Jackson Diehl becomes the latest to erect the straw man that Obama’s supporters thought world problems would simply melt away in the face of his charm and willingness to negotiate, and point out that the world still has problems. To this I mostly recommend Ilan Goldenberg’s response but I think one other way of thinking about what Diehl has wrong here is to think about how we should assess George W. Bush’s dealings with China.
I think by Diehl standards you’d have to consider Bush’s China policy to be a catastrophic failure. After all, China’s not a democracy. It hasn’t dropped its claims to Taiwan. Nor has it dropped its territorial claims in the South China Sea. They still treat Tibetans poorly. They didn’t do what we wanted them to do with their currency. They continue to build up military forces. They haven’t totally done what we wanted on Iran or North Korea. They voted against us at the UN on Iraq. And wherever we’ve tried to isolate regimes in the world, China has proven willing to step up and fill the void. A disaster!
But in real life, this evaluation would be hideously unfair. The US-China relationship is an inherently problematic situation—the global hegemon and main architect of the existing international system vs a rapidly rising power whose massive population makes it a plausible contender to overtake us at some point in the future. China is too big too ignore, but also too big to be coerced or easily bribed. It’s a tough situation. And potentially it’s a dangerous one. “Success,” under the circumstances, means a continuation of cordial relations and brisk commerce rather than a downward spiral of recriminations and proxy wars. And the Bush administration did a perfectly admirable job of continuing the success of its predecessors in this score. You can think about it this way—Bush took us through a difficult period and left the relationship in good enough shape that nobody had a fainting spell when Obama shook Hu Jintao’s hand at the G-20 summit. The world’s two most important countries cooperating in a routine and non-dramatic manner is a good thing and preserving that dynamic as China gets richer and more powerful is both difficult and important. This is a real contrast to Bush’s approach to Russia, Europe, Latin America, and the broader Middle East where difficult situations just got more and more difficult thanks in part to terrible policymaking.
Back to Obama. Since late January, he’s succeeded in laying the groundwork for important bilateral cuts in US-Russian nuclear arsenals. He’s set the stage for possible normalization of relations with Cuba down the road and produced at least some positive signals from the government of Iran. He’s apparently ended the pointless and bizarre war of over-the-top rhetoric between the United States and Venezuela. And international cooperation against piracy seems to be intensifying. I’d say it’s a promising start. All the world’s most serious problems are still with us, but things have improved on several fronts. International relations is inherently complicated and there’s no short-time way of achieving a problem-free planet. If things are getting better rather than worse, you’re doing a good job.