My articles here harp just short of ad infinitum on America’s changing place in a changing world. No apology. Our leadership, and I include most of the media and most of the foreign-policy elite, consistently refuses to adjust its thinking to these changes. It is essential we understand the consequences of this resistance to emerging new realities so long as we do not force political change and so a change in foreign policy. Hubris extracts a price, as does a broken political process, as does indifference, as does compulsive contempt.
This thought leads me once more back to President Trump’s swing through Asia earlier this month, specifically to his exchanges with Xi Jinping. The returns are in now: Trump was seduced by state grandeur in Beijing. Trump got nothing done. Trump had no dignity. Trump fawned. The Chinese president played him like a yo-yo. This is what you read, and you read some of it in a previous piece.
But there is one claim amid these many that is too pernicious to go unremarked. We can call it the zero-sum power claim. Notably, it is consistently advanced by senior officials who worked for Barack Obama. One would think such people would avoid drawing attention to the Obama administration’s record with China, lamentably ill-considered as it was. But let us not forget that Obama’s foreign-policy crew greatly favored the Edward Bernays repetition tactic: Say it often enough, and failure or miscalculation will eventually enter the record as success or wisdom.
Trump “is ceding ground to China,” Anthony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state under Obama, asserted. “The world is not self-organizing…. By abdicating the leadership role it has played since World War II, the United States is giving the terrain to others who will do the organizing on the basis of their values, not America’s.” Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, furthered the argument with many particulars. Trump did not press China on the security role it claims in the South China Sea. He “failed to extract new concessions or promises” with regard to North Korea. Rice took great exception when Trump “blamed his predecessors rather than China for our huge trade deficits.” He called Xi “a very special man,” which seemed to be the living end in Rice’s book.
What is being said here?
A number of things, obviously, but they all fall under the same heading: America is not to accommodate China’s rise by making any adjustment to 70-odd years of US primacy in the Pacific. Even gestures of respect or friendship are now suspect. This is the baseline assumption Blinken and Rice do an excellent job expressing. It is zero-sum. There is either American supremacy or Chinese, and there is little to discuss between these two. All Chinese gains are US losses.
Blinken’s frame of reference is the easy giveaway: It is all about the postwar decades, and the task is to shape the future in conformity with them. Here I will state my case and cross my fingers as to what may come in the mail: Next to thinking this creaky and primitive, Trump’s approach in Beijing, whether or not by design, stands as the first glimmer of an enlightened Asia policy at least since I began covering the region 30-odd years ago. He seems to look ahead, not back. It is a modest start.