Obama recognizes limits of US power

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-8 19:53:01


Dana Allin

Editor's Note:

At the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), the China-US relations grabbed the most attention amid tensions in the South China Sea. What should the US do with the rising China? How can the US deal with its dilemma in the messy Middle East? Global Times (GT) reporter Sun Xiaobo talked to Dana Allin (Allin), a senior fellow for US foreign policy and transatlantic affairs with the International Institute for Strategic Studies about these issues on the sidelines of the SLD in Singapore. Dr Allin is also editor of the bi-monthly journal Survival.

GT: Some analysts say that the US policy on China has often swung between containment and strategic partnership and is not a consistent one. What's your take?

Allin: I'm not sure I agree with that. I don't think the US policy on China has swung that much.

The US is a politically divided country now and the partisan divide is very sharp and fierce. But on China, going back to the Nixon administration and the opening to China, the US policy has been pretty consistent.

In US election campaigns, you often have candidates, sometimes winning candidates who run against current administration, saying it's too easy on China and should get tougher. But when they become president, they turn to look at the picture and say China is an important partner.

Having said that, we are now reaching a point where China is becoming more powerful in many ways. We've been talking about this for generations, but in military terms it's still not very powerful. Now we are reaching the point that we really have to think about the future.

As (Singaporean) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his SLD opening remarks, can the US and China occupy the same ocean? There are some voices in the US that will say China actually has to be contained, but I don't think the voices have been dominant in any US government and don't expect them to be.

It depends on what you mean by containment. If it means preventing China from growing strong, I don't know why the US would do that and don't think any US government would try to keep China weak.

GT: You mentioned there is possibility for conflict. Do you think the US government has made miscalculations about China's rise? Does the US have zero-sum mentality in its pivot to Asia, as some observers think?

Allin: I think the US government has accepted that China will rise.

There are two questions I suppose. First, what kind of global role will China have to play? Has China imagined itself to have a role in the world such as the US has right now? The answer right now is no, as competing with the US globally doesn't seem likely.

As Admiral Sun Jianguo said (in his SLD remarks), China is still a poor country. There isn't any example in history where a country has become so important and powerful - the second biggest economy in the world - and at the same time has many poor people.

It's fair to say the US has a kind of leadership class that is used to running things. Sometimes it's almost jealous about sharing power. There was a time that the US didn't want the EU to form a military organization for fear of competing with American leadership. But I don't think the US sees a zero-sum game generally.

Take the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Washington tried to convince Britain and other countries not to join it, but what may not be known in China is that the Obama administration tried very hard to convince Congress to adjust IMF voting shares because it recognized that China should have more, but Congress refused.

So the Obama administration was angry at the UK, but also at its own Congress because it thought it would be better not to have the new bank but a bigger Chinese role in the old one. But it didn't work.

I can't understand why in China that's interpreted as the US refusing to give up any leadership. 

GT: Is the US still confident in its global leadership?

Allin: The US has gone through a period of low confidence because it committed a major strategic blunder in Iraq and is still paying price for it. The IS grew out of that. It's terrible and the US has a lot to answer for it. The Americans feel it and have lost a large amount of confidence. This led to the view that the US is weakening and not as powerful.

What's interesting about Obama is that he's publicly recognized the limits of US power. He's tried to be careful saying "we have to set priorities." Our relationship with China and the Asia-Pacific is among the most important strategic relations in the world. We should pay more attention to this. China has the potential economically to be a peer of the US, but the US right now has about 60 alliances and military strategic partnerships globally. Those are not forced but appreciated.

The US has grounds to be confident, but it has to be careful about its strategic investments and try not to be responsible for everything. General MacArthur said anyone who proposes a ground war on the Asia continent should have his head examined. But the US has had a number of ground wars on the Asia continent, like Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, and none of them turned out well for us. So we have to recognize our limits.

As the US has major military capabilities close to China, I can understand why China finds this threatening. But I don't think in fact the US does pose a threat to China or encourage other countries to do it.

GT: What more do you think of the US can do to combat the IS and correct its mistake in the Middle East? What has been the biggest mistake in Obama's foreign policy?

Allin: They are very hard to correct in the Middle East where the situation is very violent and instable. The best the US can do is to, first of all, not make things worse; second, try to support the Iraqi government and persuade it to be more inclusive and accommodating the Sunni minority.

I don't know what to do with Syria, possibly building on some local cease-fires that can be created and transitioning to a regime that protects minorities against revenge and eventually having Assad transition. This is a hopeful way.

I've seen Obama expressed regret for it, but I'm not sure I understand the nature of the regret or that he said we shouldn't have taken the military actions at all. But there was a cost to it.

We couldn't allow Muammar Gaddafi to massacre his citizens in Benghazi, which I think he probably would have done.

At the same time, we were determined not to send troops there and get involved in another nation-building exercise, which led to chaos. The Obama administration certainly has recognized it didn't turn out very well.

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