THE BLOG
07/05/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2013

Obama Pivots Amidst Encroaching Chaos: Is the Promise of the California Summit Receding in the Rearview Mirror?

Well, isn't this going well?

We knew there were major issues on both ends of America's geopolitical pivot from its fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific, especially in the wake of the Snowden revelations about massive surveillance operations against a China that's very interested in acquiring technological innovations from the US. President Xi's knowledge of what was happening with Snowden clearly shadowed last month's US-China Summit in California, which seemed so promising at the time.

Now, on top of the military coup against Egypt's first democratically elected government, we're having Pivot problems in a part of the world that isn't even part of the exercise. That's Europe, as a result of the Snowden revelations of massive US surveillance there. (‎Archive of my Pacific Pivot-related pieces is here.)

Of course, Europe figures in very greatly to the Asia-Pacific Pivot, because to the extent that we pay much more attention to the Pacific our geopolitics is less dominated by the traditional Atlanticism. But as we pivot, strong relations with longtime European friends and allies become even more important. To the extent they are frayed and even threatened, they detract from the focus necessary to execute a complex series of moves.

At this point, the Obama Administration seems close to being in reeling mode, especially with Egypt in deep disarray after a military coup. (Which President Barack Obama won't call a coup, because that would trigger a cut-off of aid, not to mention a further diminution of our not exactly vast influence in the Arab world's most populous nation.)

"May you live in interesting times," indeed.

One potentially good sign emerged early in the week, however. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Brunei for a meeting of Asian nations over the ongoing crisis over China's extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, helped secure Chinese participation in multilateral negotiations over that very strategic body of water. We'll see how those talks turn out. And of course what happens besides the talking, which is often an entirely different matter. There the Philippines, Vietnam, and others among its neighbors are accusing China of trying to militarize the entire South China Sea region and menacing their ships not far off their own shores.

China is acceding to a multilateral process around a code of conduct for the South China Sea. But it has not dropped its expansive claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire body of water, one of the world's most strategic.

So diplomacy has had only a very limited effect so far.

Tensions between the Philippines and China over a group of islands off the coast of the Philippines flared up last week in a big way for the umpteenth time, with China flexing its growing seagoing muscle against a Filipino navy whose flagship is an old US Coast Cuard cutter.

As fate would have it, it is just 125 miles from the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal to Subic Bay, once the world's greatest naval base. That was in the days before the Philippines kicked the US Navy out, two decades ago. But the Navy is now once again welcome in Subic. And a destroyer is working with the Filipino navy now in the South China Sea.

This isn't really where we had hoped things would be following June's ballyhooed "Sunnylands Summit" between Obama and new Chinese President Xi Jinping at the old Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, California.

It was hoped that the informal atmosphere would foster a rapport between the two relatively youthful leaders and lead to more of a partnership approach to the world as China continues its rise to superpower status. And there were a few promising developments, though the rapport seemed a little lacking, according to sources.

North Korea, China's longtime troublesome client, not only backed away from its blood-curdling threats of recent months but, in very respectful tones, proposed peaceful negotiations with the US. (As for why China continues to back the Hermit Kingdom, the map, as usual, is revelatory. If North Korea reunites with South Korea, China has a big and unchallenged US ally right on its doorstep.)

There was also a big agreement to cut HFCs, the "super-greenhouse gas" hydrofluorocarbons. This looked major, especially given China's resistance to cutting other greenhouse gas emissions in its rush to hyper-industrialization, embracing as it does not only renewable energy -- yet another export industry for the PRC -- but especially coal-fired electric power plants.

And Xi agreed to tone down rhetoric about the US pivot to the Pacific being part of a grand strategy to contain China.

Not that that stopped the Chinese military from complaining about containment. (And not that the Pivot is not, at least in part, precisely that.) But the tone of things was nicer.

Then the greenhouse gas agreement appeared to crumble.

As the Financial Times reported two weeks ago, a ban on climate credits makes it much less likely that the Obama-Xi agreement will be carried out on China's end.

And of course there was no progress at all on what the White House said in advance was perhaps Obama's top priority, reining in what is widely reported to be a big Chinese cyber-espionage program to gain American technological secrets in order to get a leg up on industrial and especially military technologies.

As quickly became apparent, the summiteering Xi knew something that Obama did not; namely that ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden had been in Hong Kong for weeks. His revelations of massive and heretofore secret American surveillance programs countered Obama's complaints about what China was up to.

None of this means the US-China Summit was a setback. There is still ample opportunity for a relationship of creative tension to emerge between what is still the world's only superpower and the nation that means -- and has the means -- to attain that status.

But the Summerlands Summit will be known more as time goes on for the name of the town it occurred in rather than the name of the estate. Think of it as the Rancho Mirage Moment.

It's unfortunate, because the positive side of a US/China agenda has always been clear, as California Governor Jerry Brown's own sideline summit with President Xi and other top Chinese leaders made clear.

Californians have their own obvious and hopeful agenda with China, a nation and a people with a long history in the Golden State. That agenda is about investment and trade opportunities, research to better humanity, the development of renewable energy and the greater employment of California-style energy efficiency strategies in a growing China, and of course the closely aligned effort to combat climate change through reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Brown's big trip to China this past spring continued and amplified this agenda pursued in large measure in the past by his predecessor, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who hosted Chinese officials at all three of his Governors Global Climate Summits -- and his predecessor, Brown's former chief of staff Governor Gray Davis.

Unfortunately, that agenda, at least for now, is being superseded by more tumultuous developments.

Even as global affairs are roiled by the Snowden revelations about America's global surveillance program, China and Russia, sharp critics of the US on this, are pursuing joint military and naval exercises.

In fact, the largest ever joint naval exercise in Chinese history will be conducted with Russia from July 5th through July 12th in the Sea of Japan.

Japan is engaged in a frequently hot dispute with China over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands in the East China Sea.

Interesting times, indeed.

Back on the old end of the Pivot, Obama's strategy is thrown into further disarray by the Egyptian coup.

Little-known Justice Adly Mansour, a member of the supreme court long dominated by Mubarak backers (Mansour himself was appointed by the longtime dictator), was sworn in late Wednesday as Egypt's interim president after USC-educated engineer Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup following mass protests against his one-year rule. Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, is reportedly being held in an unspecified military barracks along with senior aides and other Muslim Brotherhood associates.

Obama, who urged that the Egyptian military not undertake such an action, is pushing calm. He is not describing the military coup in Egypt as a coup, because that would trigger a cut-off of US aid.

The army had given Morsi and his other opponents till Wednesday mid-day to work out their differences. That, not surprisingly, did not happen. Not surprisingly, since the just-a-few-months old lead protest group, Tamarod, has always had the explicit goal of ousting Morsi and working closely with the military. Tamarod, or Rebel in Arabic, emerged this spring as a youth-focused group at the leading edge of previous secular and even pro-Mubarak interests, with previously unknown 28-year old former journalist Mahmoud Badr as its spokesperson.

Obama is also dealing with the aftermath of the precipitous decision to shut off NATO airspace to the presidential plane of Bolivian President Ezo Morales, whose aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in Vienna, Austria as he returned from a conference of natural gas-exporting nations in Moscow.

Russia is organizing a gas cartel in something of an effort to match the oil cartel of OPEC. But it will have less success as some other countries, notably the United States, still so dependent on foreign oil, have large stores of natural gas.

It will, however, have an effect for Russia's power in Europe.

Latin American countries are pretty much uniformly denouncing the move to deny airspace to the Bolivian presidential plane, a move evidently undertaken due to a rumor that ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden was aboard the aircraft. Which appears not to have been the case.

A summit meeting of South American countries took place on Thursday.

The US will neither confirm nor deny any role in getting its NATO allies to make the move, for which French President Francois Hollande has formally apologized. He says he ordered that French airspace be opened when he learned it was the Bolivian presidential plane in question. Thus he implies that the decision to close French airspace was not initially brought to his attention.

Obama rather famously said the other day that he wouldn't "scramble jets" to apprehend Snowden, wanted on espionage charges in the US. But it does appear that the Obama Administration did, essentially, just that, having international airspace closed to a presidential aircraft on the mere suspicion that Snowden was aboard. Though of course there has been no confirmation that NATO members France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy took essentially simultaneous action to block the Bolivian presidential jet in response to a request from the Obama Administration or from NATO headquarters. NATO is commanded by a US four-star.

Of course spying and secrecy have long been part of the international system, from the days in the 1930s when Secretary of War and Secretary of State Henry Stimson -- who, believing in his famous dictum, "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail," dismantled the NSA forerunner called the Black Chamber only to embrace code-breaking and spying in the run-up to World War II -- to the present day. In this context, total transparency would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament.

We just don't live in a world in which it makes sense to leave our doors unlocked.

But that's not a justification for an anything goes attitude.

The longtime leading author on the NSA, James Bamford, notes that while it is accurate to say that most everyone spies on others, there is a fundamental difference between the practices of the US and the practices of everyone else. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he says, in essence, that the US secretly went "nuclear" in terms of its surveillance tech while everyone else is stuck with the metaphorical equivalent of conventional weapons.

"There is a big difference. President Barack Obama made a comment where he said, oh, we all spy on each other. The only difference is, the US spies with the eavesdropping equivalent of a nuclear weapon because of the money, the power, the technological capability of the US. The NSA is the largest intelligence agency in the world. Other countries spy with the equivalent of a canon. One of the benefits the US has is that the major Internet companies are located in the US so they can put pressure on them to turn over information. If you look at the worldwide telecommunications net, almost all of it goes through the United States. 80 percent of telephone communications go through the United States. So the US is in the unique position of being able to eavesdrop on the world without much difficulty.

"To a large degree, this a very counterproductive activity, if you're trying to find a needle in a haystack, and that is the whole idea post-9/11, and if you keep putting more and more hay on the haystack, it makes it more difficult to find that needle."

Since Obama presided over the expansion of surveillance tech beyond that of the Bush/Cheney years, Bamford thinks that a 21st century equivalent of the Church Committee is needed (though given the decline of the Senate he may have more of an independent commission in mind). The Church Committee was the 1970s special committee of the U.S. Senate chaired by the late Senator Frank Church. My old friend and boss Gary Hart, the brand new chair of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board, was a member of the Church Committee.

It uncovered all manner of wild doings in the intelligence world, giving rise to the permanent intelligence oversight committees and, not surprisingly, engendering not only a reaction to its findings but in some cases an overreaction, especially in the area of too sharply cutting the clandestine service.

There's an awful lot of chaos to consider on what should be a quiet 4th of July weekend ...

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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