Donald Trump, the current front-runner of the United States Republican primaries, accused China of trade “raping” the United States at …
The United States of America is and will be the best actor of International Relations in XXI century. If we speak about energy, military power, climate change, commerce every ascendant power will have to take in account the strategic power of the USA. The Empire par excellence, how someone said, at the end of XX century, is the unique one that a century of war has left, a solitary Empire, but also a reluctant one. The USA has been the undiscussed winner of Cold War. An Empire based upon cultural and political influence. Its global commitment is the outcome of growing ambitions to oversee the global processes by well defining the field of its national interests. But now the times seem to be changed. The United States has had more than 20 years of uncontested power, but now new actors are appearing in the international scene. The world seems to be intended for multipolar order. China and Russia are a threat for USA, so how India and Brasil too.
America’s allies are nervous. With Russia grabbing territory, China bullying its neighbours and Syria murdering its people, many are asking: where is United States? Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for? The answer to this question matters. Small wonder that Barack Obama was asked, at every stop during his just-completed four-country swing through Asia, how exactly he plans to wield American power. How would the president respond if China sought to expand its maritime borders by force? How might he curb North Korea’s nuclear provocations? At every press conference he was also interviewed about Ukraine, for world news follows an American president everywhere.
When it came to formal pledges of reassurance, Mr. Obama did not stint. In Tokyo he offered fresh guarantees that the defense treaty between Japan and America covers all Japanese-administered territory, including the Senkaku islands, which China also claims. While visiting some of the 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, he vowed that his government would not hesitate to use “military might to defend our allies”. In the Philippines Mr. Obama signed a new, ten-year agreement to give American forces greater access to local bases.
While Mr. Obama was in Asia on April 28th American officials unveiled new sanctions against Russia: visa bans and asset freezes for Putin cronies such as Igor Sechin, the boss of Rosneft, a big state oil firm. On the same day a final detachment of American paratroopers arrived in Estonia, bringing to about 600 the number of American soldiers now on exercises in Poland and the three Baltic countries (all of which fear Russia). Whereas Russia tried to mask its deeds in Ukraine by deploying troops with no insignia, the whole point of America’s action was to show off the Stars and Stripes on the uniforms.
Yet even as he did his duties as planetary peacekeeper, Mr. Obama could not help pondering the limits of American power, out loud. There are “no guarantees” that sanctions will change Mr. Putin’s thinking over Ukraine, he mused on April 25th. He said it would be in Mr. Putin’s interests to behave better, but he might not. In recent years, Mr Obama went on, people have taken to thinking that hard foreign-policy problems may actually have a definitive answer, typically involving the use of force. Mr. Obama disagrees. “Very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer,” he told an audience in Seoul.
America’s commitment in Europe is useful to protecting its European allies, from Russia threat. The borders of NATO are a “red line”. Many countries in Europe think like that. If any NATO ally tried to block a response to an armed attack, NATO would, in effect, cease to exist.
In recent years, Mr. Obama has scaled back plans for missile defense in Europe and reduced America’s military presence there to two brigade combat teams. But Russia’s aggression has had the unintended consequence of giving NATO a renewed sense of purpose. Few allies except Britain meet the NATO target to maintain military spending at 2% of GDP. In the short term there are two military concerns. One is that the Baltic States are difficult to defend. Their airspace is entirely covered by Russian missiles. A greater worry is that Russia’s aggression might be stealthy, as in Ukraine.
What would America and NATO do if Russia starts to undermine the Balts by stirring unrest among ethnic Russians there and deploying mysterious armed men? NATO was not designed for such contingencies.
Moving to Asia, America has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than a decade now. This year Mr Obama plans to bring home almost all of the more than 30,000 American troops there. It may yet be all of them. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has refused to sign an agreement that would allow 5,000-10,000 or so to stay on in non-combat roles. But both candidates in the run-off election to succeed him are supporters of the agreement. So American boots will still be on the ground, providing targets for insurgents. Even if a broader civil war is avoided, America may find itself an unwilling party to bloodshed. If the American-backed government in Kabul finds itself unable to control swathes of the country, al-Qaeda or other groups with global terrorist ambitions might regroup there, as they might in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan. Should they succeed in staging an attack on mainland America, the cycle might start again: experience shows that to avenge the victims of murder at home, America will fight.
It seems far-fetched to think that America would go to war over the islands known to Japan as the Senkakus and to China as the Diaoyus. Nestling in the East China Sea between the two countries, they are tiny, barren and uninhabited. When America administered the islands from 1945 to 1972, it used them for bombing practice. Yet Mr. Obama has put American military credibility on the line over the Senkakus (even if he did not explicitly promise that the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan would help fight for them). For more than two years now China has been buzzing the islands by air and sea to challenge Japan’s claim of control, and last November included them in an “Air Defence Identification Zone”. There is a real risk that an accidental clash might escalate. So these desolate rocks may pose the most immediate test of Mr Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia.
The South China Sea sets others. Five countries have claims there that overlap with China’s. The Philippines’ dispute is the most active. In 1995 China evicted it from one reef, and two years ago from another. America takes no position on sovereignty, but backs Manila’s efforts to contest Beijing’s claims under international law. In South Korea 28,000 American troops sit near the border to deter the North Korean regime. Should it collapse, China, fearing the abrupt arrival of a unified Korea on its borders that is America’s ally and stuffed with American armour, might intervene. Reluctant to upset its inconsistent ally, China refuses to co-ordinate contingency plans for a North Korean implosion with America.
Would America really go to war with China? China plainly seeks to become the dominant power in Asia. Many Asians doubt that America is reconciled to being number two. That said, many Asians also doubt that America would risk a shooting war with a nuclear power. They point to American silence when China seized the Scarborough shoal from the Philippines in 2012; and to its advice to American airlines late last year to comply with China’s air-defense zone over the Senkakus. In Asia, as elsewhere, America’s allies are boosting their armed forces. Some suspect that America’s security umbrella has holes in it.
Under its pacifist constitution, imposed by America after the second world war, Japan is barred from “collective self-defense”, even if it means shooting down a North Korean missile on its way to Hawaii. Its current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to change this. The aim, is to become a “normal” ally, like a NATO member, partly to encourage America to keep defending it, and partly because it is not sure it will.
Mr. Obama’s hands-off approach dismays the foreign-policy establishment back home. Democrats and Republicans alike chide him for leaving a security vacuum for enemies to fill. Yet others note that he does not want to be the American president who failed to honour a treaty. He chose to deploy ground forces to the Baltics, when he could have sent only a few ships or planes. A defender of the president, Ivo Daalder, American ambassador to NATO from 2009-13, suggests that if NATO allies suffered provocations short of an invasion more troops, ships and warplanes would be deployed, making America’s commitment to collective security ever-more visible. It was also under Mr Obama that NATO finally drew up contingency plans to cover threats to all members. A senior former defence official says that Mr. Obama acted slowly in sending reinforcements to NATO members, and would do so again. “I think Mr. Putin is going to keep coming until someone stands up to him,” says this source. In the case of Russian adventurism inside NATO’s borders, he predicts that Team Obama would respond: “I would worry that it would be late. Not too late, but late, and that would send a message around the world.”
America’s obligations in Asia are “nuanced”, says another senior figure. Where American troops are stationed in large numbers—in South Korea, or on the main islands of Japan—the security commitment is “absolute”. Under Mr. Obama, American forces have pushed back against Chinese sabre-rattling in disputed seas. Should China threaten Taiwan, America would feel a “moral obligation” to send ships or planes to serve as a referee. Yet during previous crises, as in 1996, when China tested missiles before a Taiwanese election and America sent warships to the area. A skirmish over the Senkakus would trigger help of some sort, says another veteran of many crises: perhaps early-warning planes to patrol the skies for Japan, and warships to show the American flag. But the American public “would not be excited to go to war over a bunch of rocks”.
So much for America’s formal commitments. When it comes to other countries and regions, insiders worry that Mr Obama sees the world as a jungle full of thugs, forever causing crises that America cannot fix. His failure to enforce his own “red line” over chemical weapons in Syria gravely damaged his credibility. Team Obama is divided, with an unhappy State Department under John Kerry desperate to see more help for anti-Assad forces in Syria, while the Pentagon has spent months explaining why extra weapons shipments cannot work. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is described as analyzing every option to exhaustion before concluding that inaction is the prudent course.
There are few overt hawks in Congress: the Republican Party of the Bush era, with its dreams of creating democracies across the world, is a distant memory. But some senators are pushing Mr. Obama to take tougher, faster action against Russia. On a visit to Ukraine on April 25th Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for harsher sanctions on Russian banks and energy interests. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, grumbles that the Russian stock market actually rose after the latest American sanctions were announced, suggesting those sanctions are weaker than the world expected. Mr. Corker says several senators want the government to examine the pros and cons of permanently stationing American NATO forces in such countries as the Baltic republics. Russia maintains that any such move would breach understandings reached with NATO in the 1990s. But Mr. Obama will be under pressure to declare that the world has changed, and ignore Russian complaints.
Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse. American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.