We observed, in our recent editorial on the international and domestic preoccupations of President Obama as he assumed office, that in speaking in his inaugural address of areas of focus, he did not mention the European Union. This week, as his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has been making her first external foray, commentators have noted that she too was breaking with precedent in visiting the countries of Asia before she set foot on European soil. The suggestion is that the United States has chosen to indicate the importance of balancing her relationships in various regions of the world, without suggesting an overall primacy of any single one. And indeed, one of Mrs Clinton’s first observations has been that her country is as much a “Trans-Pacific,” as it is a North Atlantic, power.
Of course, to say that the US is a Pacific power is, in itself nothing new. The simultaneous removal of the residues of Spanish imperialism in both Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, well indicated American ambitions in that regard. And her position was consolidated by the drawing of the country further into the Pacific area subsequent to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour during the Second World War. It is that incident that induced the US to consider the then ongoing war not simply as a recurrence of European struggles for domination within their own continent, or European states’ efforts to withstand challenges to their colonial predominance in Asia, but as marking the effort of a new emerging power in Asia, Japan, to assert itself as a Great Power.
However, the difference in United States interest today is fourfold: first a decisive recognition on her part of the indispensability of China, bolstered by its new economic resurgence, in resolving problems emerging in the Far East, including the North Korean effort to become a nuclear power; secondly, a US recognition of the significance of China in influencing changing relations in Central Asia, and particularly among the countries in that area which until the beginning of the 1990s came under the suzerainty of the then Soviet Union; thirdly a recognition of China’s rapidly increasing economic strength and its ability to use its now substantial economic resources as instruments of its diplomacy in Asia and beyond; and fourthly, a recognition of the increasing capacity of China to influence contemporary trends in international trade and production and, as a consequence, to influence in the future the rules governing international trade and production.
As these various geopolitical and economic processes have emerged, the United States has also become increasingly aware of the growth of China’s regional and global status vis-à-vis the US’s former privileged partner, Japan. She recognises a responding desire of Japan to match that status, particularly in respect of membership of the Security Council of the United Nations, a desire which China itself covertly seeks to resist. In that scenario, the United States can see the possibility of China and Japan, in the not too distant future, sometimes seeking, while being in sets of competitive relationships, to conduct autonomous diplomacy between themselves in dealing with problems of the Far East. The US will want to ensure that, in the perception of herself as the dominant global power, no such possibilities of exclusion occur. So while she concedes that the assistance of both of those powers is necessary in pursuing a solution to the North Korean challenge, she will want to preserve her flexibility in ensuring that any solution there or elsewhere in the area, is one which she has substantially influenced.
So we can see Mrs Clinton’s visits to Japan, and then to China, as the beginning of an initiative to reorient its diplomacy in that area, to cope not simply with immediate problems like the North Korea nuclear initiatives, but to shape the longer-term contours in Pacific and Far Eastern relations. The US will want to insist that, in both military and economic relationships, nothing can be satisfactorily settled without her presence and influence. She will do so knowing well that even in the present period of economic recession, her own recovery is vital to both China and Japan, even while she recognizes the importance of the continuing growth of China for her own economy.
These early observations and actions indicate the new administration’s understanding of the emerging changes in the balances of power occurring in various parts of the world, and in particular the significance of China in both international economics and politics. The attitudes currently displayed by Mrs Clinton have also been exhibited by the President’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr Richard Holbrooke, in his recent visits there, and also on his brief visit to India. In particular is the insistence of the new administration, through Mrs Clinton, Holbrooke and in the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as Special Representative in the Middle East, on the significance of Iran in the possible resolution of issues in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Here there appears to be a slight evolution in the American position, even while it is being said that her cooperation with Iran is contingent, as in the case of North Korea, on a satisfactory conclusion to diplomatic negotiations proceeding on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Yet, it would appear that the US is increasingly aware of two things in this regard: first that Iran has a significant influence in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly as these relate to the resolution of American concerns in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as she also has in Afghanistan, and that influence will not be exercised in a manner favourable to American objectives, if it is linked with Iran’s nuclear preoccupations. And secondly, that there are many in the Middle East who connect Israel’s recent display of bravado in Gaza as not only a function of the turning of an American ‘blind eye’ in her favour; but also as a function of Israel’s own possession of superior (including nuclear) armoury as its ultimate (in her own conception) threat vis-à-vis Middle Eastern opponents. American diplomacy in meeting the diverse stances of countries in the Middle East in that regard will have to entail subtle diplomacy, and in that respect Senator George Mitchell’s appointment, with his history of successful diplomacy in the Northern Ireland issue, shows some American appreciation of the need for new types of approaches.
Finally, the new administration will perhaps have a more subtle understanding of Russia-China relations and their influence in Asia, particularly as both of those countries have been rapidly moving towards establishing new types of diplomacy between themselves, and in relation to the areas with which they share common boundaries. Mutual understandings of the types of geopolitics which they need to play, if their own concerns are not to be unduly influenced by American diplomatic, or other interventions, have now overtaken the old ideological concerns. Russia has clearly seen how her own post-1992 isolation permitted the United States to use NATO as a wedge in her former domains in both Europe and Asia. Her recent strong responses in countries of her “near abroad” (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine), suggest that she is willing to draw the line against US diplomatic incursions in those areas over the years. And she obviously recognizes today the importance of harmonious relationships with China in the interest of asserting her effort of reemergence as a ‘Great Power.’
It would not be surprising if, in that context, President Obama does not show any great haste to continue the Bush initiative of establishing military installations in selected Eastern European states like Ukraine and Poland (though the former has a greater significance for Russia than the latter). And it would not be surprising also, if the President eventually seeks the cooperation of Russia in the handling of the Afghanistan issue, in spite of the anxiety of some persons influential in American diplomacy to seek to autonomously resolve it. The Russian experience of the gaining and then the loss, of presence and influence in that country must have much from which the Americans can learn.