The Decline Of American Foreign Policy

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 1, 2009

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When foreign leaders, news outlets, and commentators beat up on the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, the excoriations were front page news. When they beat up on the Obama Administration, one hears rather less about the criticism, but fortunately, Peter Wehner has his hear to the ground, finding out what the reviews are about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.

As one can readily tell from his post, the reviews aren’t kind.

I am not sure that I agree with Wehner’s notion that the Obama Administration is failing on the international front because it believes in self-abasement and the notion of American decline. To be sure, these sentiments may well be present in the Administration, but there is a more basic dynamic at issue; the Administration does not seem to understand the nature of America’s foreign policy interests, and does not seem to know how to pursue those interests. Additionally, the Administration seems to be caught up in the fashionable ideas of the moment when it comes to the issue of foreign policy, and does not appear willing to examine whether those ideas really have any kind of intellectual staying power.

Nowhere is this failure to think critically about foreign policy clichés more apparent than on the issue of the Administration’s approach to China. Over at the New Ledger’s brand-spanking-new foreign policy blog, Hegemon (which I encourage all and sundry to read), my friend and colleague Chris Badeaux kindly links to my own skeptical take on the supposed rise of China to superpower status, and follows up with a splendid analysis detailing why China may very well not be all that and a bag of chips. As Chris notes, the Chinese economy may well be built on foundations of sand, and China is facing a demographic timebomb.

Now, it would be nice if the Obama Administration grokked all of this. But it appears to be entranced by the idea of China as the new superpower, and instead of acting to help China nip its burgeoning problems in the bud–and preparing for the possibility that those problems will not be nipped in the bud–it acts as though China is, and will continue to be, a legitimate great power.

This approach can only end in tears for the reasons that Chris outlines; namely, a pronounced bout of deflation. And yet, the Obama Administration is doing nothing to prepare to step into the vacuum that will be left by a Chinese collapse. It is not augmenting America’s trade and economic presence in Asia. It is not working to engage in any kind of offshore balancing against China for the purpose of keeping the Chinese honest, and encouraging the rise and growth of other Asian nations that might be better placed in the long run to collectively fill China’s current role–without the Potemkin qualities that underline much of the Chinese role. The reasons to doubt China’s ability to emerge as a long-term great power are plain for all to see. Perhaps one may dispute the argument that China is not prepared for great power status, but it is an argument that must be grappled with in one form or another. And yet, the Obama Administration has shut its eyes and ears to that argument, refusing to consider it altogether.

Peter Wehner is right to point out that the Administration’s approach to foreign policy has not met with international approbation. But he overlooks the reason for the Administration’s failures thus far. It has less to do with an attitude of subservience, and more to do with the simple fact that when it comes to the crafting of an American grand strategy, the Administration appears to be over its head.

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