GLOBAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT
AMERICA: ROGUE SUPERPOWER, BUT NEEDED ECONOMIC ENGINE
By Wang Jisi
Wang Jisi is director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and concurrently director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School, Communist Party of China.
BEIJING -- From Europe to China, from Russia to the Arab world, people everywhere harbor grudges against U.S. unilateralism in conducting international affairs. However, as their grudges differ in degree and in kind, no lasting regional or global anti-American coalition is in sight. When President George W. Bush illogically bracketed Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an ''axis of evil'' in his 2002 State of the Union Address, not even Washington's close allies concurred, though few governments beyond this ''axis'' openly expressed their opposition. Neither would many governments protest officially should Washington use forceful means to topple the Saddam Hussein regime.
The Sept. 11 tragedy provided Americans with moral grounds and security imperatives to fight international terrorism. More than ever before since the end of the Cold War, the Americans see the world in black and white, ''either with us or against us.'' They have entitled themselves to be the only power that can choose the targets, means and ends in combating terrorism. No other important powers would want to appear in America's way if what it does is not affecting their vital interests. Some are just jumping on the bandwagon; others can't afford to offend the only superpower whose political and military muscle is stronger than that of any potential anti-U.S. allies combined.
Indeed, the world today seems to be unprecedentedly unipolar, with the American power largely unparalleled and unchecked. But the only superpower is also the lonely superpower, because its national priorities are surely very different from those of most other countries.
Sept. 11 has changed the American way of life profoundly, but other parts of the world are not affected that much and therefore are not easily brought into the orbit of ''America's new war.'' Bush hopes that ''all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.'' In return, all those nations that support Washington's anti-terrorist campaign should have the right to expect it to heed their calls in coping with their own set of problems.
''As Americans often say, there is no such thing as a free lunch,'' remarked a senior Chinese official when he referred to Beijing's cooperation with Washington on wiping out Taliban. While sharing intelligence work on Al Qaeda and Taliban, Beijing expected Washington's assistance in chasing hundreds of Uigur separatists who were trained by Taliban in Afghanistan and active in the Xinjiang region. In recent years Xinjiang has seen a sporadic and limited campaign of violence by ''freedom fighters'' in the Muslim population, mainly in the form of bombings and riots. However, U.S. officials have said they do not consider Xinjiang separatists to be terrorists. Hence no assistance offered to the Chinese government. Many Chinese now wonder why their government has to buttress the Bush administration's anti-terrorist effort when no reciprocity is evident. Furthermore, they are increasingly frustrated by Washington's enhanced military ties with Taiwan, a Chinese territory by their definition.
Given the sympathy and moral support from all over the world after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has been in a unique historic moment to cultivate friendly feelings from abroad. Unfortunately, a lot of the initial sympathy seems to have been wasted. Rather than thinking deeply about what the American nation can do to be liked, some Americans want their nation to be awed or feared. Rather than answering the question why America's security is more vulnerable today when its military machine is almost omnipotent, they seem to increasingly rely on a larger defense budget to deal with nontraditional threats from non-state elements. To be fair, America's reaction to the terrorist attacks is what a ''normal country'' would have to do, and so far it has done more successfully, both in safeguarding homeland security and in fighting the war in Afghanistan, than most observers anticipated.
Nonetheless, Americans have to face the unpleasant reality that in terms of domestic security the United States is going to be more and more of a ''normal country.'' Globalization not only brings to America mounting capital and cheap products but also intensifies illegal transactions, social ills and the alarming gulf between rich and poor. As a result, the United States must rebalance the needs for increased security measures with civil rights. The aftermath of Sept. 11 has already dealt a huge blow to civil liberties. For example, Amnesty International charged recently that the United States, along with some other governments around the world, has used the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism to erode human rights and stifle political dissent. More specifically, it criticized the United States for setting a poor example by refusing to class Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects held at the U.S. Navy's Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba as prisoners of war, which would grant them rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Yet Americans still view their nation as exceptionally righteous. Other people, in contrast, may conclude that the United States as an international player is not immune from the iron law that ''power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.'' To many other national governments, the growing awesome might of the United States is not their gospel.
Another -- and more ominous -- perception gap is enlarging between national governments and private citizens under them. To varying degrees, national governments see benefits in preserving the current international order and rules upheld by the United States. However, a sizable part of their societies -- especially religious extremists, have-nots and nationalistic intellectuals -- regard the United States as an obnoxious, arrogant hegemon and a source of evil. In their eyes, the governments cooperating with the U.S. government and corporations is probably serving American interests more than their own. In a number of developing countries, there is popular demand for more vigorous resistance to American influences. There is even open sympathy with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. To many ordinary people, the United States is a symbol of wealth and indulgence, which they see in Hollywood movies but can never have access to.
For example, contrary to American expectations, the prevalent perception of the United States in present-day Chinese society is anything but the ''beacon of freedom.'' Nostalgia about the Mao Tse-tung years is popular partly because Mao ''had the guts to defy Americans.'' To be sure, young Chinese students still have a longing for a U.S. visa or green card, but they are more attracted to the American standard of life than to American ideas. It is not very hard to imagine the Chinese attitude toward the combination of American power and ethnocentrism. The American clamor about the ''China threat'' is not winning over the Chinese heart as the real long-term threat to the United States comes from elsewhere.
All this notwithstanding, the world needs the American economic locomotive as well as other global public goods this superpower provides. What the United States needs to do is to wield its power and influence more carefully by taking into consideration other nations' views and interests. The more it goes alone in world affairs, the less help from others it can count on, and the less secure it will ultimately feel.
(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 6/4/02)