Is the United States a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in the Asia-Pacific? On hearing this question, most Americans would, of course, say the US is the former. But I suspect most Chinese (and quite a few others) would disagree.
Recent US behaviour at home and abroad tends to reinforce questions over whether the United States is really a factor for stability. One recent example: the Obama administration, after saying the US put its efforts against terrorism into the wrong war (Iraq) instead of the right war (Afghanistan), announced a ‘surge’ of troops in Afghanistan, only simultaneously to announce its intention to withdraw. Afghanistan’s neighbours heard the second part, and ignored the first. The United States’ reliance on Pakistan increased, but its relations with Islamabad rapidly deteriorated.
The Obama administration has announced the United States’ ‘return to Asia,’ and many old friends in the region welcomed renewed attention from Washington. But many Chinese suspect the United States’ return really means engaging in a form of containment of China. Some even say that since the Taiwan Strait has become calmer with the ascension of President Ma Ying-jeou, the United States is turning to the South China Sea as a new pressure point to keep China in check.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At home, the US legislative process appears broken. The latest debate over the US debt ceiling seemed to accomplish nothing, while diverting legislators’ attention from doing the important things that need to be done. This has contributed to post-Great Recession calculations that the United States is declining as China is rising. To top it all, the United States is now entering a new election season, meaning what has seemed chaotic up to now will soon appear orderly in comparison to what’s coming.
The United States’ great contributions to post-World War II international order are believed by many to be coming to their end, as Washington increasingly finds itself unable to finance anything except replacement body parts for the elderly and interest payments to our creditors.
But I think that conventional wisdom can be turned on its head – the United States’ greatest accomplishments may be behind it, but there’s still plenty more to come.
The United States, like China’s new aircraft carrier, turns slowly, and isn’t small enough for sudden course corrections. Lacking a parliamentary system, by the choice of our forefathers, we don’t have sweeping changes brought about by a single election. Change comes incrementally with each two-year election cycle.
In 2008, the public rejected the incumbent president’s party and voted for ‘change you can believe in.’ The public then perceived that the promised change didn’t occur, and voted in the largest number of opposition Congressmen ever to change seats in 2010. We are now getting ready for the presidential election in 2012.
Judgments made about the United States’ future made today will have little value if they don’t also try to calculate the outcomes in the coming two elections. Judgments made today about the United States’ future are inherently premature, not because we don’t know what the future will hold—and we don’t—but because we know the next two election cycles will likely bring more change, not more continuity.