For all the old talk of guaranteeing the sovereignty of these Pacific allies, more likely the Obama administration would come to some sort of agreement with China, as it did with Putin over Syria and Iran over its nuclear development, one widely praised in the West for its idealism, while privately scorned in the region as only empowering aggressors.
In the not-too-distant future, our allies in the Pacific will either cut a deal with China or themselves become nuclear powers. Of course, China, like Iran and Russia, is facing enormous internal pressures. It still cannot square the circle of state-sponsored free-market capitalism with a Communist dictatorship. Its demography is malignant. Its economy is more injurious to the environment than was that of the 19th-century West, and its imbalance in domestic wealth is akin to that of its own pre-revolutionary dynasties. Again, no matter: In the short term, a billion Chinese with a roaring export industry are making quite enough cash to mask intrinsic contradictions.
We sometimes forget that the rise of German and Japanese power in the 1930s was built on shaky economic assumptions, with both regimes’ perceived early military power often more bluster than fact. The Soviets flexed a lot of muscles into the Eighties without many Westerners’ realizing that Communism was imploding. Bin Laden did a lot of damage despite a Middle East that was on the brink of disaster. Aggressive regional hegemons historically are not necessarily fueled by economic power, vibrant demography, or long-term stability. Often the reverse is true.
What brought on the growing abdication of U.S. power? The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and our unwillingness or inability to guarantee stable postwar governments — turned the American public off the idea of preemptive intervention to thwart future terrorist attacks, let alone the notion that the worst sponsors of terrorism could be replaced by pro-American partners of the Maliki/Karzai sort.
Then there is our $17 trillion in national debt. Somehow also foreign policy has merged with domestic politics in a new symbiosis. It is hard to emulate the protocols of the EU without becoming the EU, and the insidious growth of a huge dependent class — half the American population not paying federal income tax, half on some sort of state help — has created a cultural climate in which every dollar spent on a jet interceptor is seen as a dollar taken out of the mouths of widows, orphans, and the deserving poor.
Thus millions of new recipients of federal help see American retrenchment not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. When President Obama flipped and flopped in Syria, he sensed rightly that the public did not care very much about hurting the Iranian axis, or helping moderate insurgents, or dealing with the humanitarian crisis of 100,000 dead; what it cared about far more was how much money such a commitment would cost, and whether it would come at the expense of social programs at home. Ensuring Sandra Fluke’s state-subsidized supply of birth-control pills becomes a far better collective investment than training a U.S. Marine for foreign deployment.
Critics of Obama’s inept foreign policy — the failed response to the Arab Spring, the failed reset with Russia, the failure to reassure allies and to deter enemies — mostly do not grasp that for half the country Obama’s weakness is seen as either a wise diversion of resources, or a proper distancing from the foreign version of our own undeserving 1 percent. In this regard, the old alliance with Israel will be especially subject to review. All that is left of it is an assumption that the U.S. will keep selling and resupplying military hardware to Tel Aviv. For the next three years, we should not necessarily count on that 50-year-old fact, should Israel preempt in Iran or find itself in another Lebanese war.