The incoming US administration would welcome other emerging powers to play their respective roles in world affairs, as it no longer wants to be the sole superpower. This was stated
|Prof. Juan R.I. Cole|
Q: How viable is it for Obama to propose a shift in the focus of foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific?
A: Well, the thing I say about Obama is that he is our first Hawaiian president. He was brought up in Hawaii and that region is very close to Asia and you feel it when you are there. And so I think it is very natural that he sees the Pacific Rim as economically the most vital area of the world. I also think that one’s point of view is very much shaped by one’s upbringing. So you know the Bushes are oilmen and for them the Arab Gulf region has been the center of the world in some ways. However, Obama does not have that kind of background and I think from his point of view hydrocarbons may not be that important 20 years down the line, whereas China is likely to be more important. So you want to position your assets and make your policies with an eye towards growing Asian powers and I think it is not just China but also Japan, which is still the third largest economy in the world. South Korea is among the top 10 economies and the potential for Philippines and Thailand is also great. So I think even in the Gulf region you will find that more of your exports and your energies would be directed towards the Pacific Rim. Therefore, I think Obama will shift the focus of US foreign policy toward the East.
Q: But there are major challenges taking shape in North Africa and Middle East as we speak, namely the danger of the two-state solution becoming non-viable on the Palestinian-Israeli front, the volatile situation in Syria, and problems in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Mali etc. So many big challenges need to be addressed here?
A: Well as long as Obama is President, he will work with allies and friends. With regard to the Mali situation, he gave logistical support to France, but there were no US boots on the ground and no bombings, but only behind the scenes support. With regard to the Israeli and Palestinian issue, Obama made some attempts when he first came to office in order to get the two sides talking but you know you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. And I think that the Likud Party in Israel did not want to drink that water, but they wanted to expand their settlements and so forth. At the moment the Israeli leadership doesn’t see a dire threat and therefore it sees no reason to compromise and so I think Obama will say inspiring things about the need for peace but he recognizes that there is very little he can do. He is coming to the region soon and I see a lot of diplomatic activity but given that Netanyahu appears to have come back to power and is allied to Avigdor Liebermann and very far right figures I don’t think the time is propitious for a big breakthrough and I can’t imagine Obama wants to spend his political capital or his time on this issue.
Q But somewhere down the line the issue could escalate because of this procrastination?
A: Yes! But sometimes things change over time with nothing dramatic happening. You know at some point the situation could make Israelis so nervous that there is more out-migration than in-migration. Of course we know that Palestinians have much larger families than Israelis, so over the next 30 to 40 years there could be a demographic solution to this problem that becomes embedded in the politics without anyone ever sitting down and making a decision. So I wonder sometimes whether there might be a long slow change rather than a dramatic breakthrough. For example, when the French created Lebanon out of Syria in 1920 it had a Christian majority. It is a long time since that was the case.
Q. In recent years, Western democracies have been criticized for betraying the interest of the many to protect the interests of say ‘one percent’ of society. Yet some countries that do not have Western-style democracies, like in Asia (such as China) and the GCC have been successful in meeting the needs of all segments of the population. So is the much vaunted Western democratic system fit for all societies in their various stages of development?
A: I think that the points you have made are very well taken but it is easy to forget that a parliamentary regime has not been championed in and of itself. The goal is not just to have a parliamentary regime. The goal is good governance. It is accountability, it is ways of checking and balancing power and consensual governance. And it is probably true that at some points of history the social structure of a country make it difficult to have a lively parliamentary regime. But, most forms of authoritarian governance over time do have problems of corruption. Now corruption is everywhere and corruption was on Wall Street in the US as well, but it was not inside the government. Probably there were some of the big banking companies that created these derivatives and so forth, that committed illegalities and nobody has been punished for it, but that wasn’t something that the president did. Conversely, take Egypt for example, Gemal Mubarak and his brother are in court facing criminal charges of insider trading.
Q: But then there are allegations against many US Congressmen like Nancy Pelosi for being involved in insider trading?
A: If anybody can prove the allegations the guilty will go to jail.
Q: Do you think that failures in US Middle East policy, which caused 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, forced credit expansion in the US economy and contributed to its current economic problems?
A: I do not think it that way. Well, the first thing to remember about the United States is that it is still 22 percent of the world economy. Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may prove costly only in the future as we will have to take care of them for the rest of their lives. So Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that we would have to pay a $3 to $4 trillion bill. But this would cover a span of several years and the matter relates to only one sector of the population. As for the immediate cost, Afghanistan and Iraq wars together cost little over a trillion dollars in about 10 years. For a $16 trillion US economy this is not an enormous amount. In fact, the money that the corrupt Wall Street bankers stole from us is three or four times more important than the wars in the Middle East. What I would say is that the United States was too fortunate in 1990s and the zeroes with the fall of the Soviet Union and so it had no checks and balances on itself. The Russians turned inwards and were weakened and China is still not quite prepared to play a strategic role in the world and so when President George W. Bush announced that he was going to invade and occupy Iraq, the Russians and the Chinese didn’t say very much. I think sometimes it is not the best position to be in, i.e. if there is not any check or balance.
Q: Can one argue that capitalism was unbridled at this time, in the absence of the threat posed by Communism, no matter how evil the latter was as of itself?
A: Yes, I agree with you completely. In some ways, the labor movement has suffered a huge blow in the US. Some companies have connived deliberately to keep the unions out, which is technically illegal but nobody is enforcing these things in the United States.
Q And the big US multinationals are now exploiting the low wages and poor working conditions in China to make cheap goods?
A: But that is a joint operation of the Chinese Communist Party and the American capitalists. In any case, the United States did not have enough checks and balances for its own good and therefore I think we are now seeing an end to that period of American hyper power. It is partly Obama’s political style—not to want to take risks unilaterally — and partly because Russia is trying to get its act together along with its other BRICS partners and we are beginning to see the rise of a multi-polar world in the 21st century.
Q. Political scientist Ian Bremmer is of the view that we are moving toward a ‘G-Zero World’?
A: Yes! But Chuck Hagel, who would probably be the new US Secretary of Defense, gave an interview in which he welcomed this development. He said China will be a player and that its good that China should be a player and so I think that this period of the last 20 years in which the US had the misfortune of not to be checked or balanced may be coming to an end and I think the whole world will be better off for that. In a way it would be better if China played its role in world affairs.