MAR 12 1999

The Straits Times

Use success to keep only superpower in line

 


By GERALD SEGAL

AMERICANS. Don't you just love to hate them? They preach to you about the virtues of an open trading system and then they slap a bizarre set of sanctions on trade rivals before the World Trade Organisation makes its report.

They lecture the world about the virtues of the rule of law, and when their air force is responsible for the death of 20 tourists in Italy, US military courts set the culprits free.

But as infuriating as such behaviour undoubtedly is, the rest of the world has no choice but to get on well with the world's single superpower. The ability to get the US to behave better, in fact, is in the hands of the country's most frustrated allies.

The root of the problem with the United States is that the world has never seen such a unipolar moment.

It is only in the past 150 years that great power politics have been played out on a global stage. Only in the last 100 years has the status of a great power begun to be seen as requiring some form of global reach.

In those earlier eras, there were a series of roughly equal powers vying constantly for supremacy and alliance. For a time, a Japan or a Germany dominated a region, but not for long, and never outside its home base. In the Cold War, we got down to two powers, and by 1991, there was only one. Thus, for the first time since we have had an important degree of globalisation, there is only one global power.

You don't have to be a great theorist or philosopher to see that we are now struggling with a major structural change in global order. But in each major category of power, there are benefits as well as problems in having one dominant power.

In security terms, it sometimes appears as if we have a mad bomber on the loose. When confronted with terrorism against US interests in Africa, the weapon of choice is a cruise missile attack on Afghanistan and Sudan.

When Iraq will no longer comply with UN resolutions, you guessed it, the answer is to send in the missiles and aircraft. What do you do when faced with a stroppy Serbian leader? Of course, send in the bombers! Resorting to high-tech force makes sense for a country that fears casualties, dominates the highest end of weapons technology, and yet feels an obligation to maintain international order.

It is easy to make fun of "cowardly" and simple-minded Americans who trust so naively in technology. But allies of the US also know that they have to "shout their objections quietly".

Would Europeans prefer to see Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction and missiles capable of wiping out Rome? Would Asians like to see China seizing the South China Sea and cowing Taiwan? Of course not! Because all other powers are puny and regional, they will, naturally, lack the ability and the inclination to defend global order.

Only a global power will do that. Non-status quo powers such as China (and perhaps Russia) might welcome a US less committed to global order, but if all other powers are truthful, they will accept reluctantly that it is better to have a sheriff with attitude than no sheriff at all.

In economic terms, as the current WTO dispute over bananas demonstrates, the US seems to have a default mode of "bully". The dreaded Super-301 trade legislation has been waved at any number of Asian trade partners.

Americans correctly castigate Europeans for the absurdities of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but as the Australians so trenchantly point out, US farm subsidies are only marginally less odious.

The last parts of the previous trade round were only possible because the Japanese and Singaporeans worked with other Asians and the EU to gang up on the Americans.

But if Europeans and Asians are honest, they will recognise that for all its flaws, the US is a more open economy. The US has a right to be nasty with Europeans who have violated flagrantly the spirit, if not the letter, of four WTO rulings on bananas.

The US has risen to the challenge of helping East Asians export their way out of trouble by allowing its trade deficit to more than double to US$280 billion (S$482 billion). Europeans, to their common disgrace, have continued to run a trade surplus of US$100 billion.

At least Japan, a country with the deepest recession of any OECD country since the end of the war, has a good excuse for its US$100 billion or so trade surplus.

Europe's cowardly failure to reform the CAP not only delays membership in the EU for new European democracies, but makes it harder for all emerging market countries to prosper through the free market.

In short, it is the US that has ensured that the nastiest dog in the economic crisis has not barked -- the one with the name "protectionism" on its collar.

Even in terms of ideological and cultural power, the US leads by default. The French government complains about US cultural dominance, but fought hard to host EuroDisney. The rivalry between Shanghai and Hongkong for a new Asia-Disney borders on the comical. In the midst of an Asian economic crisis that was supposed to have led to a backlash against a haughty US, there seems to be fierce competition for an icon of American capitalism.

And yet, despite the undoubted need to be grateful for American power, it would clearly be much better if you had some influence on how that power was exercised.

Europeans, with the creation of a single currency, understand that getting one's own house in order is one way to get the Americans to pay attention. Similarly, only when Japan returns to growth can it be anything more than a supplicant at the top tables.

Europeans risk becoming more like Japan if Germany's failure to engage in structural economic reform holds back growth in the euro-zone as a whole.

Standing up to the US and keeping it honestly committed to open multilateralism requires Europeans and Asians being far more successful at home.

Until they spend more on defence and can deploy their own forces beyond their homes, the US will treat them as second-class citizens.

Until their economies are as open and as successful as the American one, there will be a natural tendency to dismiss the complaints of foreigners.

And until European or Asian culture reaches out to global markets, the Americans, sadly , will have the field of dreams to themselves.

[The writer, the Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, contributed this article to The Straits Times.]


BULLY?: But bottom line is US has more open economy

IN ECONOMIC terms, as the current WTO dispute over bananas demonstrates, the US seems to have a default mode of "bully". But if the Europeans and Asians are honest, they will recognise that for all its flaws, the US is a more open economy.

It is the US that has ensured that the nastiest dog in the economic crisis has not barked -- the one with the name "protectionism" on its collar. Non-status quo powers such as China (and perhaps Russia) might welcome a US less committed to global order, but if all other powers are truthful, they will reluctantly accept that it is better to have a sheriff with attitude than no sheriff at all.

 

 


Copyright 1999 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.