out to Burma in rather dramatic fashion by sending Secretary of State Clinton for a visit. All these moves must send a signal to China that the US will not cede its status as a dominant power in the Pacific region, and that we expect changes in their behavior.

President Obama probably won't get many points back home for these moves, as the public seems preoccupied with football coach scandals, Congressional stand-offs, Wall Street protests, and a continuing sluggish economy. To the extent people are even paying attention to trade policy, they probably won't be all that impressed.  That may be because the American public has been taught to expect a more child-like foreign policy on our own part, in which we are allowed to bully our neighbors, play by our own rules, and beat up on anybody who doesn't go along with us. 

During the Cold War era, US foreign policy reflected an us vs. them mentality. We characterized other nations as good guys or bad guys depending on whether they were aligned with us, or with the Communists. We overlooked bad behavior by friendly governments, and we ignored hopeful developments in the enemy camp. After the Cold War ended, we carried that mentality over into a new struggle against terrorism. We probably needed a more sophisticated approach for the last few decades. We certainly need one now.

If we followed that traditional mentality, we would probably tell China they had better shape up, or else. Or else, what? The list could include treating China as an enemy, imposing retaliatory tariffs, imposing sanctions, and ultimately, military force. The problem with an adversarial approach, however, is that such moves can hurt our side as well. And when we cast another country wholly into the enemy camp, we eventually lose any leverage at all over their actions.  So the president took pains to remind China that they are still our friend and partner. But at the same time to suggest that if they want to sit at the grown up table, they have to abide by the community's standards.  We have seen this tone elsewhere in the Obama foreign policy. In messages to dictators around the world, for example, that they had better recognize the basic rights of their people, if they want the respect of the international community. That message has led to reforms in a number of countries, and has empowered the people of some other nations to get rid of dictators who don't change their ways.

The implicit threats of the old adversarial system are still present. How else to interpret the initiative to place a new Marine base in Australia, for example? The difference is that instead of telling other nations to bend to our will or we will do them harm, we are trying to appeal in a more positive manner to the desire of any international player to be accepted and respected. That is an approach designed to produce better results, and a whole lot less resentment of American power.

(AP photo, updated Saturday, from USA Today)

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to see you write about China. For most of Obama's time as President this seemed to be off limits.