Yesterday’s news from Australia suggests that Obama is shifting our strategic priorities toward the Pacific region. If this were to imply a parallel shift away from the Middle East, it would be good for all concerned.
Look at the globe. The Middle East is central. It shares the Mediterranean with Europe, which lies at the center of the land hemisphere. It’s the crossroads between Europe, Africa, and Central and South Asia. All these three regions share a concern based on proximity to the Middle East that neither China nor the US can claim. The US preoccupation with the Middle East in recent years is based on three facts: our rapidly diminishing status as the world’s superpower, Israel’s influence, and oil. If we want to take a long term, multi-decade view of our geopolitical interests, none of these concerns is likely to endure, at least in its present form .
China is a land power and America by geographical happenstance is more of a sea power, but we share the luxury of being relatively distant from the unusually complex political and strategic problems centered on the Middle East. A visitor from another planet might consider us fortunate in that we could each concentrate relatively easily on our own peripheral regions. Let the Europeans cope with the Muddle East, along with Turks and Russians and other neighbors. Sauve qui peut.
The USA is still the preeminent military power with a recent role as world hegemon. It will not be easy for either the American public or its government to adjust to a new world order in which this role becomes increasingly unsustainable, but that is what is bound to happen. The key question is whether America will accept a reduced role gracefully.
China faces a similar question, rather the reverse, in that it is becoming a world power but has yet to define the extent to which it will choose to translate that power into global influence. For the next couple of decades, China’s strategy seems to be aimed at avoiding foreign adventures that might curtail its efforts to develop its society internally and its business ties abroad. The exception is that in its immediate neighborhood, it will insist that its role be at least the first among equals. It is by no means established that China and the USA are on a collision course.
Now the USA is at least symbolically reaffirming its interest the Far East by announcing an enlargement of its strategic relationship with Australia. To the extent this merely reaffirms a strategic interest in the region that was already there, not too much need be read into it. A few Marines in Darwin are nothing compared to the military power the US already has in bases in Japan and Korea. Australia is peripheral to the region in any case. It also enjoys a relation with our country that resembles kinship to an extent that no other nation (except New Zealand) in the whole East Asian region enjoys.
It could be argued that this apparently meaningless gesture can facilitate America’s strategic withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, in that it will make it harder for the administration’s critics to lambaste Obama for cutting back in the Middle East. But will the Chinese take it that way? The issue is larger than yesterday’s news from Australia. Are the USA and China drifting into a position where they really will be on a collision course, and does this latest ploy constitute a step in that direction?
Great nations, like many mammals, tend to fight when two of them are shut up in the same pen. We have never managed to figure out why war is so important and even inevitable as a regularly recurring phenomenon in our long history and prehistory. The evidence, however, is indisputable. There is something in human nature that makes men want to fight. It seems to be an inevitable catalyst for the process of establishing ever larger units of governance, a process that leads to what is sometimes known as civilization. Recent studies of evolution as a process that underlies societal as well as individual development may help us understand the war phenomenon, but we aren’t there yet. Are China and the USA destined to fight? The jury is still out.
There is some basis for guarded optimism. With more understanding of the processes that lead to war, and with a little bit of luck, and some rationality on each side, constructive coexistence could be maintained long enough for humanity as a whole to pass a critical threshold, and achieve that degree of unity that would at long last usher in the utopian vision of a world that is capable of containing conflicts. Perhaps not a world entirely at peace, but at least a world sensible enough to avoid a superpower war that could send civilization into oblivion. We Americans waited out the Soviets. Maybe if we are patient enough, we can do the same with the Chinese.
Meanwhile, during what can be expected to be a protracted period of rivalry that hasn’t reached the level of hostility, there is plenty of scope for the amateur geopolitician with access to a globe to postulate scenarios. Here’s one that intrigues me, out of the thousands of possibilities:
Global warming lurches into high gear, with the planet heating up faster than almost anyone had foreseen. Climate changes almost everywhere; there are some winners and more than a few losers. Tropical areas take the worst hits, while Canada and Russia become the new frontiers. China and the USA scramble for augmented energy sources so that they can create air-conditioned bubbles around their cities. But not all eyes are looking north for salvation, or to new energy sources. Behold, Antarctica emerges from its own ice age, over twice the size of either the USA or China, a refreshingly cool Garden of Eden beckoning the overheated and frazzled populations to the north. Any party that holds title to a chunk of that prime real estate has it made.
In that context, for the US to start now to build a stronger strategic relationship with Australia makes good sense. (And, by extension, New Zealand). There are many other arguments, of course, more proximate and more compelling, for and against Obama’s latest move. I don’t want to compete with the established pundits on this issue. Instead, I merely ask that you rest your eyes, tired with all that fine print, and gaze over the horizon, into the far future, at what might come to pass, and imagine…
Carl Coon 11/18/11