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Paul Kennedy, author of "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," is a professor of history at Yale University. He is currently completing a book on the future of the United Nations. Kennedy spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Thursday, Jan. 6.

Nathan Gardels: Since the whole world is now involved in disaster relief for the South Asian tsunami victims, hasn't the effort become a kind of prism of global power relations?

Let's start with the United States. American helicopters are swarming all over — this time not for war, but to ferry medicine and supplies where no one else can go. What does that say about the sole remaining superpower,whose prestige has been so battered by the Iraq war?

Paul Kennedy: No doubt the tsunami catastrophe has been seen by some in the White House as a terrific opportunity to rebuild relationships with Europe, the United Nations and Asia that have been badly damaged by the Iraq war. They see a political benefit to be derived from the prominent role the U.S. has assumed in humanitarian relief. As rotating chair of the G-8, British Prime Minister Tony Blair — who has also been widely criticized for his role in supporting the American-led war — also stands to gain back some public opinion points with his drumbeat of appeals for aid.

That is the cynical view. But, as you suggest, what this does undeniably demonstrate once again is that the airlift and sealift capacity of the American military is unmatched. America is the one power truly capable of global force projection, for ill — I am a critic of the Iraq war — or for good. Who else can put a gigantic aircraft carrier with 30 or 40 helicopters — a number which is expected soon to double — on the scene within days?

Of course, Australia is also massively on the scene, but they are a nearby force very connected to the region. And, interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will release a number of the huge Antonov troop transport planes to the area with relief supplies, a remnant of Cold War force projection.

What could be more symbolic than the Abraham Lincoln — a so-called "forward point" aircraft carrier for the U.S. in the Pacific — ferrying help so immediately? The Abraham Lincoln is the counterpoint to the Kitty Hawk, also a forward-point carrier, that played such a critical role in launching the attack on Iraq from the Persian Gulf.

So, this kind of mobility the U.S. carrier force has can be deployed for military ends, but also for humanitarian logistics.

Gardels: Hard power — military might — can be used for "soft power" — humanitarian assistance? It's an ironic twist on the notion, so prominent in the debate about mass destruction weapons leading up to the Iraq war, of "dual use" technology.

Kennedy: Absolutely. While the Norwegians and the Germans can announce they've quadrupled the amount of aid to this stricken part of the world, how do they get it there? How can they deliver it? The fact is that the severely destroyed infrastructure in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere — especially the coastal roads — makes helicopter delivery about the only option.

Europe, of course, also has lots of helicopters. But they are primarily for search-and-rescue operations locally. By and large, they don't have long-range or carrying capacity. They can't get to South Asia,and they can't lift trucks.

Gardels: President Bush has also called on his father and former president Bill Clinton to lead the "volunteerism" effort to raise private funds in the United States — something that will surely dwarf the $350 million the U.S. has officially committed. Does that, along with the logistical reach of hard power, also help rehabilitate America's damaged soft power?

Kennedy: I think so, yes. America's soft power has been so damaged by its own policies in the Middle East, then along comes a tsunami to help restore it!

What Bush has done by announcing an increase in aid, and then getting the two former presidents to beat the drums for charity, is going to look very impressive to much of the world.

Even so, one thing the U.S. has to avoid is what U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has already done — boast about American "generosity" as if it is something exceptional. Look at the Web sites in Sweden, Norway, the U.K. and Germany — there is a massive response by the citizens there. Let's not forget that Catholic Relief Services, various Protestant ministries in Sweden, and Oxfam all have been out there front and center right from the start.

Gardels: Will the soft-power rehabilitation of the United States last? After all, the United States led NATO in two wars to save Muslims from genocide in Europe — in Bosnia and Kosovo. That seems to buy very little political capital these days.

Kennedy: Well, the rehabilitation will be differential. I expect quite a modification of opinion in Canada, Japan and Australia at least. Europe is up in the air. India remains proud, saying it doesn't need help.

I don't think whatever the U.S. does, even for Muslim Indonesia, will have much impact on Arab public opinion as long as American troops remain in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains stalled. Ninety-two percent of Egyptians — America's closest ally in the region — mistrust U.S. motives.

At the same time, the Arab world seems singularly unstirred by the tsunami suffering. Some are criticizing the Gulf oil states for being stingy and not helping out. "Why do we not care?" one paper in Kuwait asked.

Gardels: The whole world has been agog recently at "a rising China." Yet, even though they are right there in Asia,with $500 billion in foreign reserves and a trade surplus with the United States, they have so far pledged less than $70 million in relief and sent a handful of doctors to Sumatra.

Are rumors of China's arrival as a great power premature?

Kennedy: I think it has a long way to go, yes. The Chinese have never thought of themselves as donors, but as aid recipients. Although China has a veto on the U.N. Security Council, it does not pay a heavier portion for peacekeeping operations like the other permanent members. It hangs on to the exemption it was granted in the 1960s as a "poor power."

Gardels: The disaster also seems to have rehabilitated the United Nations, which is back at the center of coordinating the relief effort. Does this demonstrate that it remains "the indispensable organization,"as Kofi Annan has put it?

Kennedy: This is right. This is also an opportunity for the U.N. to mend some fences and restore its reputation. With reports that a third of the casualties are children, UNICEF contributions have gone out of sight.

There is, in fact, no other organization that can coordinate the scale of relief effort across a number of countries simultaneously. Whatever happens must go across their table, so to speak.

But they are going to have to work very intelligently with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) on the ground and with the various donor countries in the first stage, and with the World Bank and IMF on the longer-term rebuilding of infrastructure and local economies.

Gardels: There has been a disproportionately large outpouring from far away Europe for the tsunami victims, with Germany alone committing $690 million. Mirroring the whole Iraq conflict, Germany says its aid will be given over years, focusing on reconstruction instead of immediate relief.

What does this say about European power?

Kennedy: The German lack of "lift capacity" and the European preference for long-term stabilization and rebuilding has come up once again in this example. They can't immediately transport vast amounts of relief aid from German ports to Sri Lanka — they don't have the capacity — so they are committing considerable amounts of funds for the long haul.

What we see here is not unlike Robert Kagan's ("Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus") thesis: The preference for soft power undercuts the ability to build hard power, which remains the province of the Americans.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
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