Turning Toward Asia? A Reality Check for Hillary Clinton
Is boastful U.S. rhetoric indicative of a desire to cling to a world that is no longer in reach?
November 4, 2011
Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, recently penned a long article in Foreign Policy magazine titled “America’s Pacific Century.” If that article had been published in, say, February 2009, or even October 2009, within the first year of the Obama Administration, it would have shown strategic acumen and a clear-headed sense of priorities.
Publishing the argument that the United States is now determined to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific shows the American disease at its worst: the constant inability to make actual choices and the illusory belief that past actions don’t have consequences.
At the core of Secretary Clinton’s argument is her statement that, as the U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, her country wants to “lock in a substantially increased investment” in the Asia-Pacific region.
From a budgetary perspective, one wonders which planet she is living on. Without a doubt, the past ten years represented the maximum the United States will be able to dedicate to foreign (including military) affairs for the foreseeable future.
To assume anything other than severe cutbacks at a time when infrastructure is crumbling, and when police, firefighters and teachers are being laid off, attests to the misbegotten priorities of the U.S. elite.
But ask leaders in Asia, and you’ll receive truly disbelieving looks. There, many are rendered speechless by the patrician attitude with which this U.S. administration, after having stood with the Bush Administration’s ill-fated strategies for too long, now tries to portray its desperate pivoting out of the morass the United States has created in the region.
Asian leaders, most of whom have had to contend with scarce financial resources, know that governing means choosing. And once the Obama Administration decided to engage in Afghanistan as deeply as it did, it had essentially spent the money it could have devoted to the rest of Asia.
Europeans, too, are amused by the highly transparent American effort to sell the U.S. turn toward Asia as a not-so-gentle reminder that they better fall in line, or else be left behind by the American-Asian tandem.
When faced with such propositions, even normally very diplomatic senior European officials do not hide their bemusement, pointing out that the U.S. government is far from alone in shifting its attention to Asia. In other words, it's a competitive world out there — and let's see who fares better in Asia over the long haul.
In addition, there is grave concern elsewhere with the unrelenting effort of the U.S. government, not unique to the current administration, to give great-sounding speeches and publish heroic articles that leave nothing unaddressed, or unclaimed as territory.
As any psychoanalyst can tell you, the boastful U.S. rhetoric is indicative of one thing: a desperate desire to hold on to a world and options — financial, economic or diplomatic — that are no longer truly in reach of the United States.
As mighty as the country still is, especially militarily, its tendency to be overly ambitious in effect diminishes national power. Not only do outsiders see an emperor presenting himself, in great earnest, without clothes.
Worse, this aspiration-by-rhetoric-alone leads to a serious imbalance on the domestic front. The American people are oversold a bill of goods — namely, global supremacy (as a return on investment) — that is turning out to be increasingly hollow every day.
It seems inevitable that they will lose faith in — i.e., withdraw support for — foreign engagements when it turns out their nation cannot live up to its rhetoric. Other nations, by comparison, benefit from one simple virtue: They are given to far more self-restraint.
The bombast with which U.S. politicians, from the Secretary of State to the lowliest member of Congress, regularly hold forth on foreign relations would have to be called comical, if it weren't so tragic.
They are increasingly taken with little more seriousness than the declarations that Silvio Berlusconi makes about Italy's public debt problem: They become more boastful the less realistic they are. And the U.S. military, meanwhile, gets stretched increasingly thin.
This situation is all the more unfortunate — and risky — considering the United States has invested heavily in foreign relations. But, truth be told, it's mostly been an investment in the business of foreign relations.
Hence the overreliance on defense spending (and sales to foreign militaries, as well as the extremely well-paid contractors in war zones). And one shouldn't forget the all-too-mercenary character of its so-called development aid machinery.
Too often, it primarily benefits the Beltway bandits, that is, contractors and consulting firms in the Washington perimeter who avail themselves of the government's largesse.
Foreign policy as a for-profit business? That's the gruesome Washington reality of today — and the clear opposite of what the Founding Fathers had in mind. It's a tragedy, really. Their concept was great: to focus on commerce to build alliances, not armies — and to be adaptable with regard to the constitution on social issues. In today's Washington, their path has been turned onto its very head.
It is certainly high time for bipartisan change. But it is unlikely to materialize, given the private-sector players who feed from this trough in an increasingly grotesque manner.
Once the Obama Administration decided to engage in Afghanistan, it had essentially spent the money it could have devoted to the rest of Asia.
Boastful U.S. rhetoric is indicative of one thing: a desperate desire to hold on to a world and options that are no longer truly in reach.
The United States has invested heavily in foreign relations. But it's mostly been an investment in the <i>business</i> of foreign relations.