Saturday, January 29, 2005

Through the glass, darkly 

"Who will be the first politician brave enough to declare publicly that the United States is a declining power and that America's leaders must urgently discuss what to do about it?"
So asks Slate's Fred Kaplan, commenting on the recently released intelligence report "Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project." To use the Declinists' favorite analogy, America today seems to me to be in a similar position to that of the Roman Empire at the height of its power, around mid-second century AD. I know that things tend to move much faster nowadays, but I would nevertheless venture a guess that we still have some time to go before the Declinists can crouch on the overturned pillars of the Empire and ponder on how right they were. Seeing that the Declinist school has been much in vogue since the early 1980s, if not earlier, possibly only the youngest among them might finally reach their Promised Land of desolation, otherwise fondly known as the "true multipolarity".

Writing of the public reaction to the NIC's report, Kaplan notes that "only a few stories or columns have taken note of its central conclusion:
'The likely emergence of China and India ... as new major global players—similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century—will transform the geopolitical landscape with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries.'
"In this new world, [Kaplan continues] a mere 15 years away, the United States will remain 'an important shaper of the international order'—probably the single most powerful country—but its 'relative power position' will have 'eroded.' The new 'arriviste powers'—not only China and India, but also Brazil, Indonesia, and perhaps others—will accelerate this erosion by pursuing 'strategies designed to exclude or isolate the United States' in order to 'force or cajole' us into playing by their rules."

As the NIC is engaging in prognostication it would be illogical to say that their conclusions (however tentative) are wrong; but they certainly ring a bit false. Intelligence bodies, which most of the time work with raw figures, all too often substitute math for a broad-ranging analysis. Yet number lie; not only because they are often false or at least spun in misleading ways, but most often because they can't - and don't - tell the whole story.

Thus, in the above example, the NIC throws down on the table a whole list of countries that are big - by virtue of their territory or the population size, or both - and seems to assume that size will necessarily translate into real power. To anyone familiar with Indonesia or Brazil to posit that these two states might as early as 15 years from now pose a challenge to the United States (even if in combination with others) might seem a wildly extravagant claim. China and India are in a much better position to eventually end the "unipolar moment", but both countries still face tremendous challenges in translating their considerable human and natural resources into sustainable and significant international reach.

The NIC seems to be equally off mark in another area:
" 'U.S. preoccupation with the war on terrorism is largely irrelevant to the security concerns of most Asians,' the report states. The authors don't dismiss the importance of the terror war—far from it. But they do write that a 'key question' for the future of America's power and influence is whether U.S. policy-makers 'can offer Asian states an appealing vision of regional security and order that will rival and perhaps exceed that offered by China.' If not, 'U.S. disengagement from what matters to U.S. Asian allies would increase the likelihood that they will climb on Beijing's bandwagon and allow China to create its own regional security that excludes the United States'."
Which is fine as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that there is hardly a country in Asia which doesn't see China as a possible serious future threat. Which is why, in turn, most of the countries in the region are happy to see the distant United States stay engaged in Asia as the counter-balance to any hegemonic aspirations on the part of the ever-so-proximate China. Hence, if "U.S. preoccupation with the war on terrorism is largely irrelevant to the security concerns of most Asians," it's because it's China herself which is the main regional security concern. Even then, to say that the war on terror is largely irrelevant to most Asians is to forget that the Philippines, Thailand, India and, yes, even China, have their own internal problems with radical Islam, as do the largely moderate Muslim regional players such as Indonesia or Malaysia. There's more to Asia than Japan and the Korean peninsula.

Kaplan ends by endorsing the NIC assessment that in Asia "present and future leaders are agnostic on the issue of democracy and are more interested in developing what they perceive to be the most effective model of governance." Even that sentiment seems to be somewhat of a throwback to the Cold War era when a number of strongmen, both of the pro- and the anti-Western variety have kept democracy at bay throughout the region by invoking the smokescreen of "Confucian values". Confucian values or no Confucian values, democracy has been on the march throughout Asia over the last few decades, too, as evident in Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia to name just a few local examples. The leaders might be interested in "effective models of governance" as is indeed their prerogative, but their people have clearly shown that they, in turn, are interested in having a strong political voice.

Intentionally or not, one gets the impression that for much of the intelligence community the declinist talk is a prophecy - of the self-fulfilling kind.


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