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, “Events, dear boy, events” has in the words of Robert Harris become “infuriatingly ubiquitous.” Yet events do matter and some of this week’s events have historic significance.
Many things happened over the last seven days. The Saudi-Iran row over Hajj pilgrims continues to fester; about 700 migrants as per BBC or refugees as per Al Jazeera have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya; the chief negotiator of Syria’s main opposition bloc quit over the failure of the Geneva peace talks backed by United Nations (UN); Donald Trump declared that illegal immigrants are treated better than American war veterans; and Australian scientists reported that over 35% of corals in the northern and central parts of Australia’s 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, the Battle of Verdun raged for 300 days and left 800,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. This week, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel got together to honor the war dead as per a tradition begun in 1984 by François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. Hollande and Merkel did not hold hands like their predecessors and their time together seemed to be marked by some froideur.
Even so, Verdun lives on in the collective memory of la grande nation and der Deutschland. Hollande warned against “forces of division” and Merkel declared that nationalism “would throw us backwards.” Both of them called for unity in the European Union (EU) at a time when the far-right is on the rise and the 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 a penchant for spouting clichés. 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. 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 to pivot the US to Asia for a while. As he makes his last bows on the international stage, Obama is seeking more than rapprochement with Cuba and a 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. Communism was evil incarnate 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 to paranoiac McCarthyism. Some of the finest American intellectuals were persecuted, though, to be fair, they did not end up in the Gulag. Abroad, the US acted with a little less restraint. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew the first democratically elected government of Iran 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 a 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 British 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 of the Atlantic Charter turned into a supporter of the South African apartheid regime. In fact, the CIA played a key role in the arrest of Nelson Mandela, who 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 “got rid of expeditiously.”
The US failed to understand that many countries did not quite have a pleasant brush with capitalism. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was set up as a joint stock company. It is now regarded as the world’s first multinational. The company soon took over the Dutch East Indies—modern-day Indonesia—a 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 Dutch squandered precious money from the Marshall Plan 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. “No taxation without representation” 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 fund ante bellum estates in the American South. Moreover, Uncle Sam still practiced segregation. American claims that it stood for freedom were translated as freedom for the white man alone.
In some ways, Americans were only emulating John Stuart Mill of the British East India Company. He believed in liberty for those in “the maturity of their faculties.” White men were evidently qualified. Even white women were. Brownie fuzzy wuzzies were another matter. They did not quite deserve the benefit of Mill’s doctrine. That tens of millions died of famine under Mill’s company’s rule, including a third of the population of much of modern-day eastern India 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. Agent Orange and American disgrace in Vietnam are now folklore. For years afterward, relations remained cool. Obama has changed that dramatically.
On May 24, the US president gave a stirring speech in Hanoi. In his words, “like bamboo, the unbroken spirit of the Vietnamese people” gave it the ability to cast off colonial rule. He blamed “Cold War rivalries and fears of communism” for pulling Vietnam and the US into conflict. Obama talked about reconciliation and removing Agent Orange. He announced that “the Peace Corps will come to Vietnam for the first time, to teach English.”
Obama extolled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a means to boost trade. At a time when 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 an increasingly assertive China. It is little wonder that the crowd broke into applause when Obama declared: “Big nations should not bully smaller ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully.” To promote peace and perhaps American business, Obama ended the arms embargo against Vietnam. Now, Vietnam can buy American military equipment, train with US forces and together challenge 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. Donald Trump’s constant attacks on Obama for making the US look weak 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 and mourned the dead. He wrote in the visitors’ book, “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.” Japan, an aging society with an aching economy 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 in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg dissected what he called 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 “soft power” in Asia.
To provide contrast, Trump was bellowing to bikers that Japan pay 100% of its security costs because Americans need to take care of their own. He also declared that Bernie Sanders “is right on one thing.” 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 threatens Pax Americana. As a modern-day Marcus Aurelius, Obama can only hope that he is not succeeded by a contemporary counterpart of Commodus.
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