The Conventional Wisdom is Schizoid about U.S. Global Power

The conventional wisdom about America’s global standing wants to have it both ways.  The narrative about last month’s fiscal melodrama in Washington emphasizes how wildly dysfunctional domestic politics are quickening the country’s strategic decline and how China is emerging as the beneficiary.  Yet at the same time the outrage over U.S. global surveillance efforts has produced a contrary image – a technology and security hegemon run amok.

As I note in a new article for Asia Sentinel, the conventional wisdom embodied in the first perception has been consistently wrong about China’s ability to translate its huge financial holdings into policy leverage vis-à-vis the United States.  Curiously, this is a fear shared all along the ideological spectrum within the United States. 

Sarah Palin, the matron of the Tea Party movement, expressed this sentiment the other week when she spoke about the danger of borrowing so heavily from China and warned that “We are going to [be] beholden to the foreign master.”  But Barack Obama famously sounded the same theme during the Senate’s debt ceiling debate in March 2006 when he cautioned that “the more we depend on foreign nations to lend us money, the more our economic security is tied to the whims of foreign leaders whose interests might not be aligned with ours.”

Mr. Obama carried this line into his first presidential campaign.  In July 2008, he argued that taking out “a credit card from the Bank of China” was “unpatriotic.”  A few months earlier, he talked about the changing dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship and conceded that:

It’s very hard to tell your banker that he’s wrong. And if we are running huge deficits and big national debts and we’re borrowing money constantly from China, that gives us less leverage. It give us less leverage to talk about human rights, it also is giving us less leverage to talk about the uneven trading relationship that we have with China.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton picked up this line, privately fretting about “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” and suggesting to news media that traditional concerns about human rights had to be put aside in order to work with Beijing on the global economic crisis.

Others, too, joined the chorus.  Two years ago, economic policy expert Arvind Subramanian colorfully opined that America’s growing financial dependence would eventually allow China to oust the United States from its long-established military position in the western Pacific (– a view he has now quietly revised).  And Peter D. Kiernan, a former Goldman Sachs partner, sounded the alarm about how America risked becoming Beijing’s bitch. 

There is no question that the United States needs to get its financial house in order.  The Congressional Budget Office warns in a new report, for example, that America’s long-term fiscal posture looks increasingly shaky.  But the widespread angst about the deteriorating financial balance of power between the United States and China is wildly overplayed.

Overwrought, too, was the instant analysis about how last month’s U.S. government shutdown and debt ceiling debate is another signpost on the path to strategic decline.  Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example contended that “American political dysfunction is hastening the emergence of a post-American world.”  Yet for all of the histrionics in Washington, it’s worth noting that the yield on ten-year U.S. Treasury bills hardly moved and the risk of a sovereign debt default was exceedingly small.  Noteworthy, too, is that just six months earlier Haass was bucking prevailing opinion and proclaiming that “we could already be in the second decade of another American century.”

The conventional wisdom is a temperamental thing even in the hands of the most skilled experts.  This becomes clear when examining the hue and cry over the National Security Agency’s global electronic snooping.  The general image here is of a highly-organized and well-equipped government taking full advantage of its country’s capacity for technological innovation and big-data processing to develop the world’s most sophisticated surveillance network. 

Whatever one thinks of their utility, legality and propriety, the NSA’s overseas capabilities are astoundingly impressive: monitoring the personal communications of scores of government leaders around the world; scooping up on a monthly basis hundreds of millions of digital communications in Europe alone; ingesting a daily tsunami of data on worldwide banking and credit-card transactions; and harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts around the world. 

As the New York Times put it recently, the NSA is “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities” which has “an almost unlimited agenda.  Its scale and aggressiveness are breathtaking.”  The distinguished European pundit Josef Joffe notes that the message sent to the rest of the world by the unconstrained exercise of such vast power is “We do it because we can.”

True, disclosures about the NSA’s feats have dented America’s reputation and perhaps undercut its more tangible diplomatic and economic interests.  But it is also the case that the global outrage is partly rooted in envy, as Bernard Koucher, a former French foreign minister made clear in a radio interview: “The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us.  Let’s be honest.  We eavesdrop, too.  Everyone is listening to everyone else.  But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”

Just a decade ago, the conventional wisdom fancied the United States as an űberpower that could easily afford to disregard the sensibilities of its closest allies.  Just a few years later, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the perception shifted radically to a wearying hegemon about to be outpaced by China.  And sometimes, as the last month or so illustrates, it just seems can’t make up its mind.

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