The Foreign Policy Hook

As the 2012 primary jockeying starts up — we should count our blessings that so many waited for June 2011 instead of the now-traditional June 2009 — most of the energy on the right is aimed at finding the best contender who won’t continue the spending binge on which our country has embarked. Given the numerous crises facing us, this makes a great deal of sense.

I therefore put the odds of a Draft Huckabee movement at 7-to-1.

With that said, the remaining elements of the Republican platform cannot be and should not be ignored: Social conservatism and foreign policy, the rights to hire and fire and work and quit, the free market — all of these things are important. I’m not clever enough to speak to most of these things, but foreign policy is an area the Obama Administration has left in shambles, and it needs immediate attention.

With the exception of Jon Huntsman — whose primary foreign policy accolades appear to come from the Chinese (that is not, actually, a compliment) — the current and likely field is very, very short on foreign policy experience. It is therefore imperative to identify the candidate who can actually come to grips with the challenges the world presents, or at least do a passable show of successful on-the-job training. Native intelligence is not the important factor here, as this Administration has done a remarkable job of botching its foreign policy portfolio everywhere Richard Holbrooke had no authority despite having at its head someone we have been assured is smarter than Marilyn Vos Savant. President Reagan, whom everyone thought a dunce, spent his life preparing for the role, and gave us the model.

Whatever the it-factor is, we’re going to need it.

The Middle East is going to be a headache for every President for decades, much as every President since Truman has experienced an ongoing migraine from dealing with it. This will be true whether it’s Israel finally being tired of threats of nuclear annihilation and deciding to use a total-quality-management approach to its foreign policy, or the nutcases in Iran deciding to scratch the itch of anti-Semitism once and for all (leading again to that TQM approach from Israel), or another Iran-Iraq war, or, golly, any number of things. President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech was not, as was popularly perceived, an attempt to cast a new consensus, but rather an admission that he is simply not up to grappling with the region in any meaningful way. The Middle East is, to borrow a phrase from a wise man who wisely borrowed the phrase from another wise man, a known unknown.

More important — and more quantifiable — will be the next President’s ability to manage American foreign policy interests in Asia. There are few unknowns, but the knowns are troubling enough.

The last years of China’s ascent are upon us, as the Han fascists are flexing their military muscles while they still have enough young men to power their nascent military machine. China’s economy is going to continue to grow rapidly for as long as possible, because Beijing’s regime decided sometime around, oh, say, 1989, that rapid economic development at any cost was the price for continued survival. The result of eating so much seed corn, and not bothering to have babies for thirty-odd years, will only begin to take its toll after 2017; the issue is therefore how to deal with an increasingly bellicose China that desperately wants attention, recognition, hegemony, and respect, especially in the area that it perceives as its historic stomping ground — Southeast Asia.

It is here that the Obama Administration has done the most damage. More or less the entire area understands that it is American naval and ground commitments that have kept the peace on the ground and in the waterways for decades; and where nations have voluntarily committed themselves to commendable, voluntary international law to resolve their disputes (as Cambodia and Thailand have recently done), it is in the light of an American peace that has made intra-regional and international trade lucrative enough to make war simply not worth doing.

But China as hegemon cannot and will not be so benevolent as an American hegemony. China has claims that extend into and envelop islands and whole nations, and China’s history makes clear that even when it comes bearing peace, it still expects a kowtow. Over the last several years, China’s importance as a trade power has been matched more and more by its importance as a military one, as its navy has expanded its reach into blue water.

The Obama Administration, seeing critical trade routes and trading partners beginning to fall under China’s sway, has done exactly what we should have expected. The vacuum of American authority is dangerous not because it makes China’s rise more pronounced, but because it makes conflict more likely. America does not want war, for moral and practical reasons. China wants a sufficient lack of hostility that it can export its goods to the world and be the center of the region. The difference is critical.

In the absence of overt expressions of American hegemony, regional blocs are attempting to maintain something resembling the status quo. ASEAN, originally so many self-important chatterers and tyrants attempting to throw around their weight during the height of the Cold War, has slowly morphed into a more respectable gathering of democracies and not-as-bad powers intent on regional trade and development.

In this context, efforts like Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak’s to introduce a new dynamic to the region must be viewed as a net positive. Faced with a rising China and a withdrawing China, Najib’s call for ASEAN’s influence to grow, China’s to be seen as (and to act as) a benevolent power, and the United States to remain engaged in the region is a terribly clever piece of Realpolitik: It explicitly appeals to American and Chinese pride in their pasts while calling on them to act harmoniously into the future. That it promotes ASEAN as a force for stability and progress in the region is an added bonus, and a gentle reminder to both the U.S. and the P.R.C. that someone must keep piracy at bay and trade routes open. The entire speech is not, as some have cast it, an attempt to call for non-alignment as to China and the U.S., but rather a shrewd recognition that the world is becoming multipolar, and for everyone’s good, the same principles that animated the American peace must animate the multipolar world.

This can be nothing more than a band-aid, though. American neglect of the region will and must have long-term consequences for regional peace and stability, and for global free trade, a rising tide that has truly lifted all boats. Joint military exercises with rising regional powers will not transform those regional powers into potential hegemons. At some point, America must be America again. We do not play global cop because we want to rule the world, we play global cop because we know that a world under the Pax Americana is a better world for everyone, including us.

For all our sakes, let us hope a candidate who not only mouths, but understands this, steps forward soon.