Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Declining America is the worry, not its rising partner

Mar 19, 2012
Will the United States live in peace with a rising China? This was the topic of a Tembusu Forum chaired by Professor Tommy Koh on March 7, the 40th anniversary of Dr Henry Kissinger's groundbreaking visit to China. The following are edited versions of remarks from three speakers
By Terry Nardin

DISCUSSIONS about future United States-China relations focus on the economic and military power of a 'rising China'. But it takes two to make a relationship. So there is reason to give attention to China's partner, the US. What threats to peace does this partner pose, and how can it ensure a harmonious relationship with China?

The idea that the US might pose a threat to peace is not a novel idea. Fears of American hegemony, imperialism and intervention have arisen periodically for more than a century. It is barely a generation since the Soviet Union's collapse left the world thinking there was only one superpower.

In the past, fears of America were premised on the existence of overwhelming power. Today, those anxieties focus on American weakness.

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Edsall asks whether technological progress and global competition will make an increasing proportion of Americans unemployable. He wonders whether inequality will continue to increase as wealth flows to the richest Americans while ordinary wages stagnate, and whether this means the political clout of the wealthy is rendering the electorate essentially powerless.

Equally concerning is evidence that America's social fabric is weakening. In large areas of the country, underemployment, debt, drug use, poor health and narrowing opportunities have undermined resilience and, worse, fuelled resentment. At one time limited to the urban poor, these pathologies now affect the heartland majority.

A hollowed-out middle class creates a nation that feels overtaken by events. Especially among those who have lost their former status, resentment can become the motor of hatred, xenophobia and authoritarianism. These poisonous elements have found their home in an increasingly unhinged and destructive Republican Party which, while serving the rich, exploits the anger of a vast ignorant and angry swathe of the country. The result is the manipulated 'idiocracy' on full display in the Republican presidential primary contest. According to a recent poll of people in Mississippi identified as likely to vote in the Republican primary, more than half say they believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim; most of the rest are not sure.

Solutions are elusive because the US Constitution gives disproportionate influence to rural areas at the expense of cities, which have always been drivers of innovation. The split between red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states is not the whole story. If you look at county-level data, the urban areas are blue and rural areas red. America's cities are little blue dots in a sea of red.

In an article published in The Straits Times recently, Clive Crook argues that too much time is spent worrying about potential rivals to American power. There is, he writes, 'a much bigger threat to American power: the increasingly abject failure of the country's own political class'. This failure includes endless political campaigns that preclude solving public problems, an inability to plan for the long term, a debased political debate, and a Democratic Party that should be thriving but labours under the disability of being led by a president many Americans view through the lens of racial and religious intolerance. 'China,' he concludes, 'is the least of this country's problems.'

There are situations in which the motives for war identified by Thomas Hobbes - scarcity, fear and vanity - can be triggered and a country becomes irrational and irresponsible. Mischief-makers, which in the US include right-wing funded hate radio, can stir up trouble. A divided political scene can generate extreme parties and leaders. It is easy to mobilise populations against scapegoats, including foreign 'enemies', when times are bad.

But even if America is in decline, this does not make war with China inevitable.

It is tempting to predict the future based on deterministic theories. But there is no science of historical change. The so-called power transition theory - that wars occur when one power overtakes another - does not leave room for intelligent choice either in planning for challenges or meeting them. Changes in relative power can be a source of trouble, as when a wife starts earning more than her husband or achieves a higher status position. Will there be war? Can hubby live in peace with a rising wife? A strong and generous husband will make a better job of it than a weak and resentful one. But the outcome is not foreordained.

History has no direction. The fate of nations is subject to contingency. And there is always scope for prudent leadership. At the moment, China and the US enjoy rational governments that are aware of irrational currents in their respective populations. Governing is always a matter of skilfully regulating powerful forces to ensure security, liberty and well-being and, especially, to minimise the perpetual risk of catastrophe.

But there is reason nevertheless to worry about the American half of the China- US partnership. For this reason, we should be paying more attention to how the US can prudently manage a power equation that has been shifting in China's favour.

The writer is head of the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.

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