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March 3, 2010
Assessing whether America has lost its mojo

U.S. athletes win gold and silver medals in women’s downhill at Vancouver. Photo: Flickr user Beachpiks

Our northern neighbors are concerned. Perhaps buoyed by hosting the Winter Olympics, a Canadian TV interviewer asked me about a “touchy” subject recently: Has America lost its mojo? How are Americans feeling these days? Are we going to be OK again?

I had to be honest that Americans are in the dumps. Many of us are experiencing the hardest times of our lives, and meanwhile China, India, and others seem to have bounced right back.

Our national gloom explains why the ruminations on America’s decline are coming fast and furious. Book titles tell the story: The Post American World, The End of Influence, When China Rules the World, Freefall.

It is bleak now, but America should step back from the ledge because the future is looking up. Here are 10 things to remember about America and decline:

1. America’s fate is in its own control

This is cold comfort given the dysfunction in Washington, but it is nonetheless important to remember that the decisions Americans make at home determine our fate far more than anything China or any other pivotal power does — including keeping its currency undervalued, as destructive as that is.

America can put itself in a position to thrive in a world with stronger powers by investing in its own future, and first and foremost in the innovation that drives economic growth. This includes funding basic research and development, improving education, reforming health care, and renewing infrastructure.

America also needs to trim and refocus the defense budget, rein in the budget deficit, and shift to renewable energy sources. All of these steps are easier said than done, but let’s put the onus for our fate where it belongs.

2. We are still number one

We shouldn’t forget that America is still far ahead of all other emerging and established powers by nearly every important measure. And we have demographics on our side. Because we welcome immigrants and because many parents are bravely choosing to have three kids or more, America’s population is set to grow over the coming decades.

Of the other major pivotal powers, only India can say the same. The rest are either already shrinking — Japan, Russia, much of Europe, and Brazil — or looking at a huge baby boom problem within 20 years: China.

3. Our relative decline is inevitable

Relative to other pivotal powers such as China and India, we are declining — the huge gap between the United States and the others is shrinking. That is a function of two factors completely out of American control: the size of their populations being many times larger than ours, and the fact that they are at earlier stages of their economic growth, still climbing out of poverty and moving people off subsistence farming.

There isn’t a causal connection—they are not growing because of our decline. One day, they will likely have economies larger than ours. But we can’t go around hoping that poor countries will stay poor. Moreover, their growth will lift us, too, if we make smart investments (see number 1) because their new middle-class consumers will buy quality American products.

4. Primacy isn’t what it used to be

It is not as important as it used to be for a power to remain on top by a huge margin. Countries used to acquire power by conquering each other, and in that world, primacy is a life or death matter. The contest today is to see who can grow and lure more innovative talent, and become energy independent first. Land grabs are a waste of time and money.

Sheer military power is also not enough anymore for America — or any other country — to keep its own population safe. Terrorist attacks, freakish weather events and lethal flu viruses are harming Americans — not other big countries. The United States will need to work with other nations to address those border-crossing evils whether we are on top or not.

5. Americans have it really good and will for generations

Here’s another key point to remember: China and India’s growth will not change living standards for the vast majority of Americans if we make the right choices at home. Even if China’s economy does grow to be larger than ours one day, there is no reason to think Americans will be worse off. We could even be better off. Look at the British — they enjoy very comfortable lives and take a lot more vacations since they gave up their empire.

The fact that the American middle class did not gain during the last expansion was as much the result of domestic policy favoring the wealthiest as it was new wage competition from abroad. A strong China or India will make our lives different, and America will not always get its way, but American standards of living will remain high if we deal with our demons at home.

6. Americans are safe

Americans enjoy an unimaginably high degree of safety from outside threats compared to most other peoples. We are protected by oceans, a strong military deterrent, and a stable society based on the rule of law. The growing strength of other powers will not change that fact.

7. The trajectories of future powers is unknowable

It seems that China, Brazil, and India are rising inexorably, and maybe they are. But maybe they aren’t. The Soviet Union looked like it would be around forever in 1988, and in 1990, Japan was seen as the undefeatable hegemon. We just don’t know, and can’t control, the futures of other big powers — which is yet another reason to focus on getting our own act together.

8. American leadership is vital, and everyone knows it

Even after eight years of stomach-churning foreign policy under the Bush administration, most countries acknowledge that American leadership is vital to solving major global problems and keeping order. If China could snap its fingers and halve America’s power, it is not clear it would — who would protect its oil tankers? No other power has the same credibility, capacity, and inclination to step into our shoes. China doesn’t want to lead, and other powers trust Beijing even less than they do Washington. America will thus continue to be influential even as its relative power declines.

9. Previous bouts of self-doubt have proven unjustified

As Atlantic correspondent James Fallows recently explained, Americans are prone to cyclical periods of self-doubt. Our worries have been part of American culture since the days of our founders. We have beaten ourselves up and written ourselves off on many past occasions including Sputnik in the 1950s, culture wars of the 1960s, oil crises of the 1970s, and Japan paranoia in the 1980s. The only difference now is a 24-hour news cycle that makes a profit by probing and sensationalizing our malaise.

10. We still have fundamental strengths

America doesn’t have nationwide broadband, consistent cell coverage, high-speed rail, or large-scale solar, though we need them. But it does have a high tolerance for failure, which encourages zany and sometimes very profitable ideas. We also have deep and broad capital markets that reward risk, although hopefully no longer in crazy financial instruments; great universities; creativity; diversity; and a willingness to embrace anyone who works hard.

So don’t count America out just yet. Instead, contact your senator. You know what to say.

– Nina Hachigian

February 9, 2010
U.S. media and politicians catch irrational China hysteria

Chinese soldiers saluting. Photo: AlanShanley on Flickr

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise (out in paperback next week).

The news coverage of the U.S.-China relationship is getting more hysterical by the day.

The Washington Post last week ran an editorial accusing the Obama Administration of spending its first year “going out of its way” to “cater” to Beijing. Moreover, the editorial concluded, this approach backfired, and now China is more aggressive than ever, “busting with hubris,” and testing to see how far it can push the new U.S. president.

The Economist’s coverage was nuanced, but its cover this week shows a giant smoking dragon looming over a tiny Barack Obama, who appears to be pleading for a rational chat.

The New York Times has run a series of pieces suggesting the Administration is kowtowing to Beijing, and Robert Kagan and other conservative commentators accuse the Obama administration of appeasing dictatorships and abandoning democracies.

A common narrative in this coverage is that the U.S. decision to sell a large package of arms to Taiwan last week was because Obama administration officials finally realized they needed to take a harder stance. Why? Because their earlier “soft” approach was not working.

What is actually going on here?

The early stages of the U.S.-China relationship during the Obama administration have not played out according to the usual script. The president did not promise on the campaign trail to be “tough” on China — a position he would have been forced to abandon within a few months, just as Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did.

In the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis, the Obama administration instead came to office wanting to preserve the stability of the U.S.-China relationship while also placing a new emphasis on joint global problem solving.

This is not appeasement. This is common respect and pragmatism born of looking down the road at a whole host of challenges — where the only way forward is to cooperate with China. It is also part of a larger administration effort to mend fences around the world by listening and extending basic courtesy, both of which cost nothing.

But cordiality should also not be confused with deference. From the beginning, the administration also made decisions that cut against Chinese interests, such as imposing tariffs on imports of Chinese tires. And despite many accusations to the contrary, President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials have repeatedly pressed the Chinese on human rights, both publicly and privately.

The Obama approach has yielded some significant results, especially in the area of climate and energy. During the president’s trip to China in November, deliverables included, among other things, a partnership on developing clean-coal technologies and a collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory — so we can all know if China is actually bringing those emissions down.

For the first time, China not only voted for tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea last year, it also enforced them. Beijing also joined in a harsh rebuke that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued against Iran in November for its illicit nuclear activities.

Beijing agreed during the darkest days of the financial crisis to coordinate their macroeconomic moves with the United States and other economies around the world and, in line with U.S. wishes, enacted the largest economic stimulus of any country, on a percentage basis.

Of course, the glass is still half-empty. The Chinese position at the global climate change meeting in Copenhagen was better than most had expected six months earlier, but still not nearly enough to actually prevent the worst effects of global warming. Beijing continues to protect Tehran from additional international sanctions.

Beyond the difficulties on the shared global challenges is the Bermuda triangle of the U.S.-China relationship—trade, Taiwan and Tibet—that are always neuralgic. In the space of a week, the Obama Administration promised to sell Taiwan a $6.4 billion in arms, confirmed that the president will meet the Dali Lama in February, and raised the pressure on China’s currency policies.

China’s reaction to all of these actions (so far at least) is well-within historical norms, especially given that Tibet and Taiwan touch at the core of Chinese anxieties about territorial unity and foreign intervention. China’s leaders face pressure from a loud minority of their own citizens screaming for Beijing to take a “tougher” approach to the United States.

Is China more confident? Yes.

Will its increasing diplomatic weight sometimes make it more difficult for America to achieve its priorities? Yes.

Is the Obama administration being “tougher” because it suddenly realizes this? Of course not.

It is continuing a policy to expand areas of cooperation while dealing with the sometimes sharp differences in an open and straightforward manner.

Aside from fulfilling the ever more ubiquitous media practice of characterizing everything in terms of a conflict, the recent China coverage also plays into the larger meme of American decline that is going around like a bad flu. It is true that China is stronger. And America is weaker. But, importantly, the two are not causally linked.

If America is going to get stronger again, it needs to concentrate on its problems at home. Investments in health care, education, innovation and clean energy are the real answers to America’s ability to thrive in a world with stronger powers.

The gridlock in Washington will influence future American generations much more than what China does or doesn’t do this week. The breathless coverage of the latest spat with China is a distraction from the work at hand.

January 27, 2010
What Obama won’t brag about in the State of the Union

U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo: WhiteHouse on Flickr

He probably won’t focus on it much in his State of the Union address, but President Obama is revolutionizing the core paradigm of American foreign policy. If he succeeds, our children and grandchildren will be set to thrive in the more multipolar era to come.

Think back a few years to the Bush Administration when the central strategic pillar of national security strategy was to maintain American primacy. To remain safe, the reasoning went, America had to continue to stay more powerful than all other countries by the existing, huge margin.

This strategy had a number of conceptual flaws. It suggested to the many rising powers, China, India, Brazil, Russia and others, that the United States would stand to benefit by their failure. That is largely false, and thus a needlessly antagonistic message that amplified existing distrust.

Moreover, the source of the most lethal and immediate threats to Americans was and is not strong countries but terrorists, viruses and global warming. Americans need the help of those same pivotal powers, and they need ours, to tackle those threats.

Reduce nuclear proliferation without Russia? Slow climate change without China? Good luck with that.

In the end, the primacy strategy failed to deliver. It tempted our leaders into a reckless war. It did not prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. It did nothing to slow China’s influence, as was its implicit goal. And it helped wreck our relationship with Russia.

A fixation on primacy paradoxically undermined the influence and authority America did have in much of the world. But the Bush strategy was not exceptional, only exceptionally badly executed. For all previous administrations since WWII, American primacy has either been a goal, an assumption or both.

America is still the world’s only superpower, but from day one, President Obama rejected a single-minded quest for primacy as the organizing principle of our foreign policy. He signaled this in his inaugural address when he said “Our power alone cannot protect us.”

Later, in a speech in Moscow, he was more explicit about his great power strategy: “[G]iven our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game – progress must be shared.”

The Administration knows that the central challenge now is getting these other pivotal powers to solve problems, play by the rules, support international institutions and share the costs of providing for the global common good.

It’s still early days, but they’ve had some success so far with their approach, which I call strategic collaboration. China has agreed to limit its carbon intensity, though it must do more. And for the first time last year, China not only voted for tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea; it also enforced them.

Despite how neuralgic the issue is there, Russia decided to allow the United States to transport supplies through its territory into Afghanistan. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is up and running again. These nations and others agreed during the darkest days of the financial crisis to coordinate their macroeconomic moves.

Finally, Beijing and Moscow did recently join in a harsh rebuke that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued against Iran.

Of course, China and Russia, not to mention India and Brazil and others, need to do more to help solve global challenges. We will continue to have differences with these pivotal powers, some very heated, particularly in the areas of human rights and democracy.

But there is no quid pro quo. Washington can cooperate with Beijing and Moscow to contain swine flu or climate change and still press them, as President Obama has, for political reform.

Not everyone is happy with this shift in America’s foreign policy. Conservative commentators claim Obama officials are naïve to think that great powers will cooperate, and they accuse the Obama Administration of adjusting to the relative decline in American power rather than trying to stop it.

While the Administration is rightly updating our foreign policy to this new age of security interdependence, it is certainly true that American power is vital. America needs to retain significant influence in the international system to protect American interests and the liberal nature of the system.

Moreover, while it seems unlikely, China or some other big power could become an aggressive hegemon one day, and America must be prepared.

But it’s not enough to say America should continue to be strong. It takes controversial investments; convincing politicians to prioritize long-term success over short-term gain is never easy.

And that is where Obama’s domestic agenda comes in. What health care reform, investments in basic science, green technologies, banking regulation and renewing public education are all about is retooling America so it can thrive in the global economy. Every great power needs a great economy.

America will continue to be an indispensable nation, in many cases, the indispensable nation. Not because of its unassailable power, but because of its ideas, values, and leadership.

Nina Hachigian is the co-author of The Next American Century: How the US Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

January 22, 2010
The false promise of primacy in U.S. foreign policy

Obama and his national security team. Photo: Flickr user WhiteHouse

One unquestionable success of the Obama administration so far has been to turn the page on the failed Bush foreign policy framework.

Not so, says Robert Kagan, who reveals a perverse nostalgia for the previous paradigm in his recent writings in which he argues that the Obama administration is formulating foreign policy from a perspective that accepts, rather than fights, the decline of American power.

To understand this yearning for American policy of yore, you have to remember that American foreign policy leaders during the Bush administration clung to the false promise of primacy, the belief that the lynchpin of American security was for it to remain more powerful than all other countries by a huge, fixed margin.

Mona Sutphen and I described why this was a misguided strategy in our 2008 book, The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise. But the proof is in the pudding. In the end, the primacy strategy didn’t deliver.

Primacy tempted our leaders into a reckless war in Iraq. It did not prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. It did nothing to slow China’s influence, as was its implicit goal. And it wrecked, with Moscow’s help, our relationship with Russia. A fixation on primacy paradoxically managed to undermine the influence and authority America did have. Nevertheless, the fact that the Bush administration embraced the notion of primacy was a comfort to the remaining Cold Warriors.

President Barack Obama’s approach is different, to say the least. His political allies and his detractors can agree that Obama sees foreign policy not in terms of asserting America’s unparalleled might, but of seeking common cause, including with other major powers. On the one-year mark of his presidency, the contours of the new paradigm are fairly clear:

  • Lead the world in addressing shared challenges
  • Treat other governments and peoples — friends and foes — with respect
  • Forge strategic collaborations with big, pivotal powers and demand responsibility from them on global challenges
  • Reinvigorate and repair existing alliances
  • Reengage with international institutions and rules, pushing for increased accountability
  • Make basic political and economic rights available to more people, knowing that democratic government is the best way to achieve this goal

As for primacy, Obama dismissed that as a strategy goal in his inaugural address when he observed, “Our power alone cannot protect us.”

Later, in Moscow, Obama elaborated on his view of great power relations, saying, “a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries…[G]iven our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game — progress must be shared.”

Robert Kagan now accuses President Obama of reorienting American foreign policy away from its WWII and Cold War roots, focusing on how “to adjust” to the decline in American primacy instead of trying to reverse it. He portrays administration officials as naïve ideologues, buttering up autocracies and forsaking our democratic allies.

Kagan’s analyses fail to discuss two major developments that demand a new approach—the increased potency of transnational threats and the new salience of domestic policy in America’s world standing.

Kagan writes as if the Obama administration is engaging with re-emerging powers to prove an ideological point that great power strife is a relic of history. Yet no staffer that I have ever spoken with would suggest that these relationships are beyond rivalry.

More importantly, Kagan does not reveal the Obama administration’s reasons for pursuing strategic collaborations with China, Russia, India, and other pivotal powers.

In fact, these partnerships are necessary to protect Americans from common threats in terrorists, global warming, economic crises, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics such as swine flu — the forces of disorder that can and do affect Americans right here at home.

Kagan barely mentions these threats, but to keep its own people safe, America needs Russia to secure its loose nuclear materials so terrorists cant get it. America needs China — the world’s largest emitter — to cut down on its carbon. And America needs India to help track extremists. Moreover, America needs all of them to contain pandemics.

How can we get these big, proud countries to take these steps? Aggressive diplomacy.

Transnational threats also explain why the Obama administration is taking international institutions seriously. It’s not because the president is looking to attend more international meetings; it’s because international rules and institutions play a vital coordinating role when threats cross borders.

The World Health Organization led the battle against swine flu last year just as the International Monetary Fund bailed out a slew of countries headed toward financial ruin. Fortunately, international architecture and traditional alliances are not mutually exclusive, as Kagan would imply.

It’s still early days, but the Obama approach is paying dividends. China has agreed to limit its carbon intensity. And, for the first time last year, China not only voted for tough U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang; it also enforced them, in contrast to Kagan’s assertion that the administration has failed to gain “any meaningful Chinese help in North Korea.”

Russia has allowed the United States to transport supplies through its territory into Afghanistan. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is up and running again. A successor to the START treaty to reduce our arsenal of nuclear weapons is not yet complete, but it’s on the way.

And these nations and others agreed during the darkest days of the financial crisis to coordinate their macroeconomic moves. Iran remains a challenge, but Beijing and Moscow did recently join in a harsh rebuke that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued.

Of course, we continue to have differences with these pivotal powers, including on human rights and democracy. Kagan is simply wrong to suggest that administration officials have failed to “continue to press Russia and China for reform.” They have, just not in a grandstanding, provocative way that ends up being counterproductive.

Here, for example, is what President Obama said in Moscow:

The arc of history shows us that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not. Governments that represent the will of their people are far less likely to descend into failed states, to terrorize their citizens, or to wage war on others. Governments that promote the rule of law, subject their actions to oversight, and allow for independent institutions are more dependable trading partners. And in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia– nations that today live with great security and prosperity.

And here is what he said in Beijing a few months later:

Finally, as I did yesterday in Shanghai, I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights. We do not believe these principles are unique to America, but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities. And our two countries agreed to continue to move this discussion forward in a human rights dialogue that is scheduled for early next year.

Where does Kagan get the idea that Obama is not a champion for liberal democracy? The difference is that the Obama staffers have no illusions about how hard it is to impose a liberal transformation from the outside. Every country has to forge its own future. America can help, but we can’t call the shots.

Kagan also accuses administration officials of squandering American primacy. “Instead of attempting to perpetuate American primacy,” he writes, “they are seeking to manage what they regard as America’s unavoidable decline relative to other great powers.”

The truth is that America’s relative decline is, in fact, unavoidable in the short term. That’s just a matter of definition when China’s economy is growing at 8 percent or 10 percent, India’s at 6 percent, and ours not at all. It won’t always be this way, but it is now.

Rather than pretending otherwise, the administration is facing and addressing this uncomfortable fact. Because while it is true that our toughest global challenges require cooperation, American power is a vital ingredient to securing the best possible future for Americans.

Kagan declines to mention domestic policy, yet rebuilding American strength is, at the end of the day, a task for us here at home. Behind every great power is a great economy.

We can try to perpetuate our power and influence all we like, but if our economy doesn’t begin to grow steadily again in the years to come, all our scrimping will be for naught—we simply will not be able to afford the tools for an expansive foreign policy, not to mention rising living standards for future Americans.

Growing American strength is not about rhetoric; it involves tough political choices. Getting politicians to prioritize long-term success over short-term gain is never easy.

The unifying theme of President Obama’s domestic agenda is retooling America so it can prosper in the global economy. That is what the health care debate, investments in basic science, green technologies, and public education are all about, not to mention the banking rules designed to prevent another bubble/bust cycle. All of these investments would be a lot easier if the last administration hadn’t committed a trillion dollars to a needless war. Talk about squandering primacy.

America will bounce back. And it will continue to be an indispensable nation, not because of our unassailable power, but because of our ideas, our flexibility, and our leadership–- the strengths that in fact enabled our still vast military superiority.

Fortunately, Barack Obama has proven to be a leader that reads America’s virtues broadly, and enlists others in their promise. Perhaps it is simply too inclusive a worldview for those that miss the clarity of a bipolar ideological contest.

But as Obama has pointed out, such clarity is a luxury we can no longer afford.

– Nina Hachigian

January 13, 2010
Hillary Clinton returns to Asia to seal diplomatic deals

Hillary Clinton meets with S. Korean military officers in February 2009. Photo: Flickr user IMCOMKorea

Hillary Clinton is off to Asia, her second trip there since she took office. Right away, she became the first Secretary of State in four decades to go to Asia before Europe. The Obama Administration is playing its cards well on Asia so far.

Despite the contentious issue of the location of the American military base at Futenma, the Administration has forged solid ties with a brand-spanking-new government in Japan, which came to office having very public doubts about the alliance.

Relations with China now have a set structure, with the annual Strategic Economic Dialogue, Presidential summits and formal bilateral talks on a whole host of subjects, terrorism recently included.

The Administration is pushing China to play a constructive role on global challenges, with some results in climate and on Iran.

Rough patches are coming up, however, on trade, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, President Obama’s upcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama and China’s recent crackdown on dissidents.

And the harsh sentencing of democracy activist Lu Xiabo is a depressing sign of the times.

The U.S. has signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, allowing the U.S. to appoint an ambassador and formally tying the US closer to SE Asia. President Obama was the first U.S. president to attend an ASEAN summit. As China’s courting of SE Asia has been in overdrive in recent years, this is a welcome symbol of U.S. engagement in the region.

North Korea’s nuclear program continues to vex, but the Administration persevering. China actually enforced sanctions against its neighbor last year, and the Obama Administration can take some credit for that.

We’ll see whether the Obama Administration’s willingness to talk bilaterally will succeed in the end. The U.S. does not seem willing to give any additional concessions to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.

The Administration certainly breathed new life into the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

And they checked the box on a “strategic” relationship with India, though the relationship needs deepening.

Secretary Clinton is going to visit Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea — and then give a major address on Asia policy during her trip.

One major theme will be: America is back.

– Nina Hachigian

December 21, 2009
The consequences and comedy of Copenhagen

Not only was the final result of the Copenhagen conference potentially groundbreaking, because it led to a deal with the largest emitters, the hours leading up to it played out like a slapstick comedy. Is this what diplomacy in our more multipolar world is going to look like?  At least we will be entertained!

December 16, 2009
China’s Copenhagen reluctance rooted in domestic politics


Traditional Chinese drummer takes part in a Global Day of Action on the environment. Photo: Greenpeace International

I want to write about China, but let me first take a moment to note that the leaders of the entire world are coming together, in the snow, to tackle a global threat. Yes, it’s chaotic and disappointing so far, but that such a gathering is taking place at all is somewhat amazing and hopeful.

The more each of us recognizes that we are world citizens as well as citizens of our nations, tribes, religions, etc, the better able we will be to find solutions to our common problems. If global warming has a silver lining, other than for Canadian farmers, it is that it encourages us to think in planetary terms.

Onto China. China has a lot of good reasons to demand all it can from the developed world at the Copenhagen summit. And the developed world needs to own up to its responsibility for past and current emission sins.

The U.S. has a long way to go to meet its own obligations, and we need to make up for the last eight years of irresponsible inaction. But the future of global warming belongs in large part to China.

The U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, pointed out earlier in the summit that almost all the growth in emissions from now until 2030 will come from the developing world, half from China alone. At the end of the day, as a pivotal power, China has to be willing to sacrifice for the global common good.

In a recent report, I concluded that it is still rare for China to act proactively to solve global problems. But it has happened, as in the case of North Korea’s nuclear program — and on pandemics.

When it comes to global warming, with the international spotlight shining brightly, China did pledge to cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of its gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. That was a significant development, though not ambitious enough, according to many.

Now the sticking point seems to be “MRV.” China is refusing to have its targets be “measurable, reportable and verifiable.” Without that provision, other countries, most notably the U.S., will not know whether China is sticking to its commitment or not. China’s point of view is that the burden should be on the West to do more, not on them.

So what are China’s reasons for holding firm against developed world demands that they do more in a treaty on global warming?

  • It’s the economy (and demography). The imperative to grow the Chinese economy, and safely manage its estimated 24 million unemployed (and thus hold onto political power) is an immediate mandate, requiring great energy resources, whereas the threat of global warming is more distant and will evolve more gradually. Moreover, the Chinese population is aging rapidly and could peak as early as 2020, which means that by 2035, China will be carrying an enormous elderly population. There is great pressure on China’s leaders to develop and grow the economy as quickly as possible.
  • Equity. The Chinese argue that the West grew rich spewing carbon and that it is unfair to demand costly limitations from them at this stage in their development. Deborah Seligsohn explains: “Chinese scratch their heads. They know they live in tiny apartments, turn off all lights, wear three layers of clothing indoors in the winter, and only run the air conditioner on the hottest days. Then these Americans come to town on jets, blast the air conditioning and lecture them about their energy use.” The Chinese also argue that when Western nations import industrial and manufactured products en masse from China rather than producing them domestically, they effectively outsource their carbon emissions to China.
  • Skepticism. The American Clean Energy and Security Act that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year falls far short of where China thinks developed economies need to be. The Chinese are also skeptical about whether the United States will ultimately make it law and then implement it in a rigorous way. They also point out that the bill uses “offsets,” or credits for carbon that was not released but otherwise would have been, which China thinks is a politically expedient provision that could act as a major loophole.
  • Suspicion. The belief that American demands for carbon reductions are motivated not by concern for the planet but by a desire to limit China’s growth and keep it weak continues to find some currency in China.
  • Performance anxiety. China has set ambitious domestic targets for itself, as noted above. Yet the Chinese don’t want to commit to them internationally because they want to be able to outperform whatever they promise. They have a strong political incentive to exceed all targets. Beijing is also concerned that if they don’t make the targets, they won’t get credit for trying.
  • Lagging self-perception. As it has happened so quickly, some Chinese leaders have not come to terms with the size of China’s impact. “It was like squeezing blood from a stone,” explains a senior U.N. official, requesting anonymity, “to even get the Chinese to realize even implicitly, let alone explicitly that they are now the world’s largest emitter.”
  • Uncertainty. Climate targets being considered by the international community reach out to 2050. But China is likely to change between now and then in ways difficult to predict. The level of uncertainty is substantially higher than in most countries in the developing world and may contribute to a reluctance to commit internationally to long-term goals.
  • Tactics. China may still be waiting to make its big move so it can “save the day.”
  • Beijing’s limited leverage. While Beijing elites may prefer a more environmentally balanced growth structure, they sometimes can exert little control over provincial politicians who favor GDP growth at any cost.
  • Wanting to keep its coalition together. China does not want to take actions that will separate it from its developing country caucus. China has worked hard to build relations with the developing world and does not want to be seen abandoning them but rather defending their interests in international arenas.

As I said, these are compelling reasons for trying to get the best deal possible. But they are not good enough to scuttle the possibility of a treaty that will help forestall the devastation a heating planet will visit on China, and every other part of the world.

I want to be hopeful and, generally, when heads of state show up, if things are going to happen, they happen. But in this case the divisions seem very deep.

And as much as the symbolism of more than 100 heads of state coming together is exciting, I worry they will bog down negotiations as much as help them. Still, here’s hoping China doesn’t want to pass up an excellent opportunity to look like the world’s savior.

Read much more at the Center for American Progress‘ climate change blog.

– Nina Hachigian

December 3, 2009
Reaping the benefits of Obama’s East Asia tour

The American and Chinese leaders. Photo: Al Jazeera

I generally listen carefully when Les Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks. He challenges conventional wisdom with enthusiasm and his policy ideas are often original and useful. But while some observations were on point, his dismissal of President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia struck me as largely off base.

First of all, there were some important deliverables announced during the president’s trip to China, particularly on climate, such as an electric car initiative, a joint clean-energy research center, a partnership on developing clean coal technologies and a collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

Gelb’s critique also didn’t adequately appreciate that President Obama was the first U.S. president ever to attend a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations, that important 10-member group of dynamic and growing economies that sits astride the Indian and Pacific oceans.

If that doesn’t count as involving the United States in Asian multilateralism, I don’t know what does. After all, following eight years of perceived slights by Washington while China filled the vacuum with copious diplomacy, the United States has to show up and listen at such forums before our leadership will again be welcomed and trusted.

On China in particular, President Obama’s trip has yielded further progress since he returned. First, on Thanksgiving, China — the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases — pledged to cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of its gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

It is a very big deal that Beijing has moved off its long-held position of refusing agree to any firm limits on its carbon emissions. Of course, given China’s economic growth, these targets are not adequate to prevent the 2 degrees of warming scientists tell us we must, but it’s a significant start and farther than many thought China would go.

Moreover, China’s decision will translate into political momentum as negotiators from around the world alight in Copenhagen later this month to develop an international deal to address global warming. And now that China has agreed to a target, in the future it will be that much easier to have discussions about making that target even more ambitious and about helping China develop the capacities needed to measure its emissions and reach that goal.

Beyond this big news, a few days ago, China (and Russia) endorsed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s order that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once-secret uranium enrichment plant. This was the first time the IAEA made such a demand of Iran. China and Russia’s participation in it was a real breakthrough.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called both of these policy shifts the “direct result” of President Obama’s trip. I don’t doubt that, but even if you take into account that causality can be tricky to determine in diplomacy, the Obama trip, at the very least, was a major factor in both of these outcomes.

Today, I feel vindicated in my relatively positive analysis of the president’s trip. Within 10 days of President Obama leaving China, China took two major steps toward being the responsible global steward we want it to become.

As I outlined in a recent report, the United States will not want to accelerate the coming of the day when China will throw its weight around in all issues, but we do need China to help solve international problems and strengthen the international system. Getting emerging powers to do their part will be a vexing challenge for American foreign policy for years to come.

These are victories for Obama’s strategic approach toward China—persistent, tough, quiet diplomacy. We may not see a lot of fireworks, but the president is racking up steady progress with China on very tough problems.

There will be tensions, for sure, and particularly on issues where we diverge, such as human rights, but in one trip, Obama achieved more with China than his predecessor did in eight years on a critical global issue — climate change. Obama is making steady progress on nuclear proliferation as well. I’d call that a worthwhile expense of Obama’s time.

– Nina Hachigian

November 18, 2009
Summing up the U.S.-China summit: baby steps forward

President Barack Obama is taking the right approach in treating China as a key partner on global challenges by emphasizing the need for joint problem solving on his recent trip. But no one said it would be easy to cooperate with China’s leaders—or thrilling.

Case in point: the joint statement released by President Obama and his counterpart Hu Jintao. The document is remarkable in scope, but shows that the most we can expect on our shared agenda is incremental progress.

A presidential summit is what they call in government an “action-forcing event.” When heads of state meet and the cameras roll, the foreign policy bureaucracies of both nations are motivated to go for the gold. The results of the summit likely represent the most the United States and China could both sign off on at this moment. These gains are not earth shattering, but they unquestionably represent forward movement in some areas.

The most specific and ambitious plans came in climate and energy. In addition to throwing support behind a binding deal at Copenhagen, the two sides agreed to launch, among other programs:

* An electric car initiative
* A joint clean-energy research center
* A partnership on developing clean coal technologies
* A collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory
* A U.S.-China Energy Cooperation Program to bring the private sectors of both nations into the clean-energy transformation so necessary for both nations to undertake

On the economy, less specific plans were announced but the two presidents reaffirmed the role of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations as the premier international leadership forum as well as the “cooperative process on mutual assessment” agreed to by the G-20 last month. This refers to an initiative announced at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh whereby member countries will submit their macroeconomic plans to one another for review.

This G-20 review process could prompt uncomfortable exposure for the Chinese on their undervalued currency, so their recommitment to it is welcome. And though China did not make any new pledges on the value of the renminbi at the summit, the central bank earlier indicated a new flexibility about determining its value, and President Hu vowed, again, to continue to move toward a more domestic demand-led economic growth model. The other side of this needed bilateral rebalancing came in the form of a U.S. promise to rein in its budget deficits over the long term.

The two sides also agreed to push for the reform of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and to provide more resources to these multilateral institutions. That’s good news, and would signal a change if it comes to pass. As a recent report of mine describes, China is engaged in the international system but has not yet used its clout to strengthen international institutions and is decidedly avoiding a leadership role on most global challenges.

Also included in the joint statement were promises to increase cooperation in counterterrorism, agriculture, and pandemic disease. You get the idea: lots of issues, lots of pledges. As they are implemented, though, these could really matter. Each could mean greater safety for individual, ordinary Americans—from terror plots, tainted food, and swine flu.

Ultimately, that is why the relationship with China is so important. Beijing holds big cards on threats that can harm Americans. As a growing export market for U.S. goods and services, it also represents a partial answer on how to generate new U.S. jobs.

But let us be clear—they need us, too. Media stories have played on the theme of China’s rise and America’s decline. But American global leadership is real, it continues, it benefits the Chinese in many ways, and they know it. Interdependence works both ways. America being out in front is what allows China to take a back seat on many global issues.

The difficulty the United States faces in the future will be persuading China to help more in solving global problems– as the earlier mentioned report details– while at the same time being able to live with the reality that China’s leaders are not going to follow the U.S. playbook when it does not serve their interests. The lack of emphasis at the first Obama-Hu presidential summit on pressuring Iran on its nuclear program and the “agree-to-disagree” outcome on human rights and on Tibet illustrate this clearly.

But perhaps the new unilateral U.S. initiative announced at the summit– to send 100,000 American students to China over the next four years– will be the most important outcome from President Obama’s China visit. That program will pay future dividends in a greater understanding of this pivotal power among the American people and provide the Chinese who encounter these students a better sense of us, too.

November 16, 2009
Obama looks to redefine U.S. relationship with China

Shanghai. Photo: flickr user Furryface

Last week, as he prepared to leave for Asia, President Obama called the U.S. relationship with China a “strategic partnership.” This new label is 100% certain to be met with accusations of appeasement and naivete by the not-always-so-loyal opposition. The neocons didn’t like the concept of “strategic reassurance” that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg unveiled a few weeks ago, and spoke about at a recent Center for American Progress event, and they are going to like this even less. But using this term before his first visit to China is quite a smart move.

After also calling it a “competitor,” Obama referred to a strategic partnership with China in the context of major transnational threats. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon, its most dynamic large economy (and owner of some $800 billion in US treasuries) and a nuclear power that neighbors North Korea and buys more oil from Iran than any other country. If China doesn’t become our partner, then we are in trouble.

Unfortunately, China has not been a reliable partner so far on these global challenges. As I detail in a new report, China is very engaged in all the international institutions and diplomacy, and this is a big step in the right direction. But you can count on a couple of fingers the number of times China has taken proactive leadership on a global threat: North Korea (but it took enormous and constant US pressure to get them to lead on the Six Party Talks); and the avian and swine flu pandemics, although its active leadership has consisted of convening international conferences of health experts– important, but not exactly mind-blowing.

In fact, Beijing is not using its leverage with Iran to end its nuclear program; it has so far resisted agreeing to specific targets for its carbon emissions that would make a global deal to address climate change possible; and the steps China is taking to move to a domestic-led growth model that will address global economic imbalances are welcome, but too few and too slow.

What the Chinese will tell you is that they achieve a productive relationship by, first, developing trust with their counterpart and only then embarking on problem-solving together. This is exactly reverse, they will say, of Americans, who want to get things done and develop trust in the process. President Obama is thus offering a modicum of pre-trust that the Chinese say they need. This is not weakness– it is clever diplomacy.

The Asia itinerary makes clear that China is only one element of U.S.- Asia policy. President Obama is strengthening our traditional alliances in Japan and South Korea, and finally getting the US in the game of multilateral diplomacy in APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) on which China has been running the tables over the last eight years.

Ultimately, though, for the new label to match reality, the Chinese need to pony up — on climate, currency, Iran and Afghanistan, among other issues — to help solve these problems, reassure the US that they are indeed willing to act like partners and confirm that the political risk President Obama took in nomenclature was worthwhile. Moreover, tackling each of these threats is in China’s own long-term interests.

If, over time, the Chinese do not cooperate more deeply, then “strategic partnership” could end up just a blip in the historical fluctuations of US-China terminology. But instead I hope that, in a few years, it turns out to be a positive, accurate and highly unremarkable description of our relationship with China.

– Nina Hachigian

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of "The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise." She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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