Shadow Government

Obama's Handling of the Mideast Means America's Already Losing a Proxy War with China

Dan Blumenthal's excellent Shadow piece this week on Chinese interests and capabilities is thoughtful and informative, but it is also unsettling when understood in the context of the strategic vacuum that is the Obama administration's foreign policy. One doesn't have to be a China-phobe to appreciate that the last four years have emboldened the Chinese to assert themselves while they can.

For during those four years, the U.S. president has made clear that he believes the United States' proper role in the world is to be a convener or a conferee, and in extreme cases one of a coalition led by the U.N. to act when that international organization deems it appropriate. The only deviations from this approach have been the successful effort to take out Osama bin Laden, the launching of numerous drone attacks, and very briefly the threat of "unbelievably small" military strikes on Syria in response to the regime's use of chemical weapons the second time it used them. Otherwise, the administration's theory and practice have been very much multilateral, to act as a follower, to be one of several involved in an action when others take the lead. In short, the United States doesn't articulate and pursue its global and regional interests boldly and consistently, and there is a price for that.

The Chinese are watching, and they are not ignorant of what this all means for their interests and goals. So what is it that they are seeing in the world that encourages them? America's tragic Middle East policy. When the world's only superpower lets the very strategically important Middle East be overwhelmed by its enemies and ignores the needs of its allies, states that want changes in the balance of power in their own neighborhood are sure to take note. China is one of those change agents; the country doesn't like U.S. hegemony in East Asia and seeks to end it, and China can only be encouraged to believe that the United States isn't interested in asserting itself for the sake of its interests in East Asia. If America isn't serious and determined about the Middle East, why should it be about East Asia?

What exactly has everyone, China included, been witnessing? Among other things:

  • 1) The rise and fall and the sort of rise again of democratic forces in Egypt with no attendant U.S. leadership on the side of the good guys. In fact, the United States put its faith in Islamist radicals bent on creating another theocratic Islamist state. Only the Egyptian military acted to save the world from that, and no one knows how it all will end.
  • 2) Iran's methodical attempts to obtain nuclear weapons while the administration continues to believe that aggressive Islamist dictators bent on controlling the Middle East can be talked out of their own vital interests.
  • 3) Syria's massacre of over 100,000 people with chemical and conventional weapons -- and with support from Iran and Hezbollah -- in an attempt to save its murderous regime. U.S. dithering and tacking has finally led to an outsourcing of its Syria policy to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

In sum, over the last four years the president has indicated that he is not interested in foreign policy unless he is forced to be and that he has no strategy for pursing U.S. interests even in the most crucial part of the world for America -- the Middle East.

Why, then, should China expect him to seriously reconsider his muddled and inadequate strategy for dealing with China's desire for hegemony in East Asia? As Blumenthal says, his approach to China is: "a policy of engaging, balancing, and hedging against China, with some vague notion that doing so will nudge it into becoming a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system. But is U.S. military planning supposed to force it to become this kind of world actor? That sounds far-fetched." Indeed. No self-respecting power -- and China sure is that -- is worried about a United States that won't defend its interests and its allies.

So it should be no surprise for us to read that China is uninterested in talks to settle its dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have been mounting for months, and there has been no sign that they will abate. There also has been no sign that the Obama administration really cares. So while we stand by and watch the formation of an inchoate unholy alliance between Iran and Russia determined to run the Middle East, we appear poised to countenance a war -- hot or cold -- in East Asia between China on one side and Japan on the other with every other state in the region caught in the middle.

All this could have been mitigated if not avoided if the president had been strategically leading his country these last four years instead of treating foreign policy as a nuisance and a photo op. Change agents, balance disturbers, and aggressors take their cues from other players in the international system. The United States has been cueing them; they have been responding logically.

Shadow Government

With Rousseff's Visit Canceled, Where Do U.S.-Brazil Relations Go from Here?

It certainly would be easy to criticize Barack Obama's administration for Brazil's unprecedented cancellation of a state visit by President Dilma Rousseff over reports that the United States spied on her government and Brazil's state-run oil company, Petrobras. Especially since the administration made its political bones disparaging George W. Bush's foreign policy and promising to "restore" America's image in the world after the turbulent post-9/11 years. 

In truth, let it be said, Rousseff's decision has less to do with what the administration did right or wrong and more to do with Brazil's own internal struggle to define what kind of country it wants to be on the world stage. The administration isn't totally faultless (see below), but years of solid political leadership and economic growth have brought Latin America's largest country to the precipice of a momentous decision: Does it want to be seen as simply a leader by acclamation of the developing world, to be seen and heard politely in international forums, but with little ultimate consequence? Or does it aspire for a meaningful seat at the big table, able to project power and exert influence to actually affect the course of international events?

It depends on the day of the week. If it were to be the latter, it seems the appropriate response to the NSA spying allegations would have been: "We are certainly not naive enough to think that governments do not conduct espionage on one another. We want to assure the Brazilian people that we make every attempt to ensure the security of our communications both inside and outside the government." And in doing so, be done with the issue and move on.

Instead, Rousseff opted to be shocked that there was gambling going on in Rick's Café -- that countries spy on one another as a matter of course. Presumably, her intention was to make a statement on behalf of countries lacking the capacity to do the same (which certainly doesn't include Brazil) that such activity is an affront to sovereignty and unacceptable in a flatter world. (Good luck with that.)

Certainly, there is no shortage of modern, forward-thinking Brazilian leaders who are keen to embrace the challenges of globalization and are willing to do the heavy lifting required to make Brazil a consequential global player. Unfortunately, you will not find many at the powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is still dominated by those with a circa 1970s Third World "us-versus-them" mindset. With the United States in particular, they still see relations as a zero-sum game: Whatever is bad for the United States is good for them and vice versa.

With a commitment to freedom and democratic values, extraordinary natural resources, and a huge population, Brazil is a country that the world should welcome as a productive and positive contributor to global stability. But for now, the Brazilian political establishment is still working on that transition, and it will be done on their own terms and at their own pace. 

Still, one aspect of this disappointing turn of events is that Rousseff's snub might have been prevented if Obama had spent more time cultivating a closer relationship with her. He has certainly said the right things at the appropriate times, but there has been precious little serious follow-up. Obviously, in Rousseff's calculation, it came down to, "What do I have to lose?" Absent any meaningful cost to her government, she can afford to think small (i.e., domestic politics) in turning down a state visit to Washington.

What is more likely is that if there had actually been any stakes involved for her -- such as ongoing high-level engagement (other than the occasional POTUS salutation), meaningful bilateral economic cooperation, or other initiatives that demonstrate the very positive benefits of a robust bilateral relationship -- then Rousseff could have made a very different calculation. For now, however, the opportunity is lost and those in Brazil suspicious of the United States are ascendant, meaning that U.S.-Brazil relations won't soon recover.