Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Soft power hit from two sides

As the Bush Administration ran roughshod over multilateralism, human rights and the U.S. Constitution, invading Iraq without international sanction and establishing its torture gulag, critics for years lamented the decline of U.S. influence throughout the world, its undercut authority to protest and deter human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation, and environmental depredation.

How ironic that a swifter and more tangible erosion of U.S. (and western) influence struck from a completely different -- and seemingly unrelated -- direction. Here's the FT's Martin Wolf, assessing one of many seismic effects of the world financial meltdown:
The ability of the west in general and the US in particular to influence the course of events will also be damaged. The collapse of the western financial system, while China’s flourishes, marks a humiliating end to the “uni-polar moment”. As western policymakers struggle, their credibility lies broken. Who still trusts the teachers?
In more detail, one of the erstwhile "students," the U.S.-trained president of the China Investment Corporation, Gao Xiqing, told James Fallows last December:
The simple truth today is that your economy is built on the global economy. And it’s built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries. So why don’t you come over and … I won’t say kowtow [with a laugh], but at least, be nice to the countries that lend you money.

Talk to the Chinese! Talk to the Middle Easterners! And pull your troops back! Take the troops back, demobilize many of the troops, so that you can save some money rather than spending $2 billion every day on them. And then tell your people that you need to save, and come out with a long-term, sustainable financial policy.

To an extent, this change is natural and healthy. The unipolar moment had to end; permanent domination of the world economy by a country with 5% of earth's population is not sustainable. Four billion people can't emerge from grinding poverty in a world where the U.S. controls a quarter of the world's wealth. In the short term, too, the financial crisis has heightened U.S. power, since the great emerging economies (and several wealthy countries) depend on U.S. demand to sell their exports. But the violent blow to U.S. soft power, in finance as in politics, is the Bush Administration's singular legacy.

Is there a common thread in the erosion of U.S. credibility in these different arenas? There is: radical Republicans' malign contempt for the rule of law. Conservatism is supposed to be about conserving a society's most valuable norms and traditions. As a political force in the real world, however, conservatism is usually a matter of maximizing the power of those already in power -- ultimately, a lawless proposition. The country with the largest military calls the shots and can't let itself be constrained by the clamor of lesser nations. The President is responsible for the nation's security and can't let himself be constrained by a whining pusillanimous legislative branch. The financial masters of the universe are uniquely qualified to allocate capital where it's most productive and can't be constrained by a bunch of petty curbs on leverage and lending practices.

At the moment when risk management in the financial world radically failed, democracy's ultimate risk management tool -- the ballot box -- kicked in. The Bush Administration's assault on the U.S. Constitution and governmental norms was unprecedented. Obama, on multiple fronts, is trying to implement the most sudden about-face in our history. In his inaugural address, he told the world, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals...and we are ready to lead once more." We'll learn sooner or later whether it's too late.

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