Tuesday, May 8

The crumbling Core

Overview: the more inclusionary the United States tries to be in multilateral approaches, the more unclear our values and aims.

I asked ZenPundit Mark Safranski for his comments on my post, US 21st century foreign policy and wrong application of game theory, which references a column by Fareed Zakaria titled Losing Another War in Asia. Mark's reply focused on Thailand, one of the two countries that Fareed Zakaria mentioned in the course of passing along the observation that Asian leaders are reluctant to take measures seen as pro-American. Mark also zeroed in on remarks by Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong about US policy on Israel. To recap Lee's remarks:
[Lee] reminded [Zakaria] that nearly half of Southeast Asia's population is Muslim and said, "The single most important thing that the U.S. could do to shift its image in the region would be to take a more active role on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and in a balanced way. The issue is more important for Southeast Asia's Muslims than even Iraq."
"Hi, Miss P:
Singapore's critical G2G American relationship is with PACOM, not State. On the military boards I frequent and in reader email from active duty personnel, I hear nothing but praise for "The Singhs." As sailors have much to gripe about these days with nannyish Navy policies, it's a high compliment.

[However] Prime Minister Lee comes from a country with a stern record of summarily hanging infiltrators who are agents of disorder, including Muslim terrorists. They even elevated one instance in the 60's to international law precedent, their high court citing our Ex Parte Quirin decision. But most Americans are unaware of such things, including, I'm sure many people in our foreign affairs community.

Lee's statements sound nice for Singapore's large Muslim neighbors, which is why, in my view, he said it. After all, it costs Singapore nothing for its PM to prattle on with Mr. Zakaria; sacrificing some real Singaporean interest to get America to jerk Israel around is out of the question.

Thailand is a Buddhist nation with a shadowy Salafist insurgency bleed-over from Malaysia. They don't give a hang about the Palestinians and the Thai army is capable of effective counterinsurgency with American aid. So far, internal politics in Bangkok has occupied the senior generals' attention but if the army is forced to react, much like with the influx of Cambodians in the 70's, it will camp on the border if necessary.

Zakaria may be a better writer of prose than an analyst. Or he's spinning. I don't read him often enough though to tell.

Dear Mark:
I recalled that you're interested in group dynamics and human networks, which I suppose is why I hoped you'd help me work through my intuitions about Zakaria's piece. Yet I was so busy trying to figure out what Zakaria is really driving at that I neglected to consider the context in which Lee was advising him on Asian matters; your observations fill in the blanks.

That Zakaria didn't make an effort to mention Singapore's position suggests that he wasn't trying to analyze Lee's remarks; he simply found them handy to his argument that the US government needs to do more to woo Asia.

What does "doing more" entail? Zakaria holds up China's approach to foreign relations as a model.
Beijing has become remarkably adept at using its political and economic muscle in a patient, low-key and highly effective manner. China's diplomacy emphasizes its core strengths -- a long-term perspective, a nonpreachy attitude and strategic decision-making that isn't bogged down by internal opposition or bureaucratic paralysis.

Over the last decade, for example, China has greatly improved its historically tense relations with Southeast Asia. It's taken a more accommodating political line, provided generous aid packages (often far outstripping those provided by the United States) and moved speedily on a free-trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Japan wanted to cut a similar deal but has dithered, racked by power struggles between political and bureaucratic factions in Tokyo. The United States can't even begin such a conversation with ASEAN because we will not talk to Burma. One result: this summer China plans to hold military exercises with some of these countries, most of which have been U.S. allies for decades. [...]
Zakaria goes on to say that "no one is comfortable with an Asia dominated by China" then turns to Lee for advice on how the US might become more popular in Southeast Asia. In part that's what prompted my remark that the world is not high school.

The other part is what keeps me pacing the floor and asking myself why I'm so bent out of shape by Zakaria's piece -- and I'm not satisfied with my dig about a misapplication of game theory, whether or not it's correct.

Zakaria's observations are part of a cacophony of advice arising from many quarters that boils down to the need for the US to be more multilateral and more accommodating to a vaunted new multipolar world order. Perhaps Zakaria's most telling remark is:
Few people in Asia are actively pining for "the Chinese Dream" because it's not really clear what that is -- and to the extent that there is one it sounds suspiciously like the American Dream.
It is very easy for China to present itself as being in sync with the American Dream because the United States and China are big trading partners; both are members of big multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank; and the US seeks China's help in multilateral negotiations such as the six party talks.

Multilateralism works to the extent that there is a cohesive group with a cohesive agenda. It collapses when the group has unlimited membership with wildly different and even starkly opposing agendas. This is exactly what has happened at the World Bank, UN, WTO, and to a lessor extent NATO.

A multilateral approach can be effective when the goal is carefully circumscribed, as in the Sharm el-Sheikh summit on the UN international compact with Iraq; there the goal was simply to internationalize help to Iraq. Yet I think Zakaria's advice is symbolic of a policy movement in Washington that applies multilateralism indiscriminately, or grossly distorts the concept. They sound like high school students who feel they can't survive unless they merge their identity with what they think is the prevailing view in the school halls.

The upshot is that Barnett's "Core" is in danger of collapsing under the law of unintended consequences -- a situation that the European Parliament is already wrestling with as more countries pile into the European Union. On the American front, a slapstick element is entering US policy decisions:

"Say, let's promote India and Brazil for the UN Security Council!" Oops, India and Iran are becoming big trade partners. And now our oldest European allies are worried that their influence at the UN will be lessened by the addition of newer powers. And what are we going to do about Brazil joining Hugo Chavez's Bank of the South?

The attempt to control or influence by inclusion is heading toward silliness, as witness Condoleezza Rice's recent remarks that Saudi Arabia's regime is "moderate" and "mainstream."

("What's moderate about Saudi Arabia?" [Natan] Sharansky demanded. "Its record of religious tolerance?")(1)

But State is convinced that the US needs Saudi Arabia to help resolve sectarian violence in Iraq, so calling the Saudi rulers moderate and mainstream is a nice way to rationalize making a tyranny a leader in helping Iraq's democracy. Yet each time the United States makes such accommodations, the more muddied US objectives seem to outside observers.

Of course this is not a perfect world, in particular for a superpower nation, and yet the more the US feels pressed to engage with despotic governments, the more care needed to distinguish US aims from those held by governments that oppose democracy.

So I think it's time to take a deep breath and review the context in which the US raised up large multilateral institutions. The world was a different place then; maintaining a Core that held together was relatively easy. But the very success of the Core from the mid-20th Century onward in bringing along many nations means that today, regionalism and bilateral agreements drive the policies of the rising powers -- and the developing nations they do big trade with. These policies understandably conflict with US aims in many ways, and attempts to accommodate the policies greatly dilute American policy objectives.

So what's the solution for the US? One approach would be to recast US multilateralism not according to a core of entities (nations) or trade practices but a core of shared values.

I have never heard a good argument against the US setting up an American international development bank, along the lines of the World Bank. There's no reason why the US couldn't set up such a bank, and make nation membership conditional on democratic government.

The same approach could be applied to creating a version of the United Nations that tags membership to democratic government.

In short don't abandon multilateralism, just abandon what it's become, which is a cauldron of democratic and anti-democratic aims with the latter overwhelming good policy initiatives by the democracies.

This does not necessarily mean abandoning membership in the World Bank or UN or multilateral trade agreements based on WTO criteria for inclusion. It means drawing a line at the dangerous premise that the democratic notion should be applied to the amount of say that nations have in a multilateral gathering. If it's "one nation, one vote" -- today a majority of the world's nations are nondemocratic and a solid majority among those are virulently anti-democratic.(2)

I think you are correct that the nature of multilateralism is changing and that we have not been doing very well in recognizing that fact.

Some of our political appointees are not entirely cognizant of the help other states could provide if they are properly incentivized (the French professional intel/ military folks, for example, should be well regarded). On the other hand, most of the SES level bureaucrats have outdated expectations of Europe that seem to have frozen around the time Pompidou was president of France.

The outward pressure provided by the Soviets that reinforced Western solidarity has vanished and, with the emergence of a vacuum, the Western states have drifted apart to an extent, following their national interests.

I think our best bet is to plan on crafting policies that attract allies on the basis of their economic self-interest (the more corrupt they are, the shorter the time horizon we should have in mind).

In my opinion we can gather a constellation of bystander-mendicant states to shout Kumbayah with us after we have attracted the help of the genuinely useful states like Australia or India (useful meaning "have troops who can and will stand and fight" -- in this sense a company of Peshmerga are worth a division of the Dutch).

Thomas Barnett divides the Core into "Old" (US, Western Europe, Japan) and "New" (Russia, India, China, E. Europe - Brazil is on the edge, a "seam" state, as is Turkey). Currently he sees the New Core as more pragmatic and having the initiative in setting the tone of emerging international rules, like China's "non-preachy" relationship with African horror states like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

I think we will see other New Core states imitate China's foreign policy stance as they do not have the resources on the margin to offer (or threaten) more. Barnett believes the U.S. has room to lead here but the current administration lacks the imagination to capitalize diplomatically on their recognized willingness to use force.

(I think the administration is deeply divided at the senior levels on strategic policy with Bush in the middle as reluctant and erratic arbiter.)

I do not think China is our friend or our enemy. A friend [...] once described the Sino-American relationship to me as "golden handcuffs." Our economy is now integral to the stability of the rule of the CCP, which has to produce a dramatic level of real GDP growth to maintain political legitimacy. They hedge their economic system with enormous dollar reserves. It is a bizarre symbiotic relationship that I'm not sure Nixon had entirely anticipated (certainly Mao did not).

Thanks for your additional comments. This is a fascinating discussion about a very important subject. So, while I am going to end this long post here, I will close with what I hope is a leading question: If there is a new core and old core, which is the core? Can there be two cores?

1) A Lasting Freedom Agenda, Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post

2) UN A Haven For Despots, Fred Gedrich, The Washington Times

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