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Scholars Prescribe ‘Head-Cooler’ for the U.S.

Aug 04 , 2015
  • Wang Yusheng

    Executive Director, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

As the curtain for next year’s presidential election has been raised and candidates have started appearing on stage, American scholars have also begun a new round of deliberations on the international situation and the United States’ foreign policy.

Their discussions have touched on some vital problems: how to understand and cope with the “expedited quantitative change of our time” and “the on-going historical changes in the international power balance;” how should the US define its role in the world – should it continue pushing the “American century” notion? And how should the US treat big-power relations and major international issues, especially the rise of China?

American neoconservatives see little to be lauded in President Obama’s foreign policy, which, they argue, has been too “weak” and “swayable.” In their view, Russia, North Korea, Iran and China, as well as the “State of Islam,” all pose threats to the US; they believe China is not a “stakeholder” for the US but rather a “strategic rival,” and Washington should adjust its policy towards China as it did in containing the former Soviet Union.

These arguments are still dominant in the US, but there is an obvious rise of different and even opposing voices (some stemming from attitude turnabout), typical of which was a column published by the Foreign Policy in Focus website. The piece titled “The American Century Has Plunged the World into Crisis. What Happens Now?” was written jointly by Conn Hallinan, an FPIF columnist, and Leon Wofsy, a professor emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley.

The article is a head-cooler for American neoconservatives and a timely compass for American leaders who are at the crossroads of strategic choices.

Hallinan and Wofsy had a clear-minded understanding of Washington’s foreign policy, which they said had remained unchanged even though ways of the world had changed a lot. They pointed out that “there’s something fundamentally wrong with US foreign policy,” which, they said, neither acknowledged nor reflected the “historic transition” the US is undergoing in its relationship to the rest of the world. “We still act as if our enormous military power, imperial alliances, and self-perceived moral superiority empower us to set the terms of ‘world order’,” they wrote.

The authors acknowledged some “glimmers of hope” the Obama administration had brought to the US by striking a tentative nuclear agreement with Iran and achieving a long-overdue thaw with Cuba. However, they said, the US is still “locked into seemingly irresolvable conflicts in most regions of the world. They range from tensions with nuclear-armed powers like Russia and China to actual combat operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.”

 

The article argues that the US’s self-proclaimed “American Century” has led it to assume that it “had the right or responsibility to order the world’s affairs,” which in turn “led to a series of military adventures.” And in each case, “Washington chose war as the answer to enormously complex issues.” However, the authors pointed out, the world is “very different” from that assumption, which had driven “this impulsive interventionism.”

The article lists a few observations on how to acquire a better “outlook” about the world and the US itself.

First, the authors noted, the US’s preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East – “and to a significant extent, our tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe and with China in East Asia” – had distracted it from the compelling crises that “threaten the future of humanity.” And the climate change and environment perils “have to be dealt with now and demand an unprecedented level of international collective action.”

Second, it must be acknowledged that Washington’s superpower military interventionism and far-flung acts of war “have only intensified conflict, terror, and human suffering.” The authors said that there’s no short-term solution, especially by force, to “the deep-seated problems that cause chaos, violence, and misery through much of the world.”

Third, the US’s persistent pursuit of a military advantage on every continent, including through alliances and proxies like NATO, divides the world into “friend” and “foe” according to American interests. That, the authors claimed, had inevitably inflamed aggressive imperial rivalries in spite of common interests in the 21st century.

Fourth, as was acutely observed by the authors, alternative centers (away from Washington, London and Berlin) of economic power “are taking hold in Beijing, New Delhi, Cape Town and Brasilia.” Although the US remains a great economic power, “economic and political influence is shifting and giving rise to national and regional centers no longer controlled by US-dominated global financial structures.”

Hallinan and Wofsy held that “there is no such thing as an ‘American Century’.” They blamed the US government for failing to reflect on the changing circumstances and its repeated military failures. Instead, the authors said, Washington had continued to “act as if the United States has the power to dominate and dictate to the rest of the world.”

“International order cannot be enforced by a superpower alone,” the authors said. To bring a change to US foreign policy, the country needs to overcome “a powerful ideological delusion” that American culture is superior to anything else on the planet. Implicit in this belief, or “American exceptionalism” as it is generally called, is an “evangelical urge to impose American ways of doing things on the rest of the world,” the authors claimed.

Hallinan and Wofsy suggested “unity and cooperation” for meeting new challenges. While criticizing Washington’s excessively large military budget and its negative impact on American economy and people’s livelihood, the article calls for “working for a dramatic shift in US policy” and getting away from the neoconservative “American exceptionalism.” The authors said emphatically that this was “not to downgrade the enormous importance of the United States,” for “the contributions of the American people to the world are vast and many-faceted.”

“None of the great challenges of our time can be met successfully without America acting in collaboration with the majority of the world’s governments and people,” Hallinan and Wofsy said in the article. “There certainly are common interests that join people of all nations regardless of differences,” they write, concluding it is “time for change, time for the very best efforts of all who nurture hopes for a saner world.”

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