November 20, 2009
During his recent China trip, President Barack Obama’s mention of human rights, Tibet and the undervalued yuan were obligatory and toothless. ( For instance: “[We urge China to] move towards a more market-oriented exchange rate over time.”) He avoided meeting with activists. And he secured few concessions. Not on these areas. Not on Iran and North Korea, or climate change.
Two main reasons for the change in tone are America’s ballooning Chinese-funded debt and a desire to strengthen bilateral ties.
But global leadership is also about setting your own agenda. Defending your ideals. And being unafraid to offend.
Obama, at least publicly, managed none of those things. He was deferential. He let China off easy. He appeared weak. And to appear weak is to an extent to be weak.
One is left to wonder whether the White House has lost sight of how much stronger America is than China in key areas, including soft power, education and human resources, military might, economic dynamism, and innovation. Is it buying the presumptive media reports that America’s time has come and gone?
China (with help from the international media) has succeeded in giving the impression that it’s a mighty equal. One way it does so is by undermining Washington’s efforts on a range of issues, from climate change to Iran. For good measure it has taken to lecturing the U.S. about its ailing economy – all the while rebuffing any lecture in return. China has begun to swagger, while Washington tiptoes, increasingly oblivious to the depth its own power.
Doomsayers and overexcited futurists claim that it all signifies a monumental power shift. Of course it’s more complicated than that. While America’s debt with China does find America compromised, it is not destined to remain so; there’s a long history of America’s economy bouncing back from the brink. It would be wholly naïve to dismiss the possibility that the 21st century may well be another American one.
America has the vital resources, from human to natural, to make it so. But it has to believe it can. It has to stop fearing the new kid on the block. It has to remind him that America speaks its mind where it sees fit and it will make a fuss where international norms are flaunted to the detriment of the world.
Much of the closing power gap is psychological. Beijing gets that; Washington is getting psyched out.
Here’s how it works. China plays stubborn and offended in the face of US pressure. Washington in turn assumes Beijing can’t be stopped and that by confronting China Washington will just make matters worse.
In the past America advanced its agenda partly because it believed it could. Now the rise-and-fall media prophesies and Beijing’s blustering are getting the best of Washington. Fatalism is seeping in.
Obama must bear the brunt of the blame. While his soft touch is working wonders elsewhere, it hasn’t and won’t with China. As a US government official told me over the summer, Washington has given the sense that it needs Beijing and “Beijing smells blood in the water faster than anyone.”
It’s hard to imagine that Obama’s Democrat and Republican opponents for president, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, would have addressed Beijing so timidly. In fact it’s unprecedented for a US president to be afraid to raise “taboo” subjects with the Chinese.
Obama must walk a tight rope. There are significant economic gains to be reaped from strengthening ties with Beijing. But Obama’s reluctance to hit out at the Chinese when called for will reduce America’s standing in the world. Left uncorrected, he may well be remembered as the US President who made peace with the world but ceded global supremacy to Beijing. It’s worth asking whether that’s a president the world can afford to have reelected.