By Fu Mengzi
The United States continues to come up short as it focuses its diplomatic strength on dealing with three major crises - Iraq, Iran and the Korean Peninsula. Not just a failure of the Bush administration, the roots go back to the end of the Cold War. But the dismal diplomacy may actually be opening up new options for international cooperation.
At the top of the only superpower's diplomatic concerns: Iraq's security and day-to-day life continue to deteriorate. Diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear issue is faring little better, as the new UN Resolution 1747 has not persuaded President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government to abandon its nuclear ambitions. And North Korea denuclearization process is stalled over the details of the US unfreezing North Korean funds.
Elsewhere things have not gone to America's liking. Its greater Central Asia plan has not proceeded smoothly. Relations between the United States and some of the Central Asian nations where the "color revolution" took place failed to warm up.
In East Asia, the United States is very interested in joining the vibrant regional cooperation. But its outdated East Asia policy of military presence and allies first is holding back the US from wholeheartedly participation.
Leftist sentiment in Latin America is growing, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with his hardboiled anti-Americanism. At the same time, the construction of the Americas Free Trade Zone is a non-starter.
The United States was once the most enthusiastic of all globalization advocates, seeing it as synonymous with Americanization. But the US is finding its financial, exchange rate and trade policies far less influential than they once were as globalization is back on the track of natural development.
The United States still expects a lot from the Doha world trade negotiations but does not have the courage to play the role of coordinator. The US remains the world's only superpower with unrivaled strength and influence, all the more reason to question the defects in its strategies and inadequacy of its national strength.
The failures have not been the result of US unilateralism or pre-emptive strike policy.
From a broad viewpoint over a long period of time, the United States has been in some sort of strategic retreat. It did not happen after 9/11, but rather at the end of the Cold War.
At that time the US knew it faced multiple challenges. But, as described in Thomas Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map, it could not find a "near peer competitor" in the eyes of Washington strategists. As a result, there was not enough to keep the giant military machine busy.
The 9/11 terror attack temporarily interrupted the US search for a "near peer competitor" and forced it to give strategic priority to fighting terrorism. At the same time, the growing interdependency among nations also hindered US workings to create a major strategic rival for itself. An example of the new interdependency is China's US$2 billion assistance to Southeast Asian nations ravaged by the 1997 financial crisis.
Clearly the strategic retreat was not voluntary on Washington's part or a result of other major powers' rise while the United States was preoccupied fighting terrorism. The strategic retreat was not something the US wanted. This is evidenced by the superpower's continuing to nose around everywhere, whether it was needed or not.
The retreat had a lot to do with the changes the world undertook after the Cold War and especially following 9/11. The frustrations suffered by US anti-terror strategy further disoriented its strategic thinking but did not alter the overall backdrop of the changing times.
The US strategic retreat can be seen in the following developments.
First, the United States long ago ended heavy involvement in so-called fringe developments in the world.
Take Africa as an example. After pulling its 30,000-strong military forces from Somalia without achieving its goal in 1994 up to President Bill Clinton's visit to the continent in 1998, the United States changed its Africa strategy from political to economic activities and from giving aid to emphasizing trade. The Bush administration has since concentrated on stamping out terrorism, pumping oil and fighting disease.
The main focus of the African Command Washington established in 2006 is probably still anti-terrorism, but its effectiveness remains to be seen.
In Latin America, former President Jimmy Carter's democratic push has been lauded as a historic achievement. Throughout the 12 years spanning the terms of President Carter and his successor, Ronald Reagan, most Latin American countries were converted to democracy and some saw their economies improve.
It was a time when the Washington consensus was all the rage. Come the 1990s, however, President Clinton was asking: "Where are we? Where is Latin America?"
In 1994, Washington called for free trade among American countries, but neo-liberalism failed to thrive in Latin America. The ensuing 10 years turned into a wasted decade as the wealth gap widened, unemployment soared, inflation worsened and social conflicts accelerated, leading to the collapse of the American Summit in 2005.
During the globalization drive, US manufacturing's contribution to the nation's GDP dwindled to just 12 percent. This upset its trade format with Latin America of raw material imports and finished product exports.
The growth point of US investment and trade also shifted to other growing markets in the world. For instance, by 2005 US businesses had invested US$66 billion in China compared with US$44 billion in Latin America.
The US entered the Central Asia political black hole after 9/11. Washington aimed to reap a strategic windfall with Afghanistan as a critical bridge linking Central Asia and South Asia. But the strategy was blocked by instability in Afghanistan caused by the beaten but not dead Taliban forces hellbent on regaining control.
Second, the United States has lost much of its influence in key strategic areas of the world. In Europe, the US shifted its attention soon after the war in Kosovo. Washington lost interest in searching for a heavy-weight rival in Europe as NATO expanded eastward with little difficulty.
The political split among major powers over the war in Iraq hurt not only Europe but the United States. The fact that Washington let Russia off the hook, forgave Germany and attempted to punish France does not mean the US can do whatever it wants with these three countries. Clearly, the United States' letting Russia off the hook did not improve their bilateral relations.
In Asia, the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance and the warming up of US-India military ties with increased cooperation on nuclear technology remained jarring notes in the tune of regional peace and development. It gave rise to the desire for self-defense among some lesser nations.
Third, the US did not take advantage of the war on terror to establish an effective rule of security in the post-Cold War era. The country finds itself clueless over quite a few issues. Small wonder some Americans miss the Cold War.
By adopting unilateralism, taking a frequently self-centered approach to world issues and readily dispensing double-standard judgments, the US has sent out numerous confusing signals to the rest of the world.
Consequently, despite the big stick it wields, the US has not been able to scare off the small and weak countries which are defying Washington by either developing nuclear programs or taking anti-US stands.
Look no further than North Korea and Iran for examples of minnows going nuclear. And Venezuela has gone so far as to seek to form an anti-US alliance with Iran.
Fourth, the wholesale spread of democracy everywhere has proved counterproductive to the United States as the US brand has lost its appeal in many parts of the world.
Though unable to prove the lasting correctness of democracy and peace, the Bush administration still believes democracy can lead to relative security and pave the way for the ultimate removal of all hotbeds of terrorism.
The popularly-elected Palestinian Hamas and Iranian Ahmadinejad governments have presented a political reality Washington would rather not see, while the Iraqi government brought up by the United States is increasingly critical of Washington.
Last, America's capability to lead worldwide progress is waning despite its belief otherwise. The US is still on top of the world in science and technology, as shown in its scientists' bagging all Nobel prizes in 2006.
The US finds itself in the sky-high tower of sci-tech supremacy it has built for itself. It has shut out the rest of the world with all kinds of barriers, which increase the technological divide. The result will be to perpetuate disputes over fair and free trade with other countries.
The US may be forced to live in technological isolation, unwillingly losing the power it once had to move globalization forward.
History has the tendency to repeat itself, but that doesn't mean it always will. No new rising major power wants to become the frontline of confrontation with the United States, seeing the history of the Cold War repeat itself.
Cooperation between great powers should be made an important premise for building a harmonious world. Strategic adjustment based on such consensus could very well mean that the US strategic retreat is in fact the start of some fresh expansion.
The author is assistant president of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
(China Daily April 4, 2007)