Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan notes the difference in opinion between the elites and the general public on foreign policy. Elites in New York and Washington, DC are upset that Obama hasn’t been forceful enough, whereas the public, as I noted yesterday, in greater numbers than ever want a less interventionist foreign policy of restraint.
Sullivan, however, thinks Obama has hit the right balance, while ultimately siding with the public on this one.
My view is that Obama has done about as good a job as possible in managing the core task of his presidency: letting self-defeating global hegemony go. That required a balancing act – of intervention where absolutely necessary and caution elsewhere. He prevented the world economy tipping into a second Great Depression, has maintained overwhelming military superiority and shored up Asian alliances even as he concedes, as we should, that China will be the dominant power in the region in the 21st Century.
The argument that Obama’s reluctance to bomb Syria illegally or put troops in western Ukraine denotes “letting self-defeating global hegemony go,” is unpersuasive. For Sullivan to be right, he would have to explain how the Libya intervention was “absolutely necessary” or how disregarding international law and national sovereignty by implementing a limitless and secret drone bombing campaign indicates caution.
The bigger point, though, is this notion that Obama as “concede[d]…that China will be the dominant power in the [Asia Pacific] region in the 21st Century.” That is difficult to square with Obama’s actual policies in the Asia Pacific.
Global hegemony, in the parlance of the Pentagon and international relations theorists, refers to a foreign policy that maintains absolute dominance in our own western hemisphere, while preventing the rise of any “peer competitors” that would be able to achieve similar status in their own spheres. If anything is clear about Obama’s “Asia pivot,” it’s that Washington is trying to thwart China’s plans to enforce its own kind of Monroe Doctrine in the Asia Pacific and prevent China from achieving regional hegemony like us.
Consider what it looks like from China’s perspective. The United States military maintains the greatest naval presence in the entire Asia Pacific, with the Third and Seventh Fleet patrolling the South China Sea and surrounding waters with five massive aircraft carrier strike groups. The U.S. military occupies Japan, less than 500 miles off the Chinese coast, with 50,000 troops. Almost 30,000 occupy South Korea, which is separated from China only by the slender North Korea. Washington keeps thousands of troops and major air and naval bases in Guam. The Pentagon has close military-to-military relationships with all of China’s neighboring rivals, including the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand, among others.
Obama just returned from a trip to South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia to reassure all those allies that America will go to war against China in case such a conflict breaks out. He was also trying to secure a major “free trade” deal that, conspicuously, does not include China, the region’s biggest economic powerhouse. A Shanghai-based professor, unsurprisingly, argued Obama’s trip “only made China angrier and inflamed regional tensions.”
In short, Obama is trying to block China’s rise to be “the dominant power in the region in the 21st Century,” by containing Beijing both militarily and economically. I don’t see how this indicates resignation or “letting…global hegemony go.” If you look at the world’s other strategically vital regions – Europe, the Middle East, etc. – I think you’ll find similar results. America is not retreating. At least not yet.
Sullivan is right about one thing, though: the quest for global hegemony is self-defeating.