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
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.
Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.