Bangkok, Thailand—You may have noticed that the neo-conservatives surrounding the Bush administration have quit crowing about the new “American Empire.” They’ve been in retreat ever since it became apparent that the Iraqi occupation was a catastrophe, a blunder so ghastly that even stalwart Republicans such as Henry Kissinger and Reagan-era National Security Agency director Lieutenant General William Odom called it “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history.”
Of course, this wasn’t the only administration blunder, just the most notorious in a string that includes plunging the nation into deep debt, weakening our national security, ignoring the consequences of global climate change, and so on. Here in Asia, the Bush blunder that gets all the attention is what masquerades as China policy: the tactical ambivalence that on the one hand treats the People’s Republic as the new market frontier and on the other hand as the last bastion of the evil empire.
Bangkok newspaper headlines are not about “Plamegate” or whether Bush’s Christian buddy, Harriet, will get to sit on the Supreme Court. There’s not even much reportage about Iraq—there are terrorists in the south of Thailand who are competing for attention. The big news here is the Bush administration’s feeble attempts to reign in the Chinese tiger. Treasury Secretary John Snow is in China attempting to get Beijing to make economic changes that will reduce the U.S. trade deficit; high on the administration’s wish list are revaluation of the yuan and opening China’s financial market to foreign banks.
While he was lobbying, unsuccessfully, on these issues, Snow gave the Chinese some advice: they should quit saving as much and take on more debt. In other words, the Chinese should run their economy as we do ours: adopt the monetary policy “don’t worry, be happy.”
The Beijing leaders thanked Snow and Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan for their visit, but gave no indication that they would follow their advice. Why should the Chinese rulers change their economic policies? Their society is prospering; mammoth skyscrapers and huge new cities are popping up across the country—they’re the world’s largest producer and consumer of steel and cement—and their 1.3 billion citizens are rapidly transforming from docile peasants into ferocious consumers. Asian observers of US-China relations, believing that in the global game of poker Beijing now holds all the cards, ask, “Why is the Bush administration so clueless about China?”
The answer lies in the reality that George W. has no interest in actually governing America. Karl Rove calls the shots about American policy, strictly from a political perspective. As a result, the Bush administration has no strategic plan for China—they are shooting from the hip, day after day. The inherent danger in this lackadaisical attitude is that unless American develops a strategy to cope with China’s growth, we will wake up in a couple of decades and find that it’s Beijing that’s talking about empire, while Americans are forced to accept their new status as a has-been power.
America should respond to China by, first, recognizing that we live in a world far different from that envisioned by the neo-conservatives, who are obsessed with cold-war symbols and strategies. China is not Russia. Beijing spends much less on defense than does the United States. However, it graduates significantly more engineers and scientists than America, is our largest creditor, and also does more of our manufacturing than we do. The Chinese are busy developing trading partnerships all across Asia, while the United States remains focused on building airfields and forging military alliances.
America needs a strategic vision to guide it in the 21st century. We need a plan that recognizes that the United States is no longer in an arms race, but in a global economic competition; one where it’s not what you threaten, but what you produce that sways the other nations.
While there are many aspects of such a strategy, one place to start would be retention of a strategic manufacturing capability. For example, we don’t need to retain a lot of semiconductor plants, but it makes sense to ensure that the most advanced products that Americans design are being built on semiconductor lines within the United States. Furthermore, we must revitalize our cities; if we let our communities decay, then we can expect the most valued segment of the modern work force—so-called knowledge workers—to opt to live elsewhere. They will move out of the U.S. to countries where there are healthy cities with affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and reasonably priced healthcare.
The dream of American empire may be gone, but that doesn’t mean that the United States is finished as a world power or that we have to take a backseat to China or any other nation. However, recovering from neoconservative grandiosity does mean that we have the vision required for a new strategy for America. And that’s our problem: the Bush Administration is incapable of providing the leadership we need.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.