The Myth of Permanent U.S. Global Dominance
What mistakes have U.S. policymakers made when dealing with China and India?
- Too many of Washington's former political elites still believe that the United States has the power to micromanage Asia.
- India and China, like all great nations, have always marched to the beats of their own drummers.
- The history of U.S. engagement with China and India is replete with excessive hostility and demonizing on the one hand, and naive, uncritical romanticism on the other.
- As with neoconservatives, so with progressives, the myth of American omnipotence remains an alluring one.
With the benefit of hindsight, the U.S. experience in Asia, within the three decades from the end of World War II to 1975, represents a radical reversal of traditional U.S. grand strategy through the first 150 years of the Republic.
Previously, the United States had prospered by generally staying out of the world’s wars. Eschewing entanglements in the affairs of others, Americans took full advantage of trade in its most positive and creative forms.
In the Cold War, however, these priorities were reversed, and the United States found itself fighting two major wars within 20 years — in Korea and Vietnam — while the other nations in Asia prospered from the vast amount of American wealth that poured into both conflicts.
Too many of Washington's former political elites still believe that the United States has the power to micromanage Asia, including India and China, and that the more engagement Washington has with either, the more it will be able to exert pressure on the other. But in practice, this is only a revival of the old, oft-recurring American love affair with China.
The same kind of idealized, fantasy relationship that Americans such as Henry Luce and Pearl Buck imagined the United States could have with their imaginary vision of China parallels the dream of an ideological superalliance uniting India and the United States in the early 21st century.
On the other side of the U.S. political/cultural divide, many New Deal-style liberals and progressives still believe something similar.
According to them, in the early 21st century the United States continues to have a moral duty to endlessly lecture and pressure both nations on a host of issues, from protecting China’s environment from its own people to enforcing Western concepts of religious freedom on India — a nation whose experience of such things was radically different from anything in the West.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama spoke of seeking to force China and other nations to come up to U.S. standards for maintaining independent trade unions and environmental standards, as if this could in fact be done. As with neoconservatives, so with progressives, the myth of American omnipotence has remained an alluring one.
But India and China, like all great nations, have always marched to the beats of their own drummers. U.S. policymakers up to the late 1990s were extraordinarily ignorant of India’s social, political and economic achievements in its decades since independence. Americans were equally ignorant of India’s military power — power that had played an important role in World War I and proved crucial in World War II.
And for all the century-long U.S. obsession with the sufferings, hostility and then friendship of the Chinese people, U.S. policymakers have never been able to play a significant role in fostering the development of liberal political institutions in China, even when U.S. power and interest were at their peak in Asia. How can it be otherwise when that power has already declined in real terms over the past decade?
One single development has already ensured that President Obama and other American leaders cannot throw their weight around in Asia the way that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush clearly wanted to.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 set the United States on an anguished and complex course of confrontation and interaction with the wider Muslim world — and the Arab Middle East in particular.
The sequence of events that followed 9/11 greatly undermined the two grand policy initiatives in Asia on which the Bush Administration had set its sights — strategic engagement with India and containment of China.
Instead, Pentagon hawks who aspired to put China in its place — by, for example, securing the long-term de facto independence of Taiwan — were forced overnight to engage Pakistan as their primary ally in the campaign to topple the Taliban. Suddenly, they had far more immediate and lethal priorities: They needed to hunt down al Qaeda around the world.
Still, the United States entered the 21st century hoping to boost its ties to China financially — and to India strategically. There are enormous potential rewards for effectively managing these relationships.
But the history of U.S. engagement with both nations, especially through the second half of the 20th century, is replete with examples of excessive hostility and demonizing on the one hand, and naive, uncritical romanticism on the other.
A prosperous, confident, free trading 21st century America, buttressed by wise and lasting strategic relationships with major Asian nations, requires that its policymakers learn from and avoid the many mistakes of their predecessors.
Americans must wake up to the reality that they will have to deal with India and China as equals — rather than supplicants.
Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from an excerpt from Martin Sieff’s book, “Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationships between the United States, China and India.”
Read Part II here.