Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The nuclear summit is merely a small win for Obama, in face of huge challenges in foreign policy

Edited version of this blog has been posted on China US Focus and re-posted in Asia times.

By initiating and organizing the nuclear security summit, history might just decide that President Obama’s show of statesmanship was worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize hastily bestowed on him at the beginning of his presidency. The Norway based peace prize committee could hardly wait to show the warmongering axis of hubris, namely Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, the exit door and anoint the incoming president as the peacemaker to be.

Whereas his predecessor’s reign depended on confrontation and intimidation to get their way around the world, Obama at least seemed to recognize that uncontrolled proliferation of fissionable material was not in America’s interest. While the former administration thought shock and awe was enough to maintain world order, Obama at least saw that the problem was too big for any one country, even a superpower, to handle alone.

At the just concluded nuclear summit, the fourth in a series initiated by him, Obama welcomed more than 50 world leaders emphasizing collaboration and cooperation. He wanted a united world to work against terrorist groups, in his word, to prevent the world’s most dangerous networks from obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Obama honored China’s leader Xi Jinping with the only one-on-one side meeting at the summit. Xi returned the favor by reaffirming his support for Obama’s effort to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. To show bilateral solidarity, the two parties issued a 10-point joint statement, in which, among other things, was the agreement to establish a training center in Beijing related to nuclear security, with assistance from the U.S., that would serve as a regional training center for other countries. Both leaders also affirmed that the two countries would work together to prevent smuggling of nuclear materials and to continue the collaboration after the conclusion of the summit.

Somehow it’s almost impossible for the U.S. not to insist on having its way on some other issues in lieu of pure collaboration between peer nations. In the case of Xi’s latest visit, on the one hand the Obama administration welcomed Xi and enumerated the common ground between the two nations. But at the same time, the White House spokesman assured the public that in the closed-door meeting, Obama fully intended to bring up matters related to human rights, South China Sea and cyber security.

Even when the U.S. is looking to work closely with another, the U.S. seems to expect, even insists, that Americans reserve the right to criticize as the working relationship plods along.

Apparently, Obama has not discovered that mixing the spirit of collaboration with a dollop of confrontation is not the best way of building international trust. A clear example is the absence of Vladimir Putin at the summit. Although Obama spokesperson professed being puzzled by Putin’s absence, it’s obvious that no one would feel welcomed while regarded as an enemy. MK Bhadrakumar rather undiplomatically pointed out in his commentary[1] that 97% of the world’s nuclear stockpile is under military control and not having Russia present takes away any meaningful substance from the summit.

Rightly, Obama is most concerned over nuclear weapons or radioactive material falling into terrorists’ hands. Yet it is his approach to dealing with terrorism in the Middle East that is most muddled. Former DoD official and one time member of the National Security Council, Christina Lin, calls it a schizophrenic approach[2]: the US fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan while arming al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, arming Shiíte militia in Iraq while arming Sunni militia against them in Syria. To boot, the US is arming Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS while selling new weapons to Turkey to bomb the Iraqi Kurds fighting ISIS.

In Lin’s piece, she also pointed out that the U.S. is also asking China to join in the fight against radical Islam at the expense of China’s own interests. The U.S. is supporting an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria because this group is aiming to topple Assad. There may be a thousand Uighurs from China fighting in this group, and thus hardly a group China would want to be allied. She said, “It isn’t clear why Washington believes China would join the US-led coalition that supports anti-Chinese militants.”

I think America’s unrealistic insistence that all other nations follow the U.S. even against their own self-interest comes from the my-way-or-the-highway legacy mindset that Obama has inherited from his predecessor and has not disavowed. We see the same mentality with regard to North Korea. Washington’s response to each new North Korean nuclear development is to impose harsher sanctions and increase the tension. Washington seems oblivious to China’s dilemma, which is not wishing to see a nuclear Korean peninsula but also not wanting a collapse of the North Korean regime. As I have suggested previously, the U.S. need to rethink about this situation. Obama is betting on an alignment with Japan and South Korea to pressure North Korea, which isn’t going to work. Only by including China on the alliance is there hope.[3]

Obama is not without some originality in his approach to foreign policy. In the waning days of his term of office, he has struck a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran and he has taken his family to visit Cuba (though he couldn’t resist commenting on Cuba’s human rights problem to Raul Castro, but Castro was tactful enough not to respond by comparing Cuba’s long established universal health care program with the one on life-support in the U.S.)

So long as he is willing to take independent courses of action in U.S. foreign policy, Obama should consider leaving a lasting legacy for his successor by overhauling the basis for dealing with China. Instead of confronting China by thinking of what to do with China or what China should do to satisfy the U.S., he should think about how and why getting along with China is in the American self interest.

From Ukraine southward through the Middle East to sub-Sahara Africa, by my back of the envelope calculation, roughly 1/7th of the earth land mass and 1/8th of the population is facing strife and turmoil. Except for Ukraine, all of the other parts of the region stem from conflict between nation states and radical Islam. Through interventionist misadventures in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, the U.S. has been a major contributing factor in the unrest and has proven incapable of maintaining peace and order by its own effort. Terrorism arising from religious fanaticism is the common enemy of all nations. It’s time for the U.S. to swallow some pride and admit that America needs to put ideology aside and work with all nations to combat a common adversary.

China has a non-confrontational approach to international relations and can be an effective partner in complementing the U.S. in anti-terrorism efforts. China has been able to bring the Taliban and the Afghan government to the table for an exchange of views and discussion, something the U.S. could never do. Through its one-belt and one-road initiatives, China is working with countries from Asia to Africa and Europe on infrastructure projects that promise to improve the livelihood of the local people and thus remove a motivation for suicide bombers.

Europe (led by U.K.[4]) has long recognized the merits of getting along with China even if the U.S. has been slow on the uptake. Just the opposite is happening with Washington. As Lin pointed out, despite the U.S. national debt approaching $21 trillion, the U.S. defense outlay has not made the world a safer place. With enough real fires to put out around the world, it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to double down by sending two fleets to South China Sea and roil the waters there. Aside from burning a lot of money in the process, and adding a new incendiary spot to the world map, it’s going to hamper working with China on truly critical issues.