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The Economist Corner – essential readings XV

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American power

After Iraq

America has had a bruising decade. But do not underestimate either the superpower or its president

WHEN Barack Obama confirms next week that all American combat forces have left Iraq, you can be sure of one thing. He will not repeat the triumphalism of George Bush’s suggestion seven years ago that America’s mission there has been accomplished. Mr Obama always considered this a “dumb” war, and events have proved him largely right. America and its allies may have rid the Middle East of a bloodstained dictator, but Saddam Hussein’s vaunted weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a chimera and the cost in American and especially Iraqi lives has been hideous. Iraq, it is true, is no longer a dictatorship. Thanks in part to Mr Bush’s lonely refusal in 2007 to heed the calls to cut and run, the sectarian bloodletting that followed the invasion has abated. But the country’s new democracy remains chronically insecure (see article), which is one reason why some 50,000 American “support” troops are to stay behind to shore it up.

The wrong turn

To many Americans, the misadventure in Iraq has come to symbolise a broader wrong turn America made after Osama bin Laden assaulted it on September 11th nine years ago. Nearly six out of ten Americans now say that they oppose even Mr Obama’s “good” war—the one against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. An America that is bleeding economically at home, with unemployment stuck at nearly 10% and debts as tall as the eye can see, is losing confidence in its ability, and perhaps in its need, to shape events in far-flung regions such as Central Asia and the Middle East. Even in an age of austerity America still towers above all-comers in military power, as well it should given its annual defence spending of $700 billion, almost as much as the rest of the world put together (see article). But the past decade has laid bare the limits of high-tech power. Whizz-bang technology enabled America to conquer Afghanistan and Iraq in the twinkle of an eye with negligible losses. Subduing them has been harder. Of the 2m Americans who have served in the two wars over the past decade, some 40,000 have been wounded and more than 5,000 killed.

Given all this, it is a credit to Mr Obama that he has resisted the temptation to follow the popular mood and turn his focus entirely inward. In his gut Mr Obama may well care more about nation-building at home than he does about exercising superpower abroad. But if so it is an instinct he has curbed.

Mr Obama plainly has a keener sense than Mr Bush did of American limits. At West Point last December he cited the cautious example of Eisenhower and told cadets that he refused to set foreign-policy goals that exceeded America’s means. He has made a point of changing America’s tone and body language, reaching out to the Muslim world in Cairo, offering “engagement” to Iran, bowing to China’s Hu Jintao and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The Republicans accuse him of apologising for America and kowtowing to its rivals. They are right to say that his overtures have had mixed results. The Chinese snubbed him at the Copenhagen climate summit, the Iranians spurned his hand and much of the goodwill he earned in the Muslim world after his Cairo speech has evaporated during the subsequent year of stalemate in Palestine.

At times, in short, his conciliatory tone has been read as weakness. But he has notched up successes, too, such as resetting relations with Russia partly to tighten sanctions on Iran. Moreover, his deeds have been tougher than his words. That speech at West Point was the one in which he announced that he was sending reinforcements to Afghanistan in spite of the war’s unpopularity at home. Paying attention to China’s sensitivities did not stop him selling arms to Taiwan or eventually meeting the Dalai Lama. America has been working harder than it has for many years on buttressing its alliances in South-East Asia, regardless of Chinese complaints. And although Mr Obama fumbled his initial foray into Arab-Israeli peacemaking—he picked a fight with Israel on settlements and then seemed to back down—he started working on this conflict earlier in his term than some presidents, and appears intent on persevering. Read the rest of this entry.

China and India

Contest of the century

As China and India rise in tandem, their relationship will shape world politics. Shame they do not get on better.

A HUNDRED years ago it was perhaps already possible to discern the rising powers whose interaction and competition would shape the 20th century. The sun that shone on the British empire had passed midday. Vigorous new forces were flexing their muscles on the global stage, notably America, Japan and Germany. Their emergence brought undreamed-of prosperity; but also carnage on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

Now digest the main historical event of this week: China has officially become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan. In the West this has prompted concerns about China overtaking the United States sooner than previously thought. But stand back a little farther, apply a more Asian perspective, and China’s longer-term contest is with that other recovering economic behemoth: India. These two Asian giants, which until 1800 used to make up half the world economy, are not, like Japan and Germany, mere nation states. In terms of size and population, each is a continent—and for all the glittering growth rates, a poor one.

Not destiny, but still pretty important

This is uncharted territory that should be seen in terms of decades, not years. Demography is not destiny. Nor for that matter are long-range economic forecasts from investment banks. Two decades ago Japan was seen as the main rival to America. Countries as huge and complicated as China can underachieve or collapse under their own contradictions. In the short term its other foreign relationships may matter more, even in Asia: there may, for instance, be a greater risk of conflict between rising China and an ageing but still powerful Japan. Western powers still wield considerable influence.

So caveats abound. Yet as the years roll forward, the chances are that it will increasingly come down once again to the two Asian giants facing each other over a disputed border (see article). How China and India manage their own relationship will determine whether similar mistakes to those that scarred the 20th century disfigure this one.

Neither is exactly comfortable in its skin. China’s leaders like to portray Western hype about their country’s rise as a conspiracy—a pretext either to offload expensive global burdens onto the Middle Kingdom or to encircle it. Witness America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea, its legal obligation to help Taiwan defend itself and its burgeoning friendships with China’s rivals, notably India but also now Vietnam.

This paranoia is overdone. Why shouldn’t more be asked from a place that, as well as being the world’s most-populous country, is already its biggest exporter, its biggest car market, its biggest carbon-emitter and its biggest consumer of energy (a rank China itself, typically, contests)? As for changing the balance of power, the People’s Liberation Army’s steady upgrading of its technological capacity, its building of a blue-water navy and its fast-developing skills in outer space and cyberspace do not yet threaten American supremacy, despite alarm expressed this week about the opacity of the PLA’s plans in a Pentagon report. But China’s military advances do unnerve neighbours and regional rivals. Recent weeks have seen China fall out with South Korea (as well as the West) over how to respond to the sinking in March, apparently by a North Korean torpedo, of a South Korean navy ship. And the Beijing regime has been at odds with South-East Asian countries over its greedy claim to almost all of the South China Sea. Read the rest of this entry.

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Written by Theophyle

August 31, 2010 at 2:15 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Postari noi pe Politea Digest si pe Bibliophyle […]

  2. The Economist Corner ? essential readings XV…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    World Wide News Flash

    August 31, 2010 at 2:43 pm


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