Obama visits Asia to heal past wounds, push for trade, deepen security ties, promote American interests and contain China in a masterly display of diplomacy.
The late Harold Macmillan, heir to a publishing business, a British prime minister and chancellor of the University of Oxford, was once asked what he feared most. His apocryphal response, âEvents, dear boy, eventsâ has in the words of Robert Harris become âinfuriatingly ubiquitous.â Yet events do matter and some of this weekâs events have historic significance.
Many things happened over the last seven days.Â The Saudi-Iran row over Hajj pilgrimsÂ continues to fester; aboutÂ 700 migrants as per BBCÂ orÂ refugees as per Al JazeeraÂ have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya;Â the chief negotiator of Syriaâs main opposition bloc quitÂ over the failure of the Geneva peace talks backed by United Nations (UN);Â Donald Trump declared that illegal immigrants are treated better than American war veterans;Â and Australian scientists reported thatÂ over 35% of coralsÂ in the northern and central parts of Australiaâs Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by bleaching because of warmer ocean waters thanks to climate change.
Each of these events is significant in its own right, but history hangs heavy this week. Exactly 100 years ago, theÂ Battle of VerdunÂ raged for 300 days and left 800,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. This week, French President FranĂ§ois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel got together to honor the war dead as perÂ a tradition begun in 1984 by FranĂ§ois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. Hollande and Merkel did not hold hands like their predecessors and their time together seemed to be marked by someÂ froideur.
Even so, Verdun lives on in the collective memory ofÂ la grande nationÂ andÂ der Deutschland. Hollande warned against âforces of divisionâ and Merkel declared that nationalism âwould throw us backwards.âÂ Both of them called for unity in the European Union (EU)Â at a time whenÂ the far-right is on the riseÂ and theÂ United Kingdom threatens to walk out of the fractious European family. Both Hollande and Merkel were awkward and neither spoke with inspiration or vision. Together, they personified why the European project is running out of steam. People are tired of mind-numbing banal bureaucrats with aÂ penchantÂ for spoutingÂ clichĂ©s. The EU is in crisis and needs more than the dreaded specter of the two world wars to muddle through.
Even as France and Germany confronted their ghosts of the past, the United States confronted its own.Â President Barack Obama visited Vietnam and Japan, two foes that have recently and not so recently turned friends. Obama is a post-Vietnam War president. Besides, he lived in Indonesia as a child. Southeast Asia is familiar to the president who has been attempting toÂ pivot the US to AsiaÂ for a while. As he makes his last bows on the international stage, Obama is seeking more thanÂ rapprochement with CubaÂ and aÂ nuclear deal with Iran. This week, he decided to slay the ghosts of both Vietnam and Hiroshima.
Obama is an unlikely chief of the land of the Puritans that likes Judeo-Christian certitude and a clear ideology. In the aftermath of World War II, the descendants of Puritans reposed their faith in free markets. After all, the Soviet Union was a godless society ruled by tyrants who purportedly drank blood in lieu of wine.Â Communism was evil incarnateÂ and the end justified the means in an existential battle where the winner would take all. Noble Americans had to vanquish evil Soviets to create heaven and save the world from hell. Collateral casualties were just part of the game.
Unsurprisingly, such a Manichean worldview led toÂ paranoiac McCarthyism. Some of the finest American intellectuals were persecuted, though, to be fair, they did not end up in theÂ Gulag. Abroad, the US acted with a little less restraint. In 1953,Â the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew the first democratically elected government of IranÂ to protect the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mohammad Mosaddegh, the then prime minister of Iran, was ludicrously vilified as a potential communist and expected to persist with aÂ colonial-era British deal.
Clearly, the US and the CIA were not cognizant of the idea of duress. Iran had agreed to that deal under a barrel of the gun, and the BritishÂ gave it a measly share of its oil revenues. By siding with the colonial master, the US stabbed the newly independent and not yet independent colonies in the back. Now, the country ofÂ the Atlantic CharterÂ turned into a supporter of the South African apartheid regime. In fact, theÂ CIA played a key roleÂ in the arrest of Nelson Mandela, whoÂ remained on the list of terrorists in the US till 2008. In the rigid ideological world of the US, anyone who was not a cheerleader in short skirts for Uncle Sam was an ugly enemy to be âgot rid of expeditiously.â
The US failed to understand that many countries did not quite have a pleasant brush with capitalism. In 1602,Â the Dutch East India CompanyÂ was set up as a joint stock company. It is now regarded as the worldâs first multinational. The company soon took over the Dutch East Indiesâmodern-day Indonesiaâa part of the world Obama is familiar with. What followed was not pretty. In the name of trade, the company proceeded to rob and then conquer the natives. Capitalism was born red in the tooth and claw, with its evil twin, colonization.
Somewhere along the way, it became convenient for the Dutch to believe that they were benevolent. After all, they were civilizing the natives. So pervasive was this belief that the DutchÂ squandered precious money from the Marshall PlanÂ to recolonize Indonesia after World War II. The Dutch themselves had not enjoyed German rule during the war, but did not see the irony of Indonesians sharing the same aspirations for freedom.
Furthermore, the Americans failed to realize that the free market model the US set out to promote after World War II had many doubters. Far too many in the impoverished colonies did not want the unfettered preservation of the property rights of corporations, elites and individuals who had acquired their property through murder, threats and imposition of an unjust law during the colonial era. Hence, far too many liberation struggles tended to be left leaning.
Tragically, the US saw these struggles as left-leaning and not as liberating. âNo taxation without representationâ was abandoned and support for imperial or right-wing regimes became absolute. Perhaps this was inevitable in the land of the free and the home of the brave. After all, white settlers had cheated, robbed and slaughtered natives to take over their land. Fortunes had been built on the backs of slaves to fundÂ ante bellum estatesÂ in the American South. Moreover, Uncle SamÂ still practiced segregation. American claims that it stood for freedom were translated as freedom for the white man alone.
In some ways, Americans were onlyÂ emulating John Stuart Mill of the British East India Company. He believed in liberty for those in âthe maturity of their faculties.â White men were evidently qualified. Even white women were. Brownie fuzzy wuzzies were another matter. They did not quite deserve the benefit of Millâs doctrine. That tens of millions died of famine under Millâs companyâs rule, including a third of the population of much of modern-day eastern IndiaÂ in the 1770s, is mere piffle.
In Vietnam, the Americans operated from the same playbook as in Iran. They supported French imperial rule and turned new oppressors. Sadly for them, the Vietnamese were made of tougher stuff and did not quite roll over quite as easily as the Iranians.Â Agent OrangeÂ and American disgrace in Vietnam are now folklore. For years afterward, relations remained cool. Obama has changed that dramatically.
On May 24,Â the US president gave a stirring speech in Hanoi. In his words, âlike bamboo, the unbroken spirit of the Vietnamese peopleâ gave it the ability to cast off colonial rule. He blamed âCold War rivalries and fears of communismâ for pulling Vietnam and the US into conflict. Obama talked about reconciliation and removing Agent Orange. He announced that âthe Peace Corps will come to Vietnam for the first time, to teach English.â
Obama extolled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a means to boost trade. At a time whenÂ drought is reducing water and increasing soil salt levels, Vietnamese farmers are in deep distress. Along the 4,350-kilometer-long Mekong, rice, coffee, vegetables, freshwater fish and even seafood production is suffering. Farmers are fleeing to find jobs in factories, many of whom export to the US. It is little surprise that Vietnamese leaders are eager beavers for the TPP.
Apart from trade, Obama talked about security. This is code for China. Vietnam, Japan and many smaller nation states in Southeast Asia are petrified of anÂ increasingly assertive China. It is little wonder that the crowd broke into applause when Obama declared: âBig nations should not bully smaller ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully.â To promote peace and perhaps American business,Â Obama ended the arms embargo against Vietnam. Now, Vietnam can buy American military equipment, train with US forces and together challengeÂ Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Little brother can now stand up to big brother for its share of fish, oil and gas, as well as the domination of a trade route already worth $5 trillion a year.
After Vietnam, Japan was the next stop for Obama where he became the first president to rock up to Hiroshima. He did not apologize on behalf of the US for dropping the atom bomb in 1945.Â Donald Trumpâs constant attacks on Obama for making the US look weakÂ do not allow him to. Also, as the dominant superpower, the US does not need to. History is written by winners and apologies are offered by losers.
In any case, Obama met survivors, listened carefully andÂ mourned the dead. HeÂ wrote in the visitorsâ book, âWe have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.â Japan, an aging society withÂ an aching economyÂ and horrific memories of the 1945 nuclear attacks, was impressed.
In his last year in office, Obama is settling past feuds and crafting new alliances. In a brilliant and extensive article inÂ The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg dissected what he calledÂ the Obama Doctrine, which involves the pivoting to Asia and managing the rise of China. In this Asia visit, Obama applied this doctrine masterfully by practicing crafty diplomacy, boosting trade, deepening security ties and increasing âsoft powerâ in Asia.
To provide contrast,Â Trump was bellowing to bikers that Japan pay 100% of its security costsÂ because Americans need to take care of their own. He also declared that Bernie Sanders âis right on one thing.â That thing is trade. In this strange election campaign, both Trump and Sanders are trumpeting their opposition to trade, putting them on a collision path with the Obama Doctrine.
This bodes ill for the US. More than the raging feuds in the Middle East or the rise of the Middle Kingdom, it is discontent at home that threatensÂ Pax Americana. As a modern-dayÂ Marcus Aurelius, Obama can only hope that he is not succeeded by a contemporary counterpart ofÂ Commodus.
*[You can receive âThe World This Weekâ directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visitÂ Fair ObserverÂ and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
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The views expressed in this article are the authorâs own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observerâs editorial policy.