A New Frame for American Power


Facing “a world in disarray”–the term used by Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. President has some work to do. On his recent trip to Laos, however, President Obama draws from his rhetorical toolbox to reframing the discourse on U.S. power and foreign policy history. His critics see it as weakness, or worse. But speaking truthfully about American past misdeeds can be a powerful strategy for building influence.

Mr. Obama’s series of speeches reviewing historical trouble spots highlight several unusual facets of his worldview. They fit within his larger effort to reach out to former adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar. They assert his belief in introspection and the need to overcome the past. And they highlight his perspective that American power has not always been a force for good.

According to Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, reported in the NYT:

none of Mr. Obama’s comments constitute apology. … Rather, these speeches touch on a longstanding domestic political divide over the nature of American power.

“It gets back to this issue of national identity,” she said. Some Americans, including Mr. Obama, emphasize democratic ideals of humility and self-critique. Others believe American power is rooted in unity, celebration of positive deeds and shows of strength.

“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” Mr. Obama said in March in Argentina, referring to a 1976 military coup that had received tacit American approval. “The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies, as well, and its own past.”

Source: Obama, Acknowledging U.S. Misdeeds Abroad, Quietly Reframes American Power – The New York Times

This strategy strengthens soft power–even as the Obama Doctrine has relied on hard power significantly.


For Obama, Ukraine and Syria Trump Asia

What ails US foreign policy?  Some of it may come from the historical circumstances and  cards that have been dealt.  (Disasters in South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan and Malaysia also play a role.) But Obama’s Asia trip seems to not draw attention to the “pivot,” as Will Inboden points out:

Across the board America’s bilateral relations with the great powers are at their lowest points since Obama took office in 2009. Our European allies find us unpersuasive, our Asian allies find us unreliable, and Russia and China find us irresolute and inconsistent.

Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine has also thrown into sharp relief America’s diminished standing in the eyes of our European allies. Not only has Germany resisted our pleas for more effective sanctions, it turns out German firms may have played an instrumental role in training and equipping the Russian special forces now infiltrating Ukraine. France, suffering from a depressed economy and weak leader in President François Hollande, brazenly moves forward with plans to sell two helicopter carriers to Russia. The U.S.-British relationship is moribund, as the United Kingdom focuses on internal complications such as Scottish secessionism while finding the Obama administration an uncertain partner in addressing European challenges.

via When Asian Leaders Look at Obama, They See Ukraine and Syria.

Booklist | ‘Asia’s Cauldron,’ by Robert D. Kaplan

Is US dominance in Asia ending?  Are the declinists right? Going into the next century China is well-positioned in its own neighborhood to “Finlandize” Southeast Asia, according to the steeley-eyed strategist, Robert D. Kaplan.

It is realism that keeps Kaplan’s book so refreshingly free of the breathless “oh my God it’s worse than you think” prose style that mars so much Western writing on the rise of China. In its place, however, realism encourages a Thucydidean detachment that some readers will find even more alarming. But that, Kaplan says, is the way it has to be, because the struggle over the South China Sea is going to be detached and unemotional. America’s struggle with the Soviet Union raised great moral issues and fired the passions of all involved; but it has proved hard to invest the South China Sea with the same philosophical freight as the Berlin Wall, despite the best efforts of some. (While writing a column for a newspaper — not this one — a few months ago, I was firmly informed that the editor wanted “less history, more scary stuff about China.”) “The fact is,” Kaplan observes, “East Asia is all about trade and business.”

via ‘Asia’s Cauldron,’ by Robert D. Kaplan – NYTimes.com.

Naval power is the national focus across Asia as “the center of military power” moves to this region.  Looking into this major global change in power is helpfully served up in a “non-moralistic stance on quesitons of power and diplomacy“–and that is what makes this book worth reading.

The Continuing Adventures of Dennis Rodman, Global Diplolmat?

Is Rodman’s CNN “meltdown” surprising anyone?  Meanwhile, the human rights community and even NBA Commissioner David Stern agree that Rodman’s efforts are not the ideal way to build bridges of understanding.  (The L.A. Times called him “a buffoon.”)

But what else is on the table? There don’t seem to be many other  diplomatic options at present:

“This might not be the ideal way to approach it, and Dennis Rodman would never be anybody’s first choice of diplomat,” said Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University. “But if you pardon the expression, this is the only game in town.”

via Rodman Leading Team of Improbable Emissaries – NYTimes.com.

A Strategic View on China

Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It's China's Turn - James Fallows - The Atlantic

Invoking chess planning in determining a country’s foreign policy grand strategy is a common approach as evidenced by numerous textbook covers.  James Fallows of the Atlantic uses it once again to argue that China’s maneuvers in the ADIZ are not the result of some hundred year strategy, but rather, derives from other reasons:

Others note that foreign policy is usually the lowest-priority item on the Chinese leadership’s (collective) mind. What really matters in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s command center, is domestic security, stability, and growth, with anything beyond that as an afterthought. By this logic, China’s foreign-policy and defense moves, far from fitting into a decades-long master plan, often seem ad-hoc at best and self-defeating at worst.

via Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It’s China’s Turn – James Fallows – The Atlantic.

Quoting Francesco Sisci, he makes the point that “if the United States wanted to make trouble for China, it would–paradoxically–greatly pull back its military presence in Asia…” thus resulting in more erratic, aggressive, and unpredictable responses from regional nation states.

Q. & A.: Rory Medcalf on the Meaning of China’s Air Defense Zone – NYTimes.com

What should we make of friction regarding the Diaoyu (China)/Senkaku (Japan) island zone?

Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, argues that China miscalculated and that the United States should use the moment to persuade China and others to establish mechanisms in the region to minimize the risk of an incident that could trigger a conflict. The following are edited excerpts from an email interview with Mr. Medcalf:

via Q. & A.: Rory Medcalf on the Meaning of China’s Air Defense Zone – NYTimes.com.

Ending a Feud Between Allies – NYTimes.com

The stakes are high for an alliance in Asia among a trio that needs to pull together, according to two Asia watchers.

Should these tensions continue, and deepen, they could undermine President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. Without defense cooperation between South Korea and Japan, the United States cannot respond effectively to North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations.

While the trilateral alliance does not seek to contain China, the absence of cooperation among the three like-minded allies on everything from cybersecurity to missile defense inhibits America’s capacity to shape China’s rise in constructive ways.

And the United States cannot work as effectively on a host of global issues, including climate change, international development, nuclear security and free trade without the cooperation of these two major economies.

via Ending a Feud Between Allies – NYTimes.com.