In a recent round of finger pointing, the Obama Administration blamed China for being both “dangerous and provocative” in its crisis in relations with Vietnam. The specific incident that led to the rebuke was rioting in Vietnam in response to a Chinese oil drilling rig being placed in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Thirty expat Chinese citizens involved in businesses in Vietnam were injured and six killed and the total death toll was reported to be twenty-one. Admittedly, China has a lousy claim over the vast territory in the Sea, dotted by mostly uninhabited islands, that it insists belong to it for historic reasons, but the right to exploit the region economically is also disputed by a number of other bordering states, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines.
The White House rebuke was followed shortly thereafter by the US Justice Department indictment of five Chinese officials in response to allegations that Beijing was been hacking into corporate computers to steal technological information and trade secrets. I do not for a moment doubt that the claim is true, that China does systematically steal United States technology secrets to enhance its own ability to complete in high tech markets. But Russia and even ostensibly friendly countries like Israel and France do the same thing. They all also hack into US government websites to obtain what might be regarded as national security secrets whenever they can get away with it, something that the White House failed to mention when it decided to go after the Chinese.
But the real irony in the criticisms of China is that Washington behaves exactly the same as Beijing only worse and on a grander scale. It asserts not just regional but global domination, claiming that it has rights that no other nation has to set the rules over and administer a new world order. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described the US as the “indispensable nation,” because “we stand tall and see further than other countries into the future.” Republicans prefer to call it American Exceptionalism. Either way it is nonsense and most of the world would now agree that Washington has been a negative force and even disruptive by virtue of its international meddling.
As part of the US global role, American leaders invariably come around to the belief that an occasional flexing of muscles is desirable, even when there is no good reason to do so. One leading neoconservative described this as “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
President Obama’s bluster falls in that category. His frequently touted “pivot to Asia” could have become a de facto policy based on the reality of US interest in recognizing the importance of the concentration of global economic power along the Pacific rim, but it did not require a label and a veiled threat to China to make the point. To promote a geopolitical “pivot” implies a potential threat to resort to military action, an open challenge to China’s own interests. It is a warning that the United States will itself defend and support the positions taken by Washington’s friends in the region to resist what are being seen and described as Chinese hegemonic impulses.
The Obama administration also decries Chinese spying while unambiguously defending its own right to spy on everyone nearly all the time, surely a more ambitious agenda than anything the Chinese might aspire to. It is to deny legitimacy to what other countries are doing in support of their national security because only Washington has that right, an assertion that is not likely to play well in many foreign capitals. If the Obama administration wishes to stop Chinese hacking it must stop hacking itself as a first step, particularly as it is actively seeking to occupy the moral high ground.
And then there is Russia. The genesis of the current Ukraine/Crimea problem has been beaten to death in the media, but can anyone doubt that Washington is at least partly to blame for provoking the crisis? Five billion dollars were invested in promoting Ukrainian democracy, which came complete with plans for regime change and separation from Russia. And the fact is that Russia does have vital interests in Ukraine, which sits on its doorsteps and includes many Russian speakers, while the United States does not. Ultimately the Russians will do what they believe they have to do for reasons of national security. What the Europeans and Americans think will not change that one bit.
Baiting Russia has followed a similar course to the souring of relations with China. A number of manufactured crises, starting with Georgia in 2008, have poisoned the political atmosphere while US financed NGOs have been active inside Russia itself promoting “democracy,” which might also be regarded as regime change. Congressional intervention with the Magnitsky Act, overt support for groups like Pussy Riot and a steady flow of anti-Russian invective have convinced the Russian leadership that there will be no end to Washington’s interference in its internal politics. Russia is being sanctioned and a number of politicians and government officials have been banned from travel to the US, an empty gesture as none of those named were planning a visit.
Like the pivot to Asia’s challenge to China, Washington’s insistence on the emplacement of a ballistic missile shield in Romania and Poland is clearly seen by the Russians as a major strategic threat. If nuclear weapons cannot be used by one side only because of “strategic defense,” then there is no deterrence in effect and the world can expect to return to an arms race to determine who will come out on top technologically speaking. That is a result that is not desired by anyone but nevertheless the game goes on.
And finally there are the Iranian ballistic missiles, which many readers might have missed. Talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 group is about nuclear weapons and more specifically about nuclear enrichment. Iran wants a deal and so does everyone else, but as a sop to the Israeli lobby and to hawks in congress, the Obama administration is now insisting on including Iran’s missile programs in the discussion. If the issue is pressed, Iran will refuse to continue and could well wind up down the road with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, a result desired by no one.
The important thing to understand is that the tough positions being staked out by the United States will change absolutely nothing vis-à-vis the countries that are being confronted. China will continue to try to develop energy resources in its neighborhood at the expense of its neighbors and will continue to spy when it can get away with it. Russia will do whatever it thinks it has to do in Ukraine. Iran will be guided by its national security needs in its dealings with the west and will balk at demands that it believes to be excessive. Being hard-nosed without any real options in one’s pocket and without any real leverage to bring about change is pointless. All it does is create tension where none existed and feed crises in situations where it would otherwise have been possible to come to some understanding. The pivot to Asia and the pressure on Vladimir Putin has already produced an unpleasant result in the form of Russia’s own pivot and the signing of a $400 billion energy package with Beijing that would negate any possible cutbacks in gas sales to Western Europe. Baiting the Russian Bear, the Chinese Dragon, and the Iranian Lion has proven to be bad politics and bad politics produce bad results.