- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
President Obama didn’t get any concessions during his recent visit to the People’s Republic of China, and no one should be surprised. One of the most important lessons in life is that if you make a series of big mistakes, you should expect to pay a price for them. Back in 2000, the United States was running a budget surplus, our military was second-to-none, our image in most parts of the world was quite positive, and our economy had been growing steadily for nearly a decade. Some of that growth may have been illusory, however, and the next eight years featured a daunting combination of misfortunes (9/11, Hurricane Katrina), and self-inflicted wounds (e.g., the financial crisis, the invasion of Iraq, the endless war in Afghanistan, the abandonment of any sense of fiscal responsibility, etc.). There’s no magic button or clever diplomatic sleight of hand that will allow the United States to retrieve its former position without some real sacrifices, and so far, nobody seems eager to make the changes that might be necessary.
Hence Obama’s modest demeanor in Beijing. No president is going to be able to lay down the law on human rights, exchange rates, or sanctions on Iran when China owns over a trillion dollars in U.S. assets, when the U.S. economy is on life support, and when the American military Is mired in two losing wars. Until we get our house in order over here, nobody should expect China to be especially responsive to our wishes or expect its leaders to view the “American model” as especially appealing. An wide-open marketplace of ideas hardly looks attractive when the result is the intellectual ascendancy of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
The follies of the past eight years were the greatest gift the United States could have given Beijing, and Obama’s conduct in Beijing was the inevitable result. And if we keep doing what we’ve been doing (see under: Afghanistan, Middle East, etc.), I wouldn’t expect things to change.
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