'Less' the new byword

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 12:00am


Much of the attention from this part of the world on the uprisings in Libya and elsewhere across North Africa and the Middle East has focused on the possible impact on East Asia's own authoritarian regimes. But that attention overlooks another important aspect for the region - what it all says about America's place in the world.

The Libyan crisis has been particularly telling. In the early days of the international diplomacy that led to the air strikes and the enforcement of the no-fly zone, Washington appeared content for the likes of Britain, France, Italy and even Canada to not only appear to lead the international charge, but drive the opening military intervention as well.

Much has been made of the Obama administration's reticence and its willingness to let others do the heavy lifting - a stark contrast from the Republican predecessors and the mistrust fostered among allies through its 'with us, or against us' rhetoric. Washington, it is often repeated, has simply no appetite to become bogged down in another conflict in the Arab world.

There could be, however, an overlooked element to Washington's sudden reticence that is even more compelling, and one that could have considerable impact on this region; simply put, America can no longer do everything that it once could, or wants to. In this regard, recent events speak not so much to the quagmires of the past decade, but to the looming difficulties.

With US national debt at US$14 trillion and rising, and structural economic problems forcing not only budget cuts but strategic reviews across the vast military-industrial complex, the US will, of course, remain the superpower but will be a cash-strapped one, forced to cut its cloth while reaching out to other nations, including China, to share global leadership.

In his recent survey of the decline, titled The Frugal Superpower, Washington-based scholar Michael Mandelbaum describes a wide range of diplomatic and military restrictions as American belts tighten. Until recently, America's foreign policy since the second world war had been characterised by freedom of manoeuvre rather than constraints on action, he writes. 'In foreign affairs as in economic policy, the watchword was 'more'. That era has ended. The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond will be 'less'.'

Already, a debate is quietly under way in the staterooms and think tanks of the region as allies, partners and potential foes alike ponder the future of an American presence that has underpinned its position as the strongest Asian military power for six decades.

Vice Admiral Scott Van Buskirk, the commander of the US 7th Fleet - the core of that ongoing US regional strategic primacy - argued on these pages earlier this year against perceptions that the US was a declining power in East Asia. He pointed to a range of increasing deployments and a growing network of strategic partners to buttress its traditional network of alliances.

British naval historian Geoffrey Till, meanwhile, has pointed to the importance of the ongoing if quiet US role of being the only power capable of keeping the world's sea lanes open to commerce. Not only will no other rival military be capable of performing such a role for decades to come, but even America's opponents, whether Iran or North Korea, have a stake in the continued assumption that the world's sea lanes remain open.

Singapore-based military scholar Dr Sam Bateman is someone who questions the long-term viability of the US military presence in the region when set against the wider backdrop of US fiscal austerity. 'You have to wonder whether there will be a 'Suez moment',' he says, referring to Britain's 1967 decision to withdraw its Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean forces by 1971.

'Before that moment, it must be remembered that such a move was largely seen as inconceivable, and then suddenly it happened. The US has to talk up its presence in this part of the world, but that doesn't mean there won't be internal pressures brought to bear in future.'

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent