I thought carefully about putting the president's name in the title of this diary. The shifting realities of US foreign policy would pose a challenge for anybody who was POTUS at this particular point in history. However, Barack Obama does occupy that office and he is inevitably the focal point of and the person ultimately responsible for government policy. His current Asian tour brings critical issues to center stage.
FDR had aspirations of expanding the new deal to embrace the rest of the world. When he and Churchill signed Atlantic Charter even before the US had entered WW II, they laid out a vision of a United Nations. During the war the US was actively engaged in drawing up plans for a post war world. Roosevelt sought to take up where Woodrow Wilson hit the wall in international idealism. From these activities the United Nations Organization and the Bretton Woods economic institutions which included the IMF and World Bank emerged. Truman was forced to confront the reality that the world really wasn't ready for this vision of Pax Americana.
His frustrations in dealing with the push by Stalin and the USSR to become the dominant power in Europe resulted in the Truman Doctrine. The US took on a very different kind of role in an effort to maintain world order and what became known as the cold war was underway. When the chaos of post war China resulted in the triumph of Mao Zedong and the PRC the power confrontation became fully global. From the late 1940s until the 1990s international relations were shaped by it. It was not just a military standoff but also an economic one. Both the USSR and China kept their economic dealings with the west to a minimum.
The USSR collapsed mostly of its own internal weight at the same time as China was becoming a player in the global economy. With Russia in a state of disarray and decline and China looking more like a trading partner than an enemy, the US and Western Europe declared the cold war to be over. These developments certainly represented a major sea change in international relations. As leaders of the world's sole surviving super power US presidents tended to focus on micro managing world affairs. Clinton was embroiled in the security fallout from the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Bushes made Iraq a family project. Bush II focused foreign policy on the intractable problems of the middle east to the exclusion of much of what was going on in the rest of the world. His muscular approach to this quest had so alienated much of the world that Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize basically because he wasn't Bush.
Obama has been heavily embroiled in domestic political issues and the worst economic crisis since the great depression. During his first term Secty of State Hillary Clinton captured of the media attention on foreign policy. The foreign policy of that administration seems to have been characterized more by disengagement and style that clear global initiatives. They were basically trying to climb out of the hole that Bush had dug. The Middle East continued to get most of the attention.
The beginning of Obama's second term has found him forced to deal with a broad global focus that is very reminiscent of the cold war. Russia under the forceful leadership of Putin has entered a phase of belligerent nationalism. It has been investing heavily in beefing up its military capabilities and has responded to the upheavals in Ukraine in a very aggressive manner. Conflicts of both policy and personality between Obama and Putin are creating a basic reset in the relationship between the two nations.
Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.Concurrently with Russia's effort to assert its interests in once again being taken seriously as a world power, China seems to be following a similar path of asserting its newly acquired global power.
Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.
Mr. Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, aides said. As a result, Mr. Obama will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.
President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia this week will be dominated by a country he’s not even visiting: China.
Each of the four nations on the president’s itinerary is involved in territorial disputes with an increasingly assertive China. And years of military spending gains have boosted the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army faster than many defense analysts expected, casting a shadow over relations between China and its neighbors and sparking doubts about long-term prospects for the U.S. presence in the Pacific.
“There are growing concerns about what China is up to in the maritime space,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s a widely held view in the region that the U.S.-China relationship is tipping toward being much more confrontational.”
While China spends on its military less than one-quarter what the U.S. will devote to the Pentagon this year, China’s outlays are rising as the U.S. cuts back. This year’s Pentagon budget is less than in fiscal 2007 and is probably headed lower as Congress seeks to curb federal deficits.The conflicting territorial claims in the China Sea require some in depth exploration and I plan to tackle that in a separate diary.
Rising spending over more than a decade has transformed China’s once-primitive military into a more capable, though still limited, force. And even as China’s economic growth slows, the military expansion is likely to continue.
State-owned Xinhua News Agency reported last month that Yin Zhuo, director of the Chinese navy’s expert-consultation committee, said China’s military spending remained “far from the level it needs to be as the country faces increasingly severe security challenges.”
China has been using its growing economic power to assert influence in developing countries and to meet the need for raw materials in its manufacturing industries. It has become competitive with the US for influence in Latin America, with Europe in Africa and Japan in Asia. Now it has a systematic program for adding military muscle to its profile.
Relations between Russia and China are equivocal. They are next door neighbors and have the potential for cooperation in economic relationships. The growing Chinese demand for gas and oil could blunt the impact of European economic sanctions on Russian policy. However the two countries have a long history of conflict and the heightened Russian nationalism sees China's vast population as a threat to Russian space.
Obama and his administration face unenviable binds in trying to meet these challenges. There are still neocons in congress who demand that the US reassert its status as the super power. Yet US military resources are in decline. Administration efforts to get Europe to spend more resources on picking up the slack have met with little success. It is very questionable as to whether the US can or should attempt to play the role that it assumed in the immediate post war era.