This article is the second in a series proposing foreign and domestic policy initiatives that President Barack Obama should adopt during his final term in office.
hile the latest Middle East flare-up has captivated the world’s attention, a transcendent president must not lose sight of the fundamental challenges to the nation’s power and role in the world, in this instance — the rise of a militarily aggressive and economically powerful China. President Obama’s recent trip to Asia is a much needed reminder that the duration of the United States’ hegemony will not be determined by what happens in the Middle East, but by how the U.S. influences the ever-changing power dynamics in Asia over the next century.
In September, China launched its first aircraft carrier, a sure sign that it intends, or at the very least sees instances when it might need, to project its power far from its borders. The aircraft carrier was just the latest addition to a growing Chinese arsenal that includes new nuclear submarines, warships and missiles. Yet, to view the challenge of China just through a military lens misses at least half of the picture. Like the USSR before it, China also presents a viable global economic alternative to the United States. According to the Rhodium Group, in 2010 China had direct investments of over $60 billion in foreign nations. In April of 2011, China released an official report that showed that it had given more than $38 billion in aid to developing countries between 1950 and 2009.
Though neither its military might nor its foreign investment or aid currently reaches the level of the United States, China’s ambition, increasing economic power and location in the fastest growing region on the planet makes its rise the number one mid-to-long term challenge to the global power of the United States. To preserve American power well into the 21st century and beyond, President Obama must practice true cowboy diplomacy (not the failed imitation of the second President Bush and his cabinet of neo-conservatives) and build on the wisdom of President Franklin Roosevelt with regards to entangling alliances.
The secret of cowboy diplomacy from the first Roosevelt to Reagan has been to brandish a big stick as a strong deterrent, but to never swing it at a challenger of comparable power. As commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, President Obama must ensure that the country has the best soldiers possible by making sure that every American from birth has first class public schools, affordable higher education, and the best nutrition on earth. He must also equip the military with the finest tools available (intelligent leaders in the Defense Department and Pentagon, stealth fighters, drones, next generation radars, armor, etc.). Once he has accomplished that, he must endeavor to never unsheathe his sword against China. Teddy Roosevelt talked tough to the European powers of his day but never went to war with them. Ronald Reagan called the U.S.S.R. the evil empire but only engaged it through proxies that could be easily discarded before conflicts escalated to the point of a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.
Just in case the big stick deterrent does not work, President Obama’s administration must follow the path of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman (and reject the outdated admonishment of George Washington to avoid “entangling alliances”), by bringing the current regional powers around the world, but especially those in Asia, into closer relationships with the United States. He must capitalize on India’s, Japan’s, South Korea’s and the nations of South East Asia’s inherent wariness of a powerful China (and what it means to their own security and economic prosperity), using their apprehensions to enmesh them into economic and military alliances that benefit all parties. As part of the creation of alliances around the world meant to bolster the United States and limit the influence of China, the second Obama administration must encourage more foreign nationals to study at our universities, train and respond to humanitarian disasters with our military, and work in our corporate sector. If China is a generation or so behind America’s hard military power, it trails the nation by light years in soft power. The ideals and idea of America, spread around the globe by our media-entertainment complex, still inspires others to its side. Most humans would prefer to live in a dynamic, semi-chaotic democracy with constitutional guarantees of their rights and independent avenues to enforce them against the executive and legislative branches – not in a well-ordered dictatorship where the word of one person or a small group is law.
Peacefully blunting China’s challenge to the United States through a web of interlocking, dynamic alliances would be a victory for the Obama presidency on par with Teddy Roosevelt’s peace time elevation of the United States to great power status.