Veteran U.S. Diplomat: We Are Becoming the USSR

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Chas Freeman

Chas Freeman was President Nixon’s interpreter during Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. Now, nearly 40 years later, after an impressive diplomatic and defense career, he’s interpreting China for the rest of us.

Last week he said:

The balance of prestige, if not yet the balance of power, between the United States and China has shifted…In some disturbing ways, Sino-American competition is beginning to parallel the contest between us and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. This time, however, the United States is in the fiscally precarious position of the USSR, while China plays the economically robust role we once did.

Freeman has long been a global agent provocateur. His outspoken views, especially on the Middle East and China, doomed President Obama’s nomination of him two years ago to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council. But he also tends to be enlightening. During his talk last week, he ruminated on a key point about the U.S. Navy’s presence in the western Pacific: why shouldn’t Beijing be ticked off at us for loitering in their neighborhood?

The bad news:

China has been patient for four decades, but it is now actively pondering how best to remove the United States from what is – from its point of view – our very unhelpful residual military role in cross-Strait relations so that Beijing’s negotiators can settle the Taiwan issue with their counterparts in Taipei. That, I take it, is a principal focus of the national review of policy toward the United States that China is reportedly poised to launch. Americans cannot safely assume that China’s recent objections to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan or other military actions on our part are pro forma or “just more of the same.” It’s at least as likely that we will soon once again confront the necessity to choose between the self-imposed shackles of longstanding policy and the imperatives of our long-term strategic interests.

The worse news:

It is not just that China and others are regaining the regional preeminence they enjoyed before the now defunct era of Western colonialism. It is also that America’s fractious politics are now dispiriting rather than inspiring to foreigners and citizens alike. The financial system and economic model of the United States have been discredited in the world’s eyes. Few look to us for leadership on either global or regional issues, whatever their nature. Only our military power is fully respected. But, as we have shown the world in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, there are limits to what military power alone can accomplish. China is widely seen as having its act together. The United States is universally viewed as in big trouble on a dismaying range of issues and not doing much, if anything, about any of them, other than more of the same.

As Freeman decries the over-militarization of the U.S., it’s worth noting he gave this keynote address over dinner May 10 at the Naval War College’s Chinese Maritime Studies Institute in Newport, R.I. The CSMI’s website description of itself reflects the focus that Freeman disdains: “The China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) supports the research needs of the U.S. Navy and was established in 2006 to increase knowledge and understanding of the maritime dimensions of China’s rise.” The U.S. is perpetually on the prowl for enemies, and when one — the Soviet Union — falls, there must be another one to take its place. Otherwise, why maintain such military might?

Don’t expect to hear a topic like this discussed on your favorite cable news channel — or politicians seeking the Presidency, for that matter — any time soon.