Emperor Nero infamously fiddled while Rome burned in 68 AD, when the centre of a great empire was reduced to black cinder. When popular history is written about US President Barack Obama’s tenure, the loquacious law professor will probably be pictured as making a fine speech while the global order unravelled, perhaps using a breathtaking simile.
The consequences of what can be described as the “taper” (Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s term) of American power around the world are yet unknown. But they will be felt, it is abundantly clear, most forcefully in Asia.
American influence around the world has been steadily “tapering” for the five years Obama has been in office, starting as a reflexive pullback from the overreach of the previous administration’s wars. Today, it has assumed the force of policy. Even though the administration is blaming the Republican opposition in the US Congress for it, last week (26 February) saw a spoof-like disavowal of US foreign policy by none other than Secretary of State John Kerry. Speaking to reporters in Washington, Kerry lamented the “isolationism” of the US but traced it to budget cuts. He said there was a “tendency within the US to retreat from the world”, which may “limit US clout” around the world. “We are beginning to behave like a poor nation,” he said.
The budget cuts, which have been forced by Obama’s refusal to be “held hostage” by Republican negotiators intent on cutting US debt — which stood at an astonishing $17 trillion last December and climbing — have taken the biggest chunk out of defence spending. Last week, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the US Army would be cut back to pre-World War II levels. He said the force would be “sufficient to …win a war in one theatre and conduct a successful holding action” in the second. But that may not be good enough.
With Russia already poised to march on Ukraine, what happens if tensions over disputed islands between Japan and China, dangerously high, spill over into war? Certainly, China has raised the stakes ever higher since 2012, routinely conducting patrols and overflights near the Japanese-controlled islands and declaring an air defence zone in the East China Sea. A senior intelligence officer of the US Pacific Fleet has predicted that China would set up a second zone (over the South China Sea) by the end of 2015. War in Ukraine could push that time forward.
Rome burned for six days and seven nights. Obama will be in charge for three more years. If the first five are any indication, Israel will be expected to forge a working relationship with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Their common foe Shia Iran will become a civilian nuclear state with unknown covert weapons capabilities, long-range missiles and a short fuse. Sunni Arab states will likely engage in an arms race, a few richer ones making a bid to acquire nuclear weapons, likely from Pakistan, thus inviting the flammable mixture of an adventurous military culture and madrassa-inspired youth into the desert of Islam’s birth. The ISI will be there to help with advice and training for militants. It will also fill its coffers, emptying them in Afghanistan, which will once again start to unravel because the US will pull out all troops. So far, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a security pact. At least Kashmir will be quiet (except for civilian protests over Indian Army excesses) because all the global jihadists, defeated in Syria, will rush to help the Taliban march on Kabul.
Farther east, Chinese ships will patrol the South China Sea, projecting power over the Straits of Malacca, the crucial sea lane between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, from its swanky new naval base on Hainan island. The US Navy, which has patrolled these seas since the end of World War II, will be slowly edged out. The deep cuts to the US defence budget now provide economic logic to unmaking the US’ vaunted Pacific “pivot”. Defence Secretary Hagel recently announced that the US will need to cut back on the number of aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific.
China has been modernising its navy for 20 years, building up specialist capabilities — a fleet of warships, missiles and stealth submarines — that seem tailored for strategic use in the South China Sea. Observers in the region and in the US, though, seem to understand China’s imperative as an emerging power to protect its trade routes. Evan Resnick, of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, sees it as “not terribly problematic”. Resnick maintains that the US still has an “overall grand strategy of primacy” in the region but “on the cheap”, without the expensive wars of the George Bush administration.
But the cost of a reduced US presence to China’s smaller neighbours across the sea are incalculable. With China making claims to 80 percent of the Sea, its ships and patrol boats will play sentinel on waters lapping their shores. Historically, the US has guaranteed security of these trade routes. China owes its phenomenal success to them. Today, China has enormous stake in them. Last September, it became the largest oil importer in the world, surpassing the US. More than 80 percent of its oil imports pass through the Straits of Malacca.
For Southeast Asia, a lot depends on Obama’s scheduled April visit to Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. “The Asia pivot has largely been rhetorical,” concedes Resnick, who says it was mostly intended to “refocus attention” inside the US on East Asia. Elizabeth C Economy of the influential US think-tank Council on Foreign Relations uses the term “assertive authoritarianism” to describe China’s recent actions in Southeast Asia. “In foreign policy terms, assertive authoritarianism means bringing the region more in line with (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s vision of a China-centred Asia Pacific,” she writes.
Separately, China is trying to isolate Asean nations that have territorial disputes in the South China Sea within the bloc, trying to rope them into bilateral talks — to bully them easier. Obviously, the future threat for Asean will be Chinese attempts to fracture the group’s so-far remarkable unity. Right now, a 12-nation trade pact with the US is the only positive. But even if it is signed, the pact is unlikely to be ratified by Obama’s own party in Congress.
The American taper in the Pacific is dramatic in recent relations with Tokyo. Like with Israel, US’ special ties with Japan are not merely strategic or political but symbolic. Of late, China has been given equivalence with Japan at the State Department. When tensions recently rose over the disputed islands, senior US officials warned both sides to exercise caution, at best in the manner of neutral arbiters — even though China has aggressively confronted all its neighbours. And this despite a security pact with Tokyo.
It is possible to see Obama’s “rebalancing” of US foreign policy in moralistic terms, as “righting the wrongs” of previous policy, especially in the Muslim world. His speech in Cairo before the Arab awakening provided a first glimpse into this thinking. Note that Obama declared Israeli settlements illegal in 2009 and has not backed down. The State Department’s criticism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a war shrine is also a moral truth that is shared widely in a region traumatised by Japanese occupation. From this point of view, a parallel can be drawn to the British withdrawal from its newly-independent colonies after World War II. But there is a crucial difference: While British imperialism was clearly immoral and plundered wealth in service of the crown, American military dominance has fostered free trade and underpinned the world economy. It has created wealth for millions in the region and pulled millions more out of poverty in China. Ceding that dominance to a country with a closed political system and openly aggressive designs is of doubtful moral value. As foreign policy, it is foolhardy.
However, even the Obama morality play breaks down on closer scrutiny: Hosni Mubarak got dumped in Egypt but his military is now back in power. To avoid suspending billions in aid, the US tied itself in knots but did not refer to the elected Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow as a coup. In Syria, the massacre of children by lethal gas went unpunished and vocal US allies in Europe humiliated. Obama also stayed silent during Iran’s so-called green revolution, the Islamic State’s version of the Arab awakening. The protests were brutally suppressed.
The other way to look at Obama’s taper is as the “new normal” in US foreign policy after the wild overreaction to the 9/11 attacks. If so, Osama bin Laden — from whichever corner of the martyr’s heaven or hell he now occupies — must be smiling down in satisfaction because that was the goal of his second fatwa in 1998.
And China is benefiting from more than a decade of serious inattention. It now has some depth in its military, though still a generation behind the US. It has acquired plenty of leverage over a US economy that is careening from bubble to recession. As the largest creditor, China holds $1 trillion in US debt.
As a successful State economy, it has also reason to be contemptuous of a fractious US. And beginning to show it. Last week, departing US ambassador Gary F Locke came in for some breathtakingly rough treatment. Locke, an Obama appointee, is a flamboyant Chinese-American, proud of his Chineseness. As the US envoy, he also celebrated his Americanness at every opportunity he got, winning admiration from ordinary Chinese. Chinese officials have been seething at his visits to Tibet and Xinjiang, a restive Muslim province. After Locke’s friendly farewell speech, China struck back: In an article that seemed to invoke an essay by Chairman Mao mocking the American ambassador to China before the communist revolution, the paper used a racial slur to describe Locke, calling him a “banana”. “(He) is a US-born, third-generation Chinese-American, and his being a banana — ‘yellow skin and white heart’ — became an advantage for Obama’s foreign policy,” it said. “However,” the commentary continued, “after a while, a banana will inevitably start to rot.”
The slander drew no response from the US State Department at the time of going to press. Nero, some scholars say, actually started the fire.