"A Palestinian State Cannot be Created by Israel..."

The Buzz

Paul Pillar’s conspiratorial take on the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process assigns responsibility to a familiar nemesis: Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet Mr. Netanyahu has made it clear that he supports a two state solution in the context of a genuine peace agreement. The Palestinian cause has come undone not just because recent violence threatens to incite another intifada, but also because the same insuperable obstacles have plagued the peace effort since Oslo. Israel has the right to expect any Palestinian national government would actively prevent citizens from waging war on their own. It is hard to find many Arab governments today that could pass this test - certainly not the PLO. Sadly, there is no tangible prospect of Palestinian statehood because no peace treaty could encompass or control the dynamics capable of destroying such an accord. Nor is there foreseeable peace for Israel in the Middle East, only the judicious management of emerging threats and the unhappy prospect of sustained border wars.

Any agreement on established Palestinian borders will not resolve the fundamental issue of self-determination. The West Bank and Gaza have been occupied by the IDF on multiple occasions, generally in response to neighboring Arab states using the territory to attack Israel. Mr. Pillar unreasonably dismisses the strategic importance of the Jordan River Valley in this regard. Meanwhile the PLO remains hostage to broader Arab objectives; and hobbled by disunity, extremism and diaspora. Mahmoud Abbas diminished his political independence by reuniting with Hamas, and by seeking the Arab League’s sanction to parley with Netanyahu in 2009. Palestinians will only realize their legitimate aspirations when they are prepared to divorce their interests from the hostile pan-Arab agenda – and neighboring states support them in doing so.

This inherent tension will not be easily overcome. Moderate Arabs must face down their radical wing to achieve rapprochement with Israel. The latest accord between Fatah and Hamas notwithstanding, the Palestinian claim is delegitimized by the recourse to violence still enshrined in Hamas official policy. Meanwhile, the era of strongmen capable of inspiring (or enforcing) peace with Israel is dying on the Arab street. The rudderless populism of the Awakening gives little clue to its final destination, except it is unlikely to be charitable towards Israel.

At Georgetown recently President Bill Clinton labeled Yasser Arafat as a key impediment to peace during his administration. On the other side, critics of Israel (including President Obama and Mr. Pillar) single out Israeli troops and settlements in the West Bank. Yet peace remains unattainable, even when both issues are addressed. Mahmoud Abbas matched Mr. Arafat in his inability to conclude an agreement with Ehud Olmert in 2008. Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza only deteriorated following the unilateral Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlements in 2005, and subsequent election of Hamas. A five-fold increase in rocket attacks on Israel culminated in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09.

Ultimately, it is unlikely a Palestinian state would have succeeded even if Mr. Arafat had signed on, or Mr. Abbas, or even Mr. Netanyahu. No leader has proven capable of marshaling the Palestinian movement to reach a pragmatic settlement with Israel. No fledgling Palestinian state could survive the dynamics of today’s Middle East: sectarian violence, extremism, eroding national sovereignty and the absence of any credible arbiter or external authority willing to intervene.

Despite this morning's airstrikes in Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu understands that Israel is incapable of imposing the peace it craves. But look around the neighborhood. Security on the Egyptian border is in question as the government descends into tyranny. With Syria engulfed in civil war, established norms in the Golan Heights offer scant comfort. Iran’s nuclear program remains unresolved. Violent stalemate presents gathering dangers in Gaza and the West Bank. Existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan could easily become casualties of the Arab Awakening. These are unpropitious times for peace, and strategic outcomes are uncertain. For now, Mr. Netanyahu is justified in projecting strength rather than seeking accommodation.

It is fair for Mr. Pillar to criticize contemporary Israeli leadership for a lack of strategy and deficit of inspiration. However a Palestinian state cannot be created by Israel, the UN, or distant countries treating it as a foregone conclusion. Nor would another intifada advance the cause – tragedy would fall most heavily on the Palestinians. Rather, peaceful Palestinian statehood will require an extraordinary confluence of visionary, popular leaders on all sides: willing to make painful sacrifices, and capable of dominating competing factions. Leadership of this caliber is in short supply in the Middle East, where violence continues to overtake opportunity.

Christopher Johnston is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and served with the Australian Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently travelled to Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet with members of the Knesset and PLO.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael

The Great Eurasian Rebalancing Act

The Buzz

The news from Iraq makes it seem as though the battle for Baghdad is approaching. Yet an even bigger story is playing out on opposite sides of the great Eurasian land mass. Events unfolding there exhibit striking parallels. A resurgent Russia is pushing its expansionist ambitions in its “Near Abroad” just as an emboldened China is claiming vast stretches of its “Near Seas” as its sovereign domain. The actions of both nations are frightening neighbors, challenging US alliances, and stirring up regional rivalries. It is worth taking a closer look at these parallels: understanding the dynamics at play in one region shed light on the other and suggest policy lessons for dealing with both.

Drawing Russian and Chinese Parallels

At times the incidents on Russia’s western borders and China’s eastern seem like distorted reflections of one another in a carnival mirror. Russian security services are fomenting trouble on Russia’s border with Ukraine, while stepped-up Chinese maritime patrols are prowling waters within its “first island chain.” US Navy ships have been buzzed by Russian fighter jets in the Black Sea and come dangerously close to collisions with Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. Both Russia and China have been increasing annual spending on their armed forces at double-digit rates. US forces have tightened cooperation with nervous counterparts in NATO and in Asia.

Moscow’s and Beijing’s assertiveness has similar motivations – to reestablish their preeminence as dominant regional powers. Both regimes expect outside powers to defer to their claims of predominance in their regional spheres of influence. Both nations are also inspired by memories of past greatness tinged by feelings of resentment from humiliations at the hands of major powers. And since neither can look any longer to communism to bolster the legitimacy of their authoritarian regimes, they have had to find other means of rallying support.

The promise of rising incomes has powerful appeal in both countries, but those prospects are becoming increasingly frayed. Both economies are slowing, especially in Russia, which is teetering on the brink of recession. So the alternative for both Moscow and Beijing is appeals to nationalism. To consolidate popular support at home, their leaders present themselves as defenders of their peoples, avengers of past wrongs, and advocates of national greatness.

Both Moscow and Beijing see the United States and its allies as threats to their ambitions. Putin accused the US-led West of aiding and abetting the “coup d’état” against the Yanukovych regime in Kiev. Meanwhile, Beijing has convinced itself that the US is conspiring with its friends and allies in the region to encircle China and thwart its rise.

Russia’s and China’s neighbors have seized on commercial opportunities offered by the big powers next door, but they have also been made painfully aware of the downsides of this relationship. Russia has had no qualms about using Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas as leverage. Nor has China been timid about playing economic hardball to get its way with recalcitrant trading partners.

Thus, though Russia and China may feel like victims, they are acting in the eyes of their neighbors like bullies. These fears are causing many nearby countries to look to their stronger friends for support, in particular to the United States. They are eager, if not desperate, for assurances that the US won’t abandon them to the tender mercies of big powers at their doorsteps. 

Managing the Eurasian Balancing Act

Russia’s and China’s actions challenge broadly accepted rules for international interactions. President Obama enunciated them in his speech at West Point on May 28: big countries cannot prey on small ones; territorial disputes should be resolved without force or intimidation; and rights of free navigation must be respected. Regardless of whether core US interests are directly jeopardized, those of its treaty allies are.

These concerns were in part behind the Obama administration’s decision to initiate a policy of “rebalancing” toward Asia. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, it was increasingly clear that the United States needed to focus more on Asia, the region where the future’s main strategic challenges and economic opportunities converged.

Though the strategy was designed as a “whole-of-government” approach, its strictly military aspects grabbed the most attention. In fact, the plan involved only a relatively modest shift of military assets to the region. More important were its political and diplomatic elements. Those included updating US defense agreements with its allies, bolstering ties with emerging regional powers, and putting much more emphasis on regional institutions (especially ASEAN).

Trade initiatives were important too. The centerpiece was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a cutting-edge free trade agreement grouping some of the most dynamic economies on the Pacific Rim.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea and moves against Ukraine show that the rebalance needs to give greater weight to Europe. As long as Putin’s brand of assertive ethnically-based nationalism holds sway, Russia will be seen as a threat to its neighbors and to European security. Eurasia’s western flank now demands as much attention as its eastern flank.

The United States is not in the best position to pursue new exertions abroad. Iraq now grips Washington’s attention. At home, it faces gridlock, budget constraints, and a public mood still smarting from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these impediments notwithstanding, what should a new rebalance toward Europe look like? The Asian rebalance provides a few pointers.

First, don’t overplay the military component. Limited military deployments are warranted. Increasing surveillance flights and sending US soldiers to join in NATO-led exercises, for example, make sense. So do discrete efforts to strengthen the defense capabilities of Ukraine and others on Russia’s western border. But think long and hard before committing major hard power assets.

Second, renew NATO. Unlike in Asia, Europe doesn’t have to create a new security structure. Rather, it needs to make the most of what it has. That includes refocusing the organization founded to protect its members against the Soviet threat on responding to Putin’s expansionist agenda.

Third, reassure US allies but don’t embolden them. As in Asia, European partners want to know the United States is not so self-absorbed that it no longer has the will to back up its commitments. It is important to provide such assurances, but also not to encourage them to act in ways that would incite conflict and drag the United States into fights not of its choosing.

Fourth, act multilaterally. Just as the US is encouraging new regional approaches in Asia, so too should it be acting in lock step with its NATO allies. It is smart to coordinate closely with Germany and other European friends in ratcheting up economic pressure on Russia. Cajoling them into taking more forceful measures may be necessary, but there is nothing to be gained from getting out in front of those whose economic and security interests are most on the line.

Finally, negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Like the TPP, a free trade deal with Europe would send a powerful message of economic solidarity and strategic reassurance. That means redoubling negotiating efforts and winning Congressional support for fast track authority.

As usual, the hard part will be execution. This new approach will require combining diplomatic, economic, and military tools in a smart strategy to address the sharpening strategic pressures on Eurasia’s western as well as its eastern rim.

Marc M. Wall is senior visiting scholar in global studies at the University of Wyoming. He was foreign policy advisor to the United States Pacific Command over 2012-13. The views expressed in this article are his own. This article was first published in CSIS: PACNET newsletter here

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

Benjamin Netanyahu's Excellent Adventure

Paul Pillar

The last few months have gone rather well for the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the sense of advancing its prime objective of indefinitely extending the occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by ensuring failure of any diplomatic efforts to end the occupation. Netanyahu's success in this regard has been due both to his own tactical skill and to the luck of outside events.

Netanyahu achieved failure of the latest U.S. attempt to revive a peace process worthy of that name partly through the preemptory demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” He also successfully used the stratagem of striking a deal with the Palestinian Authority that involved release of Palestinian prisoners, reneging on that deal by construing its meaning differently than originally intended, and then blaming the P.A. for not proceeding anyway with substantive talks as if nothing untoward had happened. The Israelis had to take some mild off-the-record blame for the breakdown from the Americans, but nothing that wasn't manageable.

More threatening to the Israeli government's strategy than John Kerry's diplomatic efforts was the latest effort by Hamas and Fatah to bridge their differences and jointly support a single Palestinian government. These intra-Palestinian acts of reconciliation have always been a problem for Netanyahu's strategy because they involve creating a negotiating partner that can speak for the great majority of Palestinians and because they belie the Israeli allegation that Hamas wants nothing but the destruction of Israel. The Hamas-Fatah deal and subsequent creation of a cabinet of technocrats clearly involved Hamas moving toward Mahmoud Abbas's position rather than the other way around. This latest reconciliation appeared even more threatening to Netanyahu's approach than the previous ones because it showed more sign of sticking. Perhaps most disturbing to Netanyahu is that the Obama administration indicated it was willing to work with any jointly supported Palestinian government that emerged from the deal.

Netanyahu has given the same vehement and unyielding reaction he has given to the previous efforts at Palestinian reconciliation, such as withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. What most enabled him, however, to sustain his strategy in the face of this latest challenge—and here is one place where the luck of events has helped him—was the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and repeatedly promised evidence, which still hasn't been forthcoming, that the group was responsible for the crime. Two men with ties to Hamas have been named as suspects. They are at large but their families' homes have already been demolished. No proof of guilt was furnished beforehand, but Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank is an everyday occurrence anyway.

The crime provided the occasion for the Israeli government to strike back more broadly and forcefully than that. As Mitchell Plitnick has described it, “Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the 'peace process' and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.” This forceful stirring of the pot by Israel, which has involved the detention of hundreds of Palestinians and the death of several of them at the hands of Israeli security forces, helps to put any peace diplomacy even farther out of reach. It enables American supporters of Netanyahu's government to say for the umpteenth time that the time is not “ripe” for peace negotiations—and the government they support will do what it has to do to ensure that the time will never be ripe.

Netanyahu's strategy has benefited recently from other distractions, which have diverted any energy and attention that might otherwise be directed toward establishment of a Palestinian state. The principal distraction that Netanyahu has relied on has been, of course, his demonization of Iran. Other events have helped him. The world's attention was diverted greatly for a time by the crisis in Ukraine. Then came widespread alarm over the Sunni extremist group in Iraq and Syria that now calls itself the Islamic State. The latter scare has been even more useful for Netanyahu, who used it as another excuse to insist that Israeli troops must continue to occupy the Jordan River Valley indefinitely. Never mind that the chief of Mossad dismisses the notion of an Islamic State army marching across Jordan to invade Israel; the excuse still has a crude geographic appeal.

So Netanyahu has peace diplomacy right where he wants it: in the trash bin, but so far without having to shoulder unequivocal international blame for putting it there. His very success over the last few months in this regard, however, may over the next few months lead to reactions that will complicate further execution of his strategy. That the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation has gone as far as it has—farther than previous attempts—may lead many Palestinians to see it as a best shot at a genuinely comprehensive peace, one that would cover Gaza as well as the West Bank. Continued vehement Israeli rejection of this best shot may lead Palestinians to conclude that they have no shot—none, that is, at negotiating a bilateral accord with any Israeli government that looks at all like the current one. One resulting possibility—which the current volatility in the Palestinian territories shows is dangerously close to becoming a probability—is outbreak of a new full-blown intifada, an uprising with widespread violence.

Even without a new intifada, there are two other strategy-complicating possibilities. One is for the Palestinian Authority (presumably in the form of its Hamas-backed but non-party government) to drop its previous restraint in seeking the full involvement of international organizations in helping the Palestinians out of their plight and moving toward real statehood. The other is for the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, end the fiction that what exists in the West Bank is anything other than continued Israeli military occupation, and stop being an accessory to that occupation. Netanyahu in effect encourages Palestinians to reach that latter conclusion, and to realize that the P.A. is not really a government at all, when he does things such as disdaining Abbas's attempts to help in finding the killers of the Israeli teenagers and berating the P.A. even though the crime occurred in a portion of the West Bank where the P.A. has no security functions at all.

But Netanyahu is always focused on the short term, and he probably is not worrying much right now about those possibilities. It also is because he is focused on the short term that success in his strategy in fending off Palestinian statehood is not at all success for Israel. In fact, it is quite contrary to the long term interests of Israel and damaging to its prospects for living as a peaceful, prosperous, liberal state. The Netanyahu strategy fails to recognize that clinging to all the land to the Jordan River makes it impossible for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state.

The strategy is one that entails unending conflict and animosity. As Israel sinks ever more deeply into hard-core apartheid, a corrosive effect continues to be seen in the public attitudes and morality of many Israelis as well as many Palestinians, an effect that is disturbing to the many other Israelis who are still thoughtful and humane. The phenomenon in question has become increasingly apparent in recent years in an intolerance in Israel that has evolved into overt hatred and prejudice against Arabs, matching anti-Jewish hatred that can be found on the other side. (Anti-Semitism probably is not the appropriate term in this context, only because both Jews and Arabs are Semites.)

In this atmosphere, nonofficial acts of inhumanity and violence become more likely—such as the killing of the three Jewish teenagers and the subsequent killing, possibly after being burned alive, of a Palestinian Arab teenager. The atmosphere also infects official acts. Those acts include much of what happens in the West Bank every week, including all those demolitions of homes. It also has reportedly included in the past few days the brutal beating by Israeli police of another Palestinian teenager—a cousin of the one who was burned and killed.

The victim of the police beating is an American: a high school sophomore from Tampa, Florida who was visiting his relatives. If the reports about his beating are confirmed, this ought to be an occasion for the U.S. to pull its kid gloves off at least a bit more in dealing with Netanyahu's government. When Israeli police are beating up U.S. citizens, the U.S. government ought to do more to steer the Israeli government off its disastrous path. Call it tough love if your prefer, but the emphasis needs to be on the toughness.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister.                       

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

The Fatal Flaw in the American Decline Debate

The Buzz

The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has intensified the debate over the proper objective of America’s grand strategy.  Should it continue “the preservation of a very happy status quo” (Joshua Rovner)?  Adopt a posture of “restraint” (Barry Posen)?  Attempt to “forge a sustainable path ahead for American internationalism” (Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine)?  Sustain “a liberal world order that [will] defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well” (Robert Kagan)? 

This debate is healthy and essential, even if reaches no resolution.  Less clear, however, is the prescriptive value of the question that often attends discussions of America’s role in the world: “Is the United States in decline?”

For starters, it is highly ambiguous.  When we say “United States,” are we addressing its government?  Its military power?  Its economic power?  Its overall power?  Its influence in international affairs?  Some of the above?  All of the above?  How should we measure each of them?  “Decline” is further problematic.  From what baseline are we assessing America’s trajectory?  Are we discussing absolute or relative decline?  What are the criteria for each?  When does relative decline become absolute?    

It is not only definitional and methodological questions, however, that arise.  One’s take on the decline question also depends, for example, on how one ranks the importance of different forms of power.  One who places priority on power-projection capability and command of the commons is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes that geoeconomic instruments of power are increasingly important.  One’s verdict also depends on the strategic objectives one believes the U.S. should be pursuing.  One who believes the U.S. should focus primarily on maintaining its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and baseline power resources is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes the U.S. should attempt to preserve a liberal international order indefinitely.  Last but not least, one’s conclusion also depends on one’s appraisal of the challenges faced by other major powers.  One who concludes that China’s internal difficulties place an upper bound on its ascent is less likely to agree with the assessment of U.S. decline than someone who assumes China will be able to address them over time.

The discussion above only scratches the surface; there are many other considerations that could inform one’s answer to the decline question.  Indeed, given how many permutations of variables and metrics one can use to tackle the decline question, it is possible for folks on opposite sides to debate one another without engaging each other’s arguments in much depth—a possibility that helps explain why the debate has grown stagnant.  While the specific evidence that declinists and anti-declinists cite has necessarily changed over time, their theses have not.  The declinists conclude that this time is different, lamenting that the hastiness of previous predictions has lulled those who disagree with them into complacency.  The anti-declinists point to America’s formidable residual strengths and longstanding regenerative capacity, treating their sparring partners much like the boy who cried wolf.  Befitting a debate of such endurance and complexity, each side has persuasive proponents.  Reading Gideon Rachman or Edward Luce will leave most fair-minded observers more concerned about America’s prospects than they were before; reading Joseph Nye or Josef Joffe will leave most more reassured.  There is little evidence to suggest that either camp is changing the other’s views.  It is more likely, in fact, that those views will calcify over time.

The decline debate is likely here to stay, in part because the fears it reflects seem to be integral to the American psyche.  As Cullen Murphy explained to James Fallows in early 2010, “If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now….Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone….Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today.”  While a perpetual fear of decline would seem to be a source of exhaustion, Americans have channeled it quite constructively in the postwar era; just consider the wave of American innovations that followed the launch of Sputnik.  Reflecting on the declinist debate a quarter century ago in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington reassured readers that the U.S. “is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline….the more Americans worry about the health of their society, the healthier they are”

Particularly since the global financial crisis, however, this concern has increasingly appeared to coincide with a mood of resignation.  According to a report this past December by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans think China is “the world’s leading economic power” (31% think the U.S. is).  According to another Pew report, this one released just last month, 49% think America’s “best years” are over (44% think they lie ahead).  Only 35% think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.”  The current wave of declinism reinforces—and is, in turn, amplified by—a familiar tendency in intellectual and political circles: adducing each new crisis abroad as evidence of U.S. impotence in international affairs. 

Paradoxically, though, while this inclination stems from concern about declining U.S. influence, it also seems to reflect a belief in—or, at a minimum, a hope for—something approaching U.S. omnipotence: that is, the U.S. can generally prevent or reverse bad outcomes if it chooses to do so.  In truth, though the U.S. may remain the world’s most powerful and influential single actor, the policies it implements are only one of an infinite number of phenomena that shape the day’s events.  While it is natural to worry about U.S. influence abroad when fires seem to be burning all around, the intensity of alarm in certain quarters seems disproportionate in view of the past 70 years.  Every administration of the postwar era has struggled—not only to reconcile crisis management with strategic vision, but also to address the charge that it was hapless as momentous strategic developments multiplied abroad. 

Few would—or could—deny the magnitude of the foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S., whether the ascendancy of ISIS, the carnage in Syria, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, China’s approach to solving its territorial disputes, or the latest North Korean provocation.  These challenges are more a reflection of the world’s complexity, however, than of the failure of U.S. foreign policy.  That policy should be graded less on the basis of how it responds to a given crisis than on the extent to which it shapes trends in the international system over time.  Even if one believes that U.S. credibility suffers when it responds “weakly” to a given crisis, adopting a “do something now” doctrine is not a prudent alternative: much like thrashing around in quick sand only makes one sink faster, operating one’s foreign policy in perpetual crisis-management mode can only culminate in exhaustion and confusion—thereby, ironically, compounding the very weakness that proponents of that doctrine seek to reverse (Tom Toles’s April 20th cartoon “As the World Turns” makes the point well). 

Foreign policy requires strategic vision because crises alone are insufficient to provide a coherent basis for approaching the world.  They often occur at unexpected times and in unexpected places, bearing little relationship to one another.  Even if they did provide such a foundation, U.S. foreign policy would not be strategic if it undertook to prioritize each crisis equally.  As Francis Fukuyama explained recently, strategy “is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others, and explaining why this is so.  The notion that there is no place unworthy of U.S. attention is not a strategy.”  One could go further: the existence of a crisis need not impel U.S. involvement.  The doctor’s mantra—“first, do no harm”—is also a sound principle in foreign policy.  The U.S. should concern itself primarily with those crises that affect its vital national interests or could do so if left unchecked.  When a crisis affects important (but not vital) or secondary interests, it should think carefully before deciding to get involved; it if it does, it should either work in close partnership with allies or play a backbencher role, ensuring that its efforts at crisis management do not detract from its strategic priorities.  

Fretting about decline does not contribute to making these distinctions; instead, it collapses the boundaries between them.  Here we get to the major problem with the decline debate: it offers little, if any, prescriptive guidance.  Whether or not the U.S. is in decline—however vaguely defined and imprecisely measured—it will have to contend with a range of crises across the globe, the emergence of more and more non-Western powers, and the shifting balance of power between states and nonstate actors.  It would be more productive to explore how the U.S. can position itself in this emerging operating environment than to invest in a stale debate whose participants do not appear to be making much impression on each other.  Ironically, one of the most compelling affirmations of this proposition comes from Paul Kennedy, perhaps the most influential declinist alive today: the “only serious threat to the real interests of the United States,” he explained over a quarter century ago in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.  Given the considerable array of strengths still possessed by the United States, it ought not in theory to be beyond the talents of successive administrations to arrange the diplomacy and strategy of this readjustment.”

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013). Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne

TopicsDecline RegionsUnited States

Japan and Australia: Ready, Willing and Abe

The Buzz

Australia is developing the habit of balancing an address to the Parliament by an Asia-Pacific ally with a matching speech by China’s President.

The contentious words in that sentence are “balancing” and “ally,” even if the pattern is evident.

In October 2003, US President George W. Bush and China’s President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on consecutive days. Both were visiting Oz for the APEC summit in Sydney. Previously, only American presidents had addressed Parliament (Bush Senior, 1992; Bill Clinton, 1996).

Hu’s address could properly be described in a parliamentary monograph as “a moment of great ceremonial and symbolic significance,” representing “a high point in the Howard Government’s engagement with China.”

Tweaking those phrases, Shinzo Abe’s Canberra address tomorrow is a moment of symbolic significance, marking an economic high point and a security exclamation mark in the Abbott Government’s embrace of Japan. Abbott’s best mate in Asia is calling. Note this is the first Japanese PM to get to Canberra since 2002—perhaps that explains the need for a “new” special relationship.

Abe will join Abbott for the signing of the Australia-Japan free trade agreement and for a defense cooperation agreement for sharing equipment and technology. The defense deal is a step towards a next-generation Australian submarine with a Japanese diesel-electric drive chain and an American weapons system. Abe and Abbott will be in equal agreement when Abe gives another version of his speech announcing Japan is back as a defense and security player.

This year’s balancing parliamentary address from China will come in November when Xi Jinping visits for the G20 summit. That word “balancing” is useful in denoting the equal honor offered to two important Asian partners, as a reference to the US rebalance, and to discussion of Asia’s balance of power and balancing against the rising power.

Referring to Japan as an “ally” is where the semantics compound. The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that John Howard and Shinzo Abe signed in 2007, expressed an important and growing security partnership. The pact does not amount to a formal alliance; it’s not a treaty to be invoked if ships clash and missiles fly. Yet, increasingly, Australia and Japan act as allies, from cyber to submarines to Asia’s future.

A great impetus for this ally-type behavior is that Japan and Australia are both allies of the same ally. In the trilateral relationship with the US, the Japan–Australia leg is the weakest, but it’s getting more exercise. Here’s the DFAT-speak version:

“Australia and Japan now have a strong and broad-ranging partnership. Australia and Japan have taken practical steps to address regional and global strategic challenges of mutual concern. The United States is both Australia’s and Japan’s most important strategic ally, and the three countries progress cooperation on strategic issues through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.”

In his Shangri-La speech on Japan’s role in Asia’s security future, Abe referred to Abbott’s visit to Tokyo in April and gave this alliance-lite description

“We clearly articulated to people both at home and abroad our intention to elevate the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia to a new special relationship.”

Shinzo Abe will give a speech to Parliament on Japan’s intentions towards Australia that will be stronger in tone and temper than that of any previous Japanese leader. The man who signed the 2007 pact is back to give it a boost. The speech will express Abe’s personality and his past as well as his vision of Japan’s future. 

The headline on this piece plays on the phrase ‘ready, willing and able.’ Ponder if Abe will be able. He’s showing willing in the reinterpretation of the Constitution for collective self-defense (warmly welcomed by Australia) and the rewrite of the Japan-America defense guidelines, the first big overhaul in nearly two decades. Will he be able to get Japan to embrace and entrench that new mindset? Invective from China and South Korea might aid Abe, but will Japan truly commit?

The answer will define Abe as either a passing political outlier who couldn’t break the Japanese mold or the model for future leaders. Some of Abe’s habits of mind—especially his understanding of history as expressed by his Yasukuni shrine compulsion—play to the outlier view, even if those same qualities of will and self-belief make him a potential mold-breaker. Abe’s greatest external asset in his push to remodel Japan’s military role isn’t the US—it’s China’s recent belligerence and the moments of madness from China’s protectorate, North Korea. 

Abe’s parliamentary address will be more than a measure of what sort of ally Japan wants to be for Australia. It’ll be a measure that can be set beside—or balanced against—the picture Xi Jinping paints when he takes the same stage in November.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article was first published by ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific