It is a tough time to be the President of the United States. Aside from America’s increasing international isolation, the domestic scene is full of urgent issues: reminders of Hurricane Katrina, crushing consumer debt, Wall Street’s adventures in sub-prime mortgages, record home foreclosures, and stagflation coupled with both denial and hype. The country’s largest mortgage lender just announced it would lay off 12,000 people following the release of disappointing national employment statistics.
President Bush has been trading his Iraq investment portfolio on margin, long on military muscle and very short on political solutions, all financed with a massive budget deficit. He is facing a margin call from Congress as he nears the end of the fiscal year (September 30th). His top general reports today on the surge and what taxpayers have gotten for their money in Iraq. Are we still stuck in the Vietnam of the 1960s and 70s? Is Washington a territory occupied by foreign lobbies, which spend more than $1.5 million a day? A demoralized nation, and a fractured Republican Party, is either asking questions or producing presidential candidates on a daily basis.
Concurrently, a different doctrine of “soft power” has gained currency against the United States’ aimless, militarist “hard power.” The American president is now the public face of this militarist doctrine. From Peru, Brazil and Venezuela to Europe and Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, many other governments and people have converged toward peaceful respect for each other. They discuss their differences around a table and find ways to reach agreement despite those differences and trade for their mutual economic prosperity. Russia, China and India have joined the drive toward soft power as customers, investors, suppliers and long-term partners. Vietnam considers China, Japan and Korea as investors, not as enemies.
China has vast cash reserves of more than a trillion dollars, consisting mostly of American debt. China has embarked on a long-term plan to develop, finance and purchase commodities, minerals, and other natural resources in APEC countries, supplying moderately priced consumer goods in return. Russia and India are also working the scene to compliment, not to confront, China’s efforts with energy and other development deals. The recent sale of Russian arms to Indonesia, a large Muslim nation, shows how America’s former customers are turning elsewhere.
China is now the dominating civilization in a region with a long history of tradition, respect, trade, contact (in war and peace) and interaction. Common roots in Buddhist thought form notable denominators of mutual understanding.
The soft-versus-hard power doctrine is probably the most fascinating political development since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wonder if President Bush saw this contrast some six years ago when he announced his “with us or against us” doctrine of hard, militarist power. It is precisely that doctrine, and the polarization it has wrought, that has created false credibility and a larger-than-life image for a bunch of otherwise violent, rag-tag extremists hiding out in Afghan caves. With that in mind, who is really better off than they were six years ago — in terms of diplomacy, trade, and credibility?
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