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Lord Acton famously stated that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It would appear, however, that the United States has access to a secret Actonian codicil that states, “…but US hegemonic power? That’s frickin’ awesome!”
Because the United States government seems to be wilfully blind to the costs, perils and abuses inherent in the acquisition and assertion of global hegemony.
Hegemony—the unmatched ability to direct events, as opposed to power sufficient to protect and deter—is unambiguously baked into US policy.
As President Obama put it in a document titled Sustaining U.S.Global Leadership (understandably asserting that US leadership is “demanded” by the world, rather than pursued as a matter of US interests):
I am determined that we meet the challenges of this moment responsibly and that we emerge even stronger in a manner that preserves American global leadership, [and] maintains our military superiority…meeting these challenges cannot be the work of our military alone, which is why we have strengthened all the tools of American power…in a changing world that demands our leadership, the United States of America will remain the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known.
From the Department of Defense’s most recent Quadrennial Defense Review:
America’s interests and role in the world require armed forces with unmatched capabilities and a willingness on the part of the nation to employ them in defense of our interests and the common good. The United States remains the only nation able to project and sustain large-scale operations over extended distances. This unique position generates an obligation to be responsible stewards of the power and influence that history, determination, and circumstance have provided.
And from DARPA:
DARPA’s mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research bridging the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.
And from DARPA’s little known brother, IARPA, which serves the CIA, the NSA and the rest of the spook community:
The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) invests in high-risk, high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide the United States with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.
It should be noted that the most striking element of the Snowden revelations and the Obama administration’s response is that the NSA was committed to “having it all” i.e. complete surveillance hegemony in all non-US jurisdictions, and appears constitutionally incapable of accepting any theoretical limits on its abilities to intercept any and all communications.
Hegemony is expensive to maintain, in political and social as well as financial terms. With the US share of the world economy diminishing, it’s not surprising that US hegemony is challenged, more indirectly in terms of disintermediation—the rise of alternate, non-US-centric structures typified by Brazil’s threat to disconnect from the North American Internet—than by direct mano-a-mano confrontations.
The result is creeping instability, instead of the reassuring order that an unchallenged hegemon is expected to provide.
The biggest challenge for US hegemony is Asia.
In the Middle East, where the decisive regional military force was in the hands of our ally, Israel, our main designated adversary, Iran, was a distinctly third-rate power, the US had the remarkably compliant assistance of NATO to organize and lead its allies, and campaigns against five refractory outfits (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Libya) have largely produced outcomes that can be spun as Victory!, the United States still encountered considerable and costly resistance when trying to call the shots.
What of the Obama administration’s pivot into Asia, where our undesignated adversary, the PRC, has 1.6 billion people, nuclear weapons, and the world’s second-largest economy, and our key ally, Japan, is emerging as an independent regional force?
This is not a recipe for comfortable hegemony, either unilaterally or as master of a regional coalition.
The key indicator for US hegemon ambitions in Asia is the notorious “AirSea Battle”, a near-pornographic piece of think tank self gratification that recommends a colossal US military buildup in the West Pacific to survive (and of course triumph) in the worst-case scenario of a full spectrum PRC sneak attack against US military assets.
“AirSea Battle” is currently on hiatus, not because of the improbability of its premise, I suspect, but because of the budget-imploding character of its effort to wangle absolute US military hegemony into the Asian security equation.
Even though “AirSea Battle” is sidelined, as yet I don’t see any indication that the United States has embraced the worrisome implication that absolute US military hegemony in the pricey confines of Asia is an unattainable dream, or that the United States has the awareness, let alone the doctrine or strategy to deal with that most dreadful of contingencies, a “multi-polar world,” in which the United States, like other regional powers India, Brazil, and South Africa, is forced to define, refine, and pursue its interests by haggling with an ever-shifting slate of opportunistic economic, diplomatic, and military partners.
In my yearender for Asia Times Online, I note that in 2013 the Obama administration seemed to acknowledge the existence of an Asian hegemony conundrum in a partial manner and had backed off from the “in your face” confrontation embodied by Hillary Clinton and the pivot. As a symptom, as opposed to a cause, I point to the migration of the China portfolio away from Susan Rice, President Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State (and author of the Libya and Syria disasters and a reliable dispenser of anti-Russian and anti-PRC vitriol at the United Nations), and into the hands of “go along to get along” (and architect of US-Vietnam rapprochement) John Kerry.
The PRC government is, I believe, hopeful that this development represents an evolution of US thinking away from the “containment by another name” strategy of the Asian pivot, which looked to gather a strategic and economic windfall from heightened tensions between Asian democracies and China, to a more balance-of-power arrangement that recognized the benefits of the US occasionally siding with China to moderate the destabilizing actions of Japan and other Asian countries excessively emboldened by the “pivot”.
Beneath the rancor (and negative coverage) engendered by the PRC’s serial abuse of journalists from prestige Western media outlets this was indeed the case in 2013, as the United States cautiously harvested some geopolitical gains of the pivot, especially Myanmar, but struggled to keep Japan in the “UK poodle” rank of useful ally, and keep it from veering off into the “Israel of the Pacific” class of perpetual security headache and exploiter of US power.
Long term, I’m not optimistic that the US will accept a balance of power arrangement in Asia.
US reasonableness in the Pacific in 2013 was certainly a matter of convenience and tactics, not conviction.
In Eastern Europe, it was containment as usual as the United States and Western forces combined to stick it to Vladimir Putin for his obnoxiously assertive and independent foreign policy. This included activities like the insertion of Western support to pro-European elements in the Ukraine’s political crisis, and rather childish efforts to ruin Putin’s Olympics for him by announcing the dispatch of gay-heavy delegations instead of national leaders for the Sochi opening ceremonies.
I eagerly await the Pussy Riot concert for President Obama at the Kennedy Center and ecstatic paens in the Western press for this magical convergence of art, activism, and principle.
Anyway, back to Asia.
I expect that once Japan and the United States have achieved a meeting of the minds (which will probably include US acceptance of complete Japanese military reconstruction, abandonment of the pacifist constitution, and sweeping under the rug the realization that Japan is a threshold nuclear weapons power, in return for some public obeisance to the principle if not the reality of US leadership in Asia), the PRC can look forward to a renewed campaign of mischief and pressure.
I posit that the flashpoint may well be Taiwan.
If disapproval ratings for Ma Ying-jyeou, the current KMT supremo, in the mid-70s are any guide, it is quite possible that by 2017 Taiwan’s government will be in the hands of the Democratic People’s Party, traditionally the party of Taiwanese indigenes (as opposed to post ’49 mainlanders) with no interest in mainland “reunification” and a stated preference for formalizing Taiwan’s de facto independence.
Taiwan, from 1895, was the recipient of the undeniably beneficial effects of Japanese imperial attention, and many Taiwanese of the older generation still have strong and positive memories of their relationship with Japan. Lee Teng-hui, the first indigenous Taiwanese leader of the ROC and a leading figure in the DPP, has made no secret of his preference for Japan over the PRC. After he left office, he visited Japan and even visited the notorious Yasukuni Shrine to honor his brother, who had died in Japanese service in the 1940s.
Japan’s right-wing nationalists (in whose ranks Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands, though this is one of those uncomfortable facts that Western journalists fixated on the evils of the PRC and the virtues of democratic Japan seem unable to confront) have cultivated relationships with the DPP in anticipation of the time when a PRC-hostile and Japan-friendly DPP regime may return to power.
When Su Tseng-chang, chairman of the DPP and likely presidential candidate in the next election, visited Japan in February 2013, Taiwan media reported he intended to meet with Shintaro Ishihara, a high profile Japanese nationalist who had initiated the national purchase of 3 of the Senkaku Islands. (In my Asia Times Online yearender I stated, perhaps incorrectly, that the meeting took place; Su’s camp stated there would be no meeting, but I suspect this was a term of art as in “no formal one-on-one meeting included in trip agenda” and Su and Ishihara found a way to get together).
A popular view inside the DPP is that the Senkakus belong to Japan; in any case, there is little constituency within the DPP in standing with the PRC against Japan over the islands.
If, in 2017, the DPP is in power in Taiwan and the Abe wing of the LDP still holds sway in Japan, the stage is set for an interesting and rather dangerous escalation, perhaps involving a Taiwanese renunciation of its claim to the islands in favor of Japan. Worst case, of course, is announcement of a referendum on Taiwan independence supported by the Japanese government.
In this situation, the United States, faced with the Hobson’s choice of either repudiating Taiwanese independence and the stance of its Japanese ally, or standing shoulder to shoulder with PRC tyranny, is going to find itself with little bargaining room.
And the paradoxical outcome of America’s single-minded addiction to hegemony will be the United States reacting to events in Asia instead of leading them.