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Foreign Policy

What U.S. Must Learn in Dealing with a Changed World

Jan 18 , 2016
  • Wang Yusheng

    Executive Director, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

With the U.S. campaign season heating up, President Obama’s foreign policy record has come under increasing domestic attack, not least from neoconservative idealists, who are calling him indecisive, weak and a man of little or no action. The truth is, I feel quite sorry for him. Rather than accusing Obama of “not taking action,” the question that should be asked is, “What action is he able to take?” I have heard him stress that America must continue to lead, write the rules and refuse to fall into second place on numerous occasions. He says, “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation… it will be true for the century to come.” But as far as I am concerned, little has come out of those high-sounding words. His predecessor, George W. Bush, is known for talking and acting tough, who acted as if the U.S. had greater authority over the United Nations. Yet everyone knew what the end of that story was.

Four years ago, I wrote a couplet to describe the situation the U.S. found itself in. I revised it a few times since to reflect the changing reality and thought perhaps now is the time to share it with readers interested in where the U.S. and the world are headed. The first line of the couplet is a comment on the condition the U.S. faces.” Once the flowers start fading, there is little use trying to make spring stay.” The second line is about the U.S. policy on China, “Since cooperation is unavoidable yet the temptation of containment can’t be resisted, it’s still all about hedging.”

As blunt as it may sound, the couplet doesn’t seem to have overstated things. One just needs to take a look at what happened around the world and how the U.S. conducted its diplomacy in 2015. My view has got support even from some U.S. scholars who are asking why the U.S. keeps looking for enemies across the world. They argue that in order to avoid China-U.S. confrontation, the U.S. needs to reflect on how it wishes to define the word “predominance”. One U.S. expert commented that the U.S. is used to being the most powerful country in the world, yet the world is changing, with China’s rise a direct part of it and America’s strength on relative decline. Hence the nervousness and fear on the part of the U.S. People blame it on the leadership, arguing that if the U.S. had strong leaders, they would probably be able to bring the country back to its “prime”, which is simply unrealistic. These ‘words offer such an insightful way for the U.S. to understand its situation and rediscover its role in a changed world. It is too bad, however, that consciously or not, the U.S. has continued to overlook similar suggestions. It remains fixated on establishing world peace under U.S. authority and remaking other countries according to its tenets with a missionary impulse.

It is time for the U.S. to see the world as it is and stop searching for enemies everywhere around the globe. The world is such a different place now. Nothing can stop the developing countries from rising, and emerging economies already account for over half of the world’s annual economic growth. As a former European leader rightly pointed out, it is impossible to solve any major problem without countries like China, India and Brazil at the table.

Even so, all of those countries still place high importance on developing sound relations with the U.S. All BRICS countries want closer cooperation with the U.S. Even Russia has invited the U.S. to work together on counterterrorism in Syria. China is no exception. The problem is: The U.S. is yet to be ready to accept being anything but the center of the world.

In 2015, China-U.S. relations were marked by significant progress, mainly because China showed tremendous goodwill and genuinely wanted this relationship to work. China suggested a “new model of major-country relationship“, hoping to make it more comfortable for two highly interdependent countries to work together. By contrast, the U.S. kept hedging against China. On the South China Sea and a number of other issues, the only thing it did was to present an even tougher stance and create a more difficult situation for China with provocations clearly targeted at China. Prior to President Xi Jinping’s state visit, the U.S. drew a very long and specific “wish list”, as if it were giving Beijing an order.

The U.S. could have had a more robust relationship with China than Britain, given its close economic interdependence with China and how the two countries depend on each other in so many ways. The “golden era” of China-UK ties is made possible not just because of the high stakes, but more importantly because Britain has seen how the world has changed and decided not to be left behind. British peer Professor Meghnad Desai has thus suggested that the U.S. should probably learn from the UK to “decline gracefully” and try to “enjoy the downward slide.”

As one year gives way to the next, we couldn’t help but ask: Why is the U.S. still resisting the opportunity of building a more positive relationship with China underpinned by stronger and closer cooperation, while many of its allies, including Britain, Europe, Canada and Australia, have embraced it? According to U.S. neoconservative idealists, it is all because China has a secret strategy of holding back and overtaking U.S. supremacy. My only advice for them and the U.S. is: only America can hold itself back, if it refuses to reposition itself in a changed world with new power dynamics.

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