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Jewish World Review
Nov. 24, 2009
/ 7 Kislev 5770
Superpower without a partner
Like comets hurtling at one another from opposite points in outer space, two different phenomena in different parts of the world soared into public awareness last week. Separately, they might not have had cosmic importance. Put together, however, they could prove an interesting harbinger of things to come.
In China, President Obama met his counterpart, President Hu Jintao. He also met the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. The former got more attention, but the latter was more interesting: According to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, Wen told Obama that "China disagrees to the suggestion of a 'Group of Two.' " China is "still a developing country," Wen said, and "we must always keep sober-minded about it." China is delighted to continue its economic relationship with the United States, but China "pursues the independent foreign policy of peace and will not align with any country or country blocs."
Translation: China will not cooperate in placing sanctions on Iran; China will not hinder North Korea's nuclear missile program; and China will not help solve the problems of Afghanistan, the Middle East or anywhere else. China has decided that, in short, it will not become America's full partner in foreign policy.
At approximately the same time, the leaders of Europe were locked in proverbial smoke-filled rooms (nowadays empty of smoke) arguing over who should be granted the job of "president" of the European Union and who should become Europe's new "high representative," or foreign minister. These talks represented the culmination of a decade's worth of diplomacy, debate and national referendums, all designed to produce a more united European foreign policy and to give Europe a single phone number, so that Obama can call when he wants to chat. The result: The president of Europe will be Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, a politician unknown outside his own country. The foreign minister of Europe will be Britain's Catherine Ashton, a bureaucrat unknown even inside her own country. Candidates of far greater experience and influence -- including the former British prime minister Tony Blair and the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt -- were rejected, apparently for fear they would have more experience and influence than the powers that be. Germany's Der Spiegel heralded this news with the headline "Europe Chooses Nobodies."
Translation: Europe might have a new phone number, but when Obama calls, the person on the other end of the line will still be unable to act. "Europe" will not be a unified entity capable of coordinating a unified policy in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East or anywhere else anytime soon. Europe cannot, in short, become America's full partner in foreign policy.
And thus we are left with a curious situation: America no longer wants to be the sole superpower. The American president no longer wants to be the leader of a sole superpower. Nobody else wants America to be the sole superpower and in fact America cannot even afford to be the sole superpower. Yet America has no obvious partner with which to share its superpowerdom, and if America were to cease being a superpower, nothing and no one would take its place.
This might not be the end of the world -- there are quite a few trouble spots that could do with a long period of benign neglect -- and it might not last forever. Europe, when counted as a single entity, is still the world's largest economy. China, whatever else it might be, is still the world's fastest-growing economy. Sooner or later the simple need to defend their economic interests might persuade one or both to start taking the outside world more seriously.
This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work. Europe is still our best hope, because Europeans share most of our values. But organizing sanctions with a divided Europe -- never mind a military operation -- will continue to be a major chore. China, meanwhile, is acquiring vast foreign interests, trading in Africa and South America as well as Asia, along with a vast army to match. But China appears uninterested in joining an international campaign against terrorism, nuclear proliferation or anything else.
Global military and security thus look set to remain in the hands of the United States, whether the United States wants it or not. Halfway through his presidency, George W. Bush found he had to drop unilateralism in favor of diplomacy. Now one wonders: At some point in his presidency, will Obama find he has to drop diplomacy in favor of unilateralism, too?
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
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11/03/09: Angela Merkel's Quiet Revolution
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09/22/09: Letting Europe Drift
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09/08/09: Will Obama Fight For Afghanistan?
09/01/09: The Polish Prologue
08/20/09: Why Afghans Need a Vote
07/29/09: No Burqa For Clinton
07/14/09: The Summit of Green Futility
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06/30/09: In Morocco, an alternative to Iran
06/23/09: An overlooked force in Iran
06/16/09: Some good in a bad election
06/09/09: Why Is the Right Doing So Well in Europe?
06/02/09: Is China Pulling Strings in North Korea?
05/26/09: What a Member of Parliament Deserves
04/22/09: The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't
04/14/09: Do we really need interactive exhibits to bring Jefferson to life?
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03/31/09: What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
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02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
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12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
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08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
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© 2009, Anne Applebaum. By permission of the author