The Price of America Going It Alone
Wang Jisi is director of the Institute of American
Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and concurrently
director of the Institute of International Stragegic Studies, Central
Party School, Communist Party of China.
Beijing-From Europe to China, from Russia to the
Arab world, people everywhere harbor grudges against US unilateralism
in conducting international affairs. However, as their grudges differ
in degree and in kind, no lasting regional or global anti-American coalition
is in sight.
When President George W. Bush illogically bracketed Iran, Iraq and North
Korea into an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union
Address, not even Washington's close allies concurred, though few governments
beyond this "axis" openly expressed their opposition. Neither
would many governments protest officially should Washington use forceful
means to topple the Saddam Hussein regime.
The September 11 tragedy provided the Americans with moral grounds and
security imperatives to fight international terrorism. More than ever
before since the end of the Cold War, the Americans see the world in black
and white, "either with us or against us." They have entitled
themselves to be the only power that can choose the targets, means, and
ends in combating terrorism. No other important powers would want to appear
in America's way if what it does is not affecting their vital interests.
Some are just jumping on the bandwagon; others can't afford to offend
the only superpower whose political and military muscle is stronger than
that of any potential anti-US allies combined.
Indeed, the world today seems to be unprecedentedly unipolar, with the
American power largely unparalleled and unchecked. But the only superpower
is also the lonely superpower, because its national priorities are surely
very different from those of most other countries.
September 11 has changed the American way of life profoundly, but other
parts of the world are not affected that much and therefore are not easily
brought into the orbit of "America's new war." Bush hopes that
"all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites
who threaten their countries and our own." In return, all those nations
which support Washington's anti-terrorist campaign should have the right
to expect it to heed their calls in coping with their own set of problems.
"As Americans often say, there is no such thing as a free lunch,"
remarked a senior Chinese official when he referred to Beijing's cooperation
with Washington on wiping out Taliban. While sharing intelligence work
on Al Qaeda and Taliban, Beijing expected Washington's assistance in chasing
hundreds of Uigur separatists who were trained by Taliban in Afghanistan
and are active in the Xinjiang region. In recent years Xinjiang has seen
a sporadic and limited campaign of violence by "freedom fighters"
in the Muslim population, mainly in the form of bombings and riots. However,
US officials have said they do not consider Xinjiang separatists to be
terrorists. Hence no assistance was offered to the Chinese government.
Many Chinese now wonder why their government has to buttress the Bush
administration's anti-terrorist effort when no reciprocity is evident.
Furthermore, they are increasingly frustrated by Washington's enhanced
military ties with Taiwan, a Chinese territory by their definition.
Given the sympathy and moral support from all over the world after the
September 11 attacks, the US has been in a unique historic moment to cultivate
friendly feelings from abroad. Unfortunately, a lot of the initial sympathy
seems to have been wasted. Rather than thinking deeply about what the
American nation can do to be liked, some Americans want their nation to
be awed or feared. Rather than answering the question why America's security
is more vulnerable today when its military machine is almost omnipotent,
they seem to increasingly rely on a larger defense budget to deal with
nontraditional threats from non-state elements.
To be fair, America's reaction to the terrorist attacks is what a "normal
country" would have to do, and so far it has done more successfully,
both in safeguarding homeland security and in fighting the war in Afghanistan,
than most observers anticipated. Nonetheless, Americans have to face the
unpleasant reality that in terms of domestic security the US is going
to be more and more of a "normal country." Globalization not
only brings to America mounting capital and cheap products but also intensifies
illegal transaction, social ills, and the alarming gulf between rich and
As a result, the US must rebalance the needs for increased security measures
with civil rights. The aftermath of September 11 has already dealt a huge
blow to civil liberties.
For example, Amnesty International charged recently that the US, along
with some other governments around the world, has used the post-September
11 war on terrorism to erode human rights and stifle political dissent.
More specifically, it criticized the US for setting a poor example by
refusing to class Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects held at the US Navy's
Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba as prisoners of war, which would grant them
rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Yet Americans still view their nation as exceptionally righteous. Other
people, in contrast, may conclude that the US as an international player
is not immune from the iron law that "power corrupts, absolute power
corrupts absolutely." To many other national governments, the growing
awesome might of the US is not their Gospel.
Another-and more ominous-perception gap is enlarging between national
governments and private citizens under them. To varying degrees, national
governments see benefits in preserving the current international order
and rules upheld by the US. However, a sizable part of their societies,
especially religious extremists, have-nots, and nationalistic intellectuals,
regard the US as an obnoxious, arrogant hegemon and a source of evil.
In their eyes, the government cooperating with the US government and corporations
is probably serving American interests more than their own. In a number
of developing countries, there is a popular demand for more vigorous resistance
to American influences. There is even open sympathy with Osama bin Laden
and Saddam Hussein. To many ordinary people, the US is a symbol of wealth
and indulgence, which they see in Hollywood movies but can never have
For example, contrary to American expectations, the prevalent perception
of the US in present-day Chinese society is anything but the "beacon
of freedom." Nostalgia about the Mao Zedong years is popular partly
because Mao "had the guts to defy Americans." To be sure, young
Chinese students still have a longing for a US visa or green card, but
they are more attracted to the American standard of life than to American
ideas. It is not very hard to imagine the Chinese attitude toward the
combination of American power and ethnocentrism. The American clamor about
the "China threat" is not winning over the Chinese heart as
the real long-term threat to the US comes from elsewhere.
All this notwithstanding, the world needs the American economic locomotive
as well as other global public goods this superpower provides. What the
US needs to do is to wield its power and influence more carefully by taking
into consideration other nations' views and interests. The more it goes
alone in world affairs, the less help from others it can count on, and
the less secure it will ultimately feel.
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