The foreign policy docket of President Barack Obama’s second term seems to be giving short shrift to the security threats of the next four years. This is not merely because the US intelligence and defence agencies continue to be wracked with scandal, thanks to Generals David Petraeus and John Allen.
This has everything to do with foreign policy priorities. On one side of the hemisphere, across the Pacific Ocean, the US is prioritising old methods of naval warfare and trade isolationism. On the other side of the hemisphere, across the Atlantic, it’s prioritising newer – and completely unchecked – air assaults, primarily through ramped-up drone warfare. The heavy troops-based, boots-on-the-ground approach is on the back burner, at least for the next four years.
How do these two new tacks miss the mark in dealing with global security threats? First, on Asia and the Pacific, the US doesn’t seem to be reading the right messages. Myanmar, for example, opened up its doors not because of US sanctions, though they may have been a small deterrent to a continued clampdown by the government now in Naypyidaw.
Myanmar was motivated more by regional influences, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the trading implications and consequences of continued reform-related recalcitrance.
Economic and military lessons
In Myanmar, the United States’ economic lesson awaits. If the Obama administration is to pivot to Asia, it had better understand the subtle sinews that intersect its cultures and its sub-continents. In leading the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade bloc that includes 11 nations but excludes China, the US sets a dangerous precedent, one that immediately alienates a critical trading ally.
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The TPP is a foolish move – not simply because it overlooks environmental and labour standards that should be a part of any fair trade package, but also because China has now surpassed the US as the leading trading partner in the world.
One hundred and twenty-four nations consider China to be their largest trading partner, while only 76 nations claim the US as their largest. This is a complete switch from six years ago, when the US was the largest trading partner for 127 nations and China only claimed 70. The times are quickly changing.
Keeping China out of the TPP, therefore, does much to alienate other nations and little to further the United States’ economic security. In an unsurprising response to the TPP, a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade bloc is being established that encompasses 16 nations, including all of ASEAN and China, but not the United States.
We first set the dangerous precedent of exclusion, which is now being replicated in response, to the endangerment of our trade-based economy. Don’t get me started on how bombastic we are with China on the currency front, given similar US involvement in manipulation of markets and the fact that China owns over a trillion dollars’ worth of our debt. Antagonism is not helpful here.
The United States’ military lesson in the Asia-Pacific region is equally telling. When the United States’ greatest potential adversary in Asia – that is, China – has only one aircraft carrier, which it purchased from Ukraine, there is little justification for a shift towards a US Navy ramp-up.
More US ships patrolling already-controversial waters, be they in the South China Sea or near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, will not help resolve intra-continental land and sea disputes, nor will it advance the US’ interests or allies.
There is suspicion in Washington that this “pivot to Asia” was merely a financial gift to the Navy, since it hadn’t seen funding increases on par with other armed forces. Defence contractors, already flush with cash from a cowed Congress, now have new frontiers to fund, retrofit and profiteer from.
The American public is wary of more ground and air forces going into Afghanistan and Iraq, but their appetite for other means of warfare, including drones, are not yet exhausted.
Instead of moving Asia disputes and trans-pacific relations towards trade and legal structures that are more comprehensive and international in nature, the US, in its pivot, shows how unimaginative and Cold War it remains in its thinking. There is no new innovation or multilateralism here. This is unfortunate.
The US, more than ever before, must find a way to partner with China on the real emerging threats caused by growing populations, consumption and carbon emissions – that of climate change, global health pandemics and food security. These issues are hardly on the US radar, which was particularly evident in the recent climate talks in Doha, Qatar.
When these topics are off the Oval Office’s agenda, they tend to fall off other nations’ radar as well, with the possible exception of the European Union, which continues to lead on climate change.
Second, across the Atlantic, the move by the Obama administration to radically ramp up its drone warfare programme – throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia – brings with it serious concerns about transparency, legality and efficacy. This is a modern version of the assassination-minded CIA of the mid-to-late 20th century.
The Pentagon and the CIA – both of whom regularly carry out secretive drone warfare – think that the US can assassinate its way out of the enemy list. The “kill list” in the White House is predicated on the thinking that if you behead the snake, the fiendish foe’s life is forfeited. This is far from the truth.
More drone kills operated from US-based laptops won’t fix the environments that create the context for angry young men to do ill against the US – far from it. In fact, the inexact nature of US drone strikes – which don’t require exact targets or evidence, don’t result in exact kills and don’t exclude innocent civilians – generate more, not less, hostility towards the US.
If the US really wanted to fix the context that creates anti-American recruits, be it in Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Central and South Asia, or the Middle East, then it would spend its way toward eradicating the plagues – of poverty, food and water scarcity, illiteracy and unemployment – that pervade these regions.
Yet very little of our foreign affairs funds, or emergency monies sent to contingency operations, go to this critical effort. Compare the entire State Department and US Agency for International Development budgets – of roughly $50bn – to the monthly defence bill for the Afghanistan war effort alone, of $10bn a month.
If we are to take seriously that which stokes ideological fires, inspires discontent and makes for a volatile concoction in the poorest parts of the planet, then we had better think, and act, differently going forward.
Serious security threats
“More drone kills operated from US-based defence laptops won’t fix the environments that create the context for angry young men to do ill against the US – far from it.”
According to the National Intelligence Council’s latest report:
“The greatest strain within and between countries could be the struggle for resources – food, water and energy – and climate change could severely affect the ability to produce sufficient quantities of each. Demand for food, water and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40 and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class.”
More ships and drones won’t make a more secure United States, not when so much of the world is getting hotter, poorer, and more crowded, and when resources are getting scarcer. Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent on bunker-busting bombs is money wasted on a superfluous political game, driving by defence contractors in search for a new dollar, the latest of which has clearly come from the Asia pivot.
To tackle the most grave and serious security threats requires that everyone is at the table – and that includes China and the most antagonistic of Middle East adversaries – to discuss how we’re going to feed a growing 7 billion person population, keep the planet cool enough to avoid climate catastrophe and ensure that we avoid the easy spread of global pandemics. This must be the US’ focus, not some payoff to ship- or drone-making contractors, nor a political pander to the latest fear-mongering media campaign.
Whether Obama takes the high road here depends not solely on the depths of his conscience, but also on the public’s proclivity to push for something mightier than the sword. We are at that juncture now, let’s hope the non-political play wins the day.
Michael Shank is adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.