At the top of the agenda at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, the major annual security forum in the Asia-Pacific region, were conflicts in the South China Sea – which may explain the notable absence of high-ranking defense officials from China.
By contrast, America’s strong presence – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was there, accompanied by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear – seemed to further strengthen the notion of the much touted “pivot” of the United States toward the Asia Pacific region.
The contrast between the incumbent superpower showing up in force and the emergent one missing in action was inescapable – as was the clamor from a number of smaller nations for support from a rhetorically strong yet essentially hesitant United States to check the power of a rising China.
Secretary Panetta said as much in his opening speech. “We were here then, we are here now and we will be here for the future,” he said. But he added: “It isn’t enough for the United States to come charging in and try to resolve these issues” – the countries will have to find ways to do that.
Indeed, no amount of “pivoting” rhetoric can cover up the fact that the post-Cold War global and regional security architectures are no longer sustainable.
Thomas Hobbes’s seminal work, “Leviathan,” best describes the essence of the post-Cold War international order, both in security and economics. Individual players operating by the rules of the jungle come to realize that this is proving destructive to all. So they collectively decide to cede their freedom to Leviathan, who will act as the maker and enforcer of the rules.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America bravely assumed the role of Leviathan in pursuit of a grand vision of a universalized world order. A web of military alliances and international laws and institutions were established or enhanced to ensure that conflicts were resolved according to rules, not by force. Similar systems were established to govern global trade and finance.
The United States also assumed the role of judge and enforcer, issuing security guarantees to a large number of nations, patrolling the world’s sea lanes, underwriting the international trading system, punishing those it judged to be rogue players – sometimes even at the expense of breaking the very rules it is supposed to uphold, as in the invasion of Iraq.
The numbers demonstrate the magnitude of this arrangement: The United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population and generates about a quarter of global G.D.P., yet it accounts for almost half the world’s military expenditures.
A large part of the world has prospered under this arrangement. The relative peace around the globe and the systems that govern international trade and finance have facilitated rapid economic development in many developing nations and the sustenance of welfare states in more developed ones.
They are essentially free riders, and China is the biggest and most successful one. Who can blame them? Only a fool would turn down a free ride.
There is only one problem: The American Leviathan is a momentary mirage. It is being sustained at the expense of the American nation. Hobbes’s Leviathan is a disinterested ruler above the world it rules, not a participant in it. America, with its 314 million people, is a nation that is and always will be an interested party in the world.
For a brief period after the Cold War, America was able to be both Leviathan and a national player within the system because its national interests could be seen to coincide with the world’s interests. That moment has passed.
The attempt to play the dual role of ruler and participant has cost America dearly and could bankrupt the country, economically and socially, if it continues. After just one generation in this role, the United States is deeply in debt; its middle class is crumbling; its industries have been hollowed out; its infrastructure is in disrepair; its education system is badly underfunded; its social contract is in shambles. The weight of free riders is crushing the one participant who would be ruler.
A local version of this drama is currently playing out in the South China Sea. Nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which claim to be America’s friends, are taking maximum advantage of the “pivot” to check China’s power for their own benefit.
China, while rapidly building up naval capabilities commensurate with its rising national wealth, continues to test its smaller neighbors and the United States, but stops short of military confrontation. America voices strong support for its old and new friends, but does not want to embolden them to provoke a conflict with China – one the United States does not need.
This is the best a pseudo-Leviathan can do. It is a matter of when, not if, America formally gives up this self-destructive dual role. Its elites are still propelling America forward as the global hegemon because massive interests are vested in the globalization project underwritten by the American Leviathan.
As a result, the fortunes of the American people have irreversibly declined and their futures have been mortgaged. Yet the public is disorganized and kept divided by a red-blue cultural schism perpetuated and magnified by political leaders. So, for the time being, the American Leviathan continues to limp along.
Here in the Asia Pacific region, amid the rising tension and fighting fishermen backed up by gunboats, the quarreling parties have one thing in common: They are all screaming, loudly or quietly, “Hang on, Leviathan – for a while longer!”
The smaller players need him to set some rules of engagement to constrain a rising great power before it’s too late. China needs him to keep the sea lanes open and safe for its economic development, and to keep Japan and others from rearming and entering into conflicts before it is ready.
Hang on, perhaps just for a few more Shangri-La Dialogues.
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai
Original Source: The International Herald Tribune. Reprinted by Permission