Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Belated Thoughts on the Presidential Foreign Policy Debate and the Importance of China

Source: New York Daily News
 The last presidential debate was a few days ago and focused on one of my chief areas of interests, i.e. foreign policy, so naturally I watched the whole thing (I only watched part of the other two debates and none of the VP debate...*yawns). This debate was rather lackluster as I expected it to be. I would say that neither participant "won" though Obama did manage to liven things up a few times such as when he wittily countered Romney's archaic views on the Navy by responding that naval warfare is no longer a "game of battleship" in which we simply count how many vessels we have vis a vis our opponents. (Romney had been criticizing the fact that the US Navy now has less vessels than it did in 1916.) 

I think Romney's chief difficulty was in delineating precisely how his foreign policy differs (or will differ if elected) from Obama's. For the most part Romney and Obama seemed to be on the same page on the various, though severely limited, global issues that were discussed (the only clear exception being military spending). The most Romney ever did to distance himself from Obama was a few vague criticisms directed towards the Obama administration's lack of geopolitical leadership. Most surprising of all Romney did not attack Obama for the administration's clear mishandling of the Libya affair that left some Americans dead, US Ambassador Stevens among them, even though the moderator gave him ample opportunity to do so. (This is similar to Obama's surprising omission in the first debate concerning Romney's 47 percent gaffe.)

Ultimately though Romney's performance during the debate is irrelevant since foreign policy itself tends to be irrelevant to most voters. Rarely have elections been decided based on a candidate's foreign policy views and unless a major crisis erupts in the next couple of weeks foreign policy will remain a negligible factor for undecided voters. (For those who care my own prediction is that Obama will narrowly be re-elected.)

At any rate what was most disappointing to me about the debate was the pathetic amount of time given to discussing China (Brazil, another important rising power, was completely ignored as were several other countries and regions.) In fact in the small amount of time that was given to debating about Chinese policy both candidates managed to steer the topic to a discussion about the US economy! 

Source: Rolling Stone Magazine
Now here's the thing, I'm actually skeptical that China is destined to become the next exclusive super power in the sense that it will eclipse the US in influence and prestige or that the US is inevitably on a crash course, diplomatically and/or militarily, with Beijing. Nevertheless, I do support the view that China is immensely important when it comes to global affairs and that it will in all probability continue to rise which means that the power center of the globe will increasingly shift to East Asia. And as such prudence dictates that the US should begin to formulate a robust foreign policy that also strategically shifts, or to employ a ridiculously overused word in international relations lingo, pivots, East.

The future (and current) importance of China is nicely illustrated in a scene from the recent entertaining time travel film Looper where Jeff Daniels character, incredulous that the young Bruce Willis (played by Joseph Gordon Levit) wants to learn French, strongly insists instead that he learn Mandarin (Mainland Chinese). "Trust me", he says, "I'm from the future. Learn Mandarin."

Indeed, China's growing strategic importance, my love for Chinese/Hong Kong Kung Fu films, and Looper have caused me to rethink my future historical subjects of inquiry. Maybe it's time that I too begin to shift, or as much it pains me to say, pivot, Eastward.

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