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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Posted: January 20, 2011 09:43 AM

The adage "actions speaks louder than words" can be amended to "thoughts count more than words" when it comes to serious diplomacy. Frankly, whatever is written into the Communique or a Declaration of Principles means little in itself. It is the understandings between the two leaders that is of the utmost importance. That is to say, agreed understandings as to how they view the shape and structure of world affairs, where their interests clash or converge, and how to meet the dual challenge of 1) handling those points of friction, and 2) working together to perform 'system maintenance' functions in both the economic and security realms.

i have no confident comprehension of Chinese perceptions on these matters. As to our own, Washington does not seem prepared to engage in this exercise. It's world view is still that framed by post-Cold War triumphalism. Our mind has been fixed on the policies for maintaining or extending American dominance. That is why we have committed ourselves to a military security doctrine of dominance at all levels in all regions. That is why we are building a base network across Southwestern and Central Asia while working feverishly to suppress any forces hostile to us.

We are psychologically and intellectually not ready to think seriously about the terms for sharing power with China and developing mechanisms for doing so over different time-frames. Washington is too preoccupied with parsing the naval balance in East Asia to reflect on broad strategies. We are too complacent about the deep faults in our economic structures, and too wasteful in dissipating trillions on chimerical ventures aimed at exorcising a mythical enemy to position ourselves for a diplomatic undertaking of the sort that a self-centered America has never before faced.

Beijing's leaders must be shocked by the accelerated pace of our relative decline. They too may be unprepared for addressing the consequences. China's traditional goal always has been to exact deference from other countries while bolstering their own strength -- not to impose an imperium on them. Much less do they share our impulse to arrange the affairs of the entire world according to a universalization of their own unique civilization. Therein lies an opportunity to avoid a 'war of transition.' However, I don't see anyone in the Obama administration -- or for that matter many outside it -- appreciating this overarching reality.

Instead, we see a mode of address that is the near antithesis to the kind of exchange between (near) equals that is best suited to fostering a healthy working relationship. Last week, Hillary Clinton devoted most of her speech on Sino-American relations to the prodding, hectoring and instructing that has become Washington's standard voice in addressing other governments. She was in exceptional form a few days after having given a stern rebuke in Doha to an assembly of Arab leaders for not bringing their peoples change that they can believe in. No mention was made of the unstinting support we've extended to all those in the audience out of dread that real democracy might bring to power forces less sympathetic to our obsessive 'war on terror.' That group included the unlamented Mr Zine El Abazine Ben Ali of Tunisia -- a country where days earlier we had declared ourselves neutral in the autocratic government's contest with a spontaneous popular movement that forced his ouster.

As to China, a similarly cajoling attitude was struck by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who waxes indignant on a regular basis at Beijing's resistance to complying with our demands as to how they should amend their economic policies. In short, the Obama people are willing to work with the Chinese leaders so long as they accept Washington's strictures -- on the rate, on Iran, etc.

Part of our difficulty in making necessary changes of attitude and behavior is that we operate on the premise that there has to be a Number 1, a king of the hill, someone at the top of the BCS ratings. If that is taken as the natural order of things global, then it makes sense to hold onto the top slot we believe is ours by Divine Right using all means and no matter what. If we reject that possibility, a plethora of opportunities beyond the "it's us or them" mentality present themselves.

What is noteworthy is less the position we strike on this or that issue than the smug superiority that creeps into nearly all our communications with others. It is now a major liability in conducting diplomacy. Our ingrained sense of superiority is rooted in both recent circumstances (the sole superpower/unilateral moment) and our enduring national self-image as the as the exalted nation destined to show the world the path of virtuous truth.

It has been confirmed over the years by the routine deference we have received from so many countries. The deference is not as universal or automatic as it used to be, but we don't acknowledge that shift or the profound implications. In The Planet Of The Apes, the critical moment comes when the legendary simian hero first says 'No' to his masters. That ushers in the epochal role reversal whereby the formerly servile apes and orangutans turn the tables on humans.

Nothing so dramatic is in the offing for the United States. The true stake is the terms of engagement in a power and authority sharing world. We are deaf to Brazil's Lula saying 'No,' to Turkey's Erdogan, to Iraq's Maliki, to Afghanistan's Karzai, to Pakistan's Musharraf and Kayani, and of course to the Chinese leadership. We had better take note that indeed the times are a'changin' lest we wind up worse off than we need to be. Then we'd be chumps.