America's clout: That shrinking feeling | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 06, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 06, 2011

America's clout: That shrinking feeling

In recent months, America's top officials have been trying to stress their commitment to the Asia-Pacific. Writing in Yomiuri Shimbun recently, the United States' new Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said defence ties between the US and Japan would only increase as Washington increased its engagement to Asia.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has sought to address Asian fears of US retrenchment by saying the US would back up its regional commitments "with action."
"We can, and we will," she wrote in an essay titled "America's Pacific Century."
The problem with such firm talk is that it is arising due to American decline.
There is also a paradox here: The more Americans talk about their commitment to Asia, the more Asians will think about its commitment amid its decline.
Think of the Europeans as they seek to demonstrate resolve amid the Eurozone's bid to bail out troubled member states such as Greece: the more they talk about "comprehensive solutions," the more investors will think about default.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, America no longer bestrides the world like a colossus. As Fareed Zakaria writes in The Post-American World, America no longer holds the title of having the world's tallest building (Taipei), the world's biggest refinery (India) and the biggest publicly traded company (China).
The recent deadlock in Congress over raising the US debt ceiling has only exacerbated fears of a decline, not from without, but from within. Closer to Asia, America's military prowess is increasingly challenged by China. The best example here is Taiwan.
According to a 2009 report by Rand Corp, a US think-tank, America will no longer be able to defend Taiwan against Chinese attacks, even with its advanced F-22 fighters.
To compound matters, Asians no longer view that paragon of American power -- Nimitz-class aircraft carriers -- with the same kind of deference. Recently, a US diplomat told me he was gobsmacked that some Asian journalists had rejected an offer of an exclusive assignment on a Nimitz-class carrier. "I offered them an exclusive. What in the world is happening?" he asked. Perhaps Nimitz-class carriers have lost their cachet.
Most arguments for America's decline are variations of the same theme. The summa theologica of the declinist school is Prof. Paul Kennedy's Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers: Economic Change And Military Might From 1500 To 2000. His 1987 work declared that America would go the way of Spain and Great Britain and suffer "imperial overstretch" when its commitments surpass its resources.
Some perspective, however, is needed.
As Mark Twain would say, news about America's decline can be exaggerated. The Royal Navy began its decline in the late 19th century, but Britain still went on to fight and win two world wars.
More importantly, power does not always translate into outcomes, as Harvard don Joseph Nye argues. Despite its surfeit of power, it could not prevent the "loss" of China, a defeat by North Vietnam or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.
The converse is also true: The clever use of limited power can lead to preferred outcomes. Britain remains a pale shadow of itself, but it recently led a successful campaign in Libya. Last year, the US won many friends -- and invited China's ire -- when it called for a multilateral solution to the South China Sea dispute.
Although America's decline will occur gradually, Asian countries need to start thinking about the implications of such a decline, given that American primacy and Asian prosperity have been joined at the hip in the past six decades.
Last year, Prof Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, sparked off much controversy when he argued that the US should abandon its primacy in Asia and share power with China.
Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor at The Australian, called it the "single, stupidest strategic document ever prepared in Australian history." He added that the US is already sharing power with China, as well as countries such as Japan and India.
Sheridan has a point -- superpowers do not yield their hegemony by design; rather they lose it by default.
That said, no one can be sure which route Sino-US interactions will take in the end. Writing in International Security, a Harvard journal, Professor Randall Schweller and Xiaoyu Pu said they will likely fall into three modes: China could act as a spoiler to replace US hegemony; the two powers could act in concert (the widely speculated G-2); or China could be a shirker, reaping as much gains as it can under the current system of US hegemony before it shapes a world order on its own terms.
To their credit, Asian countries are already mulling over such post-American futures. Spooked by North Korean aggression, Japan has mulled over securing its own nuclear arsenal. Australia has signed an agreement to host US forces on Australian soil. According to analysts, Singapore has become a quasi-ally to the US but cultivated strong ties to China.
A lot more reflection, however, will need to be carried out in the decades ahead. As White writes: "We should all prefer American power to endure unchallenged indefinitely, but good policy requires us to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be."

© The Straits Times, Singapore. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.

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