Brzezinski & Obama’s bipolar disorder

The world doesn’t become bipolar by wishing that it is

Zbigniew Brzezinski, like many others who came of age during the Cold War, believes that a bipolar world is much easier for the United States to ‘manage’ than a multipolar one. That might even be correct. The problem is—the world is not bipolar—even in the face of China’s emergence as one of the world’s great powers. Instead of dealing with the world as it is—an eminently realist enterprise—Mr Brzezinski recommends dealing with the world as he believes it ought to be. Earlier this year, after commemorative event in Beijing, he called for an ‘informal’ G-2 comprising of the United States and China.

It is one thing to argue that the US-China bilateral relationship is one which is most important to the world, but quite another to call it “G-2” suggesting it would engage, in some form, in the task of global governance. Mr Brzezinski misses the point that an important reason why the US-China relationship is seen as important is because it is a problem. It is important to the rest of us in the same way as Pakistan is for international security. So just like how you wouldn’t entrust Pakistan with the job of ensuring international security, you wouldn’t entrust the United States and China with the task of global governance.

Unfortunately, this G-2 mindset is not merely Mr Brzezinski’s hobby horse, but is influencing the Obama administration’s foreign policy. “US-China consultations regarding India and Pakistan,” the former argued, “can perhaps lead to more effective even if informal mediation, for a conflict between the two would be a regional calamity.” Sure enough, the joint statement at the end of President Obama’s summit with President Hu Jintao included a words that said that “the two sides welcomed efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia.” Clearly, there is an attempt by the two countries to get China involved in India’s relations with Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan.

It shows that President Obama thinks or wishes that the world is bipolar. But it is not. New Delhi is unlikely to be too impressed with such gratuitous references—in fact, it should react with deliberate irrationalism. Diplomatic games apart, the idea of Chinese involvement in India-Pakistan relations is dead on arrival. Mr Obama perhaps forgot what happened after he floated the idea of appointing a special envoy for Kashmir, during his election campaign.

In any case, the simultaneous appearance of pro-China governments in Japan, Taiwan and Australia might convey an impression that these countries will play second fiddle to Beijing. Yet this can change at their next elections, or even earlier. Also Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to join the US or China camps.

Unfortunately for the United States, a combination of national indebtedness and a declinist narrative have found purchase in Barack Obama’s worldview. The Brzezinski bipolar disorder isn’t making the world any more bipolar. If President Obama continues on the path he has taken during his China trip, the world will become, paradoxically, more multipolar. That’s because the relative power of the United States will decline, China’s will improve and the two will be in the same league as handful of others.

9 thoughts on “Brzezinski & Obama’s bipolar disorder”

  1. Obama is trying everything to please Chinese so that they keep buying dollars. It is one of the charms that he thinks it works as he was able to do in America. His understanding of the world troubles me. Beyond all the hype his team creates on every move he takes, there is underlying inaction and disregard for allies (countries that share values with America traditionally). The G2 argument over-emphasizes the role and clout of Chinese interests as well as US influence around the world. India should be aggressive in objecting to such ridiculous view of relations. We should probably meet Cuban president and say the same things for US and Cuba and US and Venezuela.

  2. China has 0 leverage over India. This could be a nice way of telling China, “Lean on your all-weather friend, buddy”.
    Hey, just trying to inject some optimism into the gloom-and-doom.

  3. Overall I agree with the post, but can’t help but wonder if your last sentence is indeed its own bit of “irrationalism?”

  4. Any casual observer knows that China is itching to acquire power at the US’s expense. The only end result of a continuation of the US relinquishing influence/power to China, like it is happening today, will result in a US that has less power/influence. This can only be arrested by a China that cooperates with the US in wielding global influence — there is not a chance of that happening.

    But even if we assume that the loss of US power as inevitable (“power ebbs and flows”), there are two possibilities:

    1. China alone occupies the vacuum left behind by USA
    2. China is one of many entities (like EU, Japan, India, and Russia) that fill the vacuum left behind by the USA

    Depending on whether one is assuming 1 or 2, it is likely that one’s world-view will insist on a bi-polar future or multi-polar future, respectively.

    ZBrzyz is probably assuming 1 in building his bi-polar castles-in-the-air

  5. Perhaps SR Murthy is correct that a bi-polar G-2 will be a castle in the air. Though I suspect more so because of China’s political culture and lack of interest in playing the part than insufficient capability–think about the US in the interwar period.

    Yet the US and the world faces a very real and very difficult “transition problem.” While it is true that the EU, Japan, India, Brazil and Russia may one day become “polar” powers in their own right, that day has not yet arrived. It may take another 10-20 years for these countries to get there houses in order (if indeed they are able to at all). The US cannot simply wait for the emergence of other “polar powers” while China continues to excel.

    Perhaps the US must make some overtures to China now in order to forestall the emergence of the kind of competitive dynamic that would be damaging not only to the US and China, but to international security and the prospect of a stable and peaceful external environment in which other powers might develop? In short, the US cannot really count on the eventual emergence of a multipolar world, it also has to take real steps to try and head off too competitive a dynamic before it begins? As is so often the case the medium-term and long-term strategic imperatives are in conflict with one another (see also US policy in South Asia).

  6. Alex wrote:
    “Perhaps the US must make some overtures to China now in order to forestall the emergence of the kind of competitive dynamic that would be damaging not only to the US and China, but to international security and the prospect of a stable and peaceful external environment in which other powers might develop?”


    And allowing China free reign of Asia is supposed to bring about this “stable and peaceful environment in Asia”? Which part of Chinese behaviour in the global stage would allow one to reach that conclusion? Is it Chinese nuclear proliferation of materials and weapons designs to unstable terrorist-ridden states like Pakistan, NorthKorea, or is it Chinese support for terrorist groups like LeT in the UN and elsewhere that will make China responsible once it acquires the mantle of “global leader”? But then again, the US has already been openly supporting a terrorist-camp-running regime in Pakistan for decades, so the Chinese won’t be doing anything new.

    China is an irresponsible power that will only work to destabilize the world order to its benefit, especially in Asia. China will pretend to work with the USA publicly — the preferred chinese method for weakening the USA is via proxy powers it will create by selective nuclear proliferation around the world. They have done it before and there is nothing to stop them from doing it again.

    I guess we shall all find out in due course as to how this all falls out.

  7. Alex, What is this stuff about “US cannot wait for the emergence of X”? So what’s the rush to hand over China to mentor and develop the “Asian co-prosperity sphere” along with China?

    And this claim that the end goal of the G-2 is the peaceful emergence of other competitors to the USA outside of China….How can that be a possible end goal in power politics given human nature? The usual impulse is to decrease the rate of loss of power to as low levels as possible, which can be the only reason for the US to “develop China” regardless of the obfuscation on that front in official statements.

    This is infact implied by my earlier logical breakdown. See Case 1 in my previous post — this is the best case for the US to arrest its decline by having only one competitor for as long as possible, which is the reason for propping China up. It defies logic to claim that this is being done to benefit the peaceful logic of other powers especially given China’s predatory nature in its interaction with outsiders.

    As Acorn mentions in this post, it all depends on whether one wants the world to be G-2 or not, regardless of what reality will tend to favour given current trends.

  8. China may have the economic and strategic momentum towards superpowerdom, but it really does not have the intellectual/cultural confidence or imagination to be one in the US mold. The US has been a superpower in a historical sense because it was not just a pre-eminent military and economic power, but also the trend setter in socio-political liberties and ideas, culture and science. Even while being a conservative society and, as commentators incessantly point out, “a center right nation at its soul”, it always had the confidence to question its practices and constantly evolve to a more fairer society. And this honest internal dynamic has been connected to its external perception, and thus we have a highly admired world hegemon.

    I think some of the criticism and commentary within the US about its decline and the exaggerated sense of the rise of China – from where it is picked up by the world media- is an example of internal corrective forces at work, and partly the reason it will remain the primary power for some more time now. Even in the more conventional sense, the Chinese are still some ways away from superpowerdom and the Chinese authorities seem quite aware of the fact.

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