The Caret Group on Some Current Issues – February 1, 2013

Columnist David Brooks writing recently in the New York Times has quoted Oswald Spengler the German philosopher (well known for his controversial 1918 book Decline of the West ) as having advised European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they could not do both. (Paul Samuelson the Economics professor whose storied text book on Economics students of Economics including myself, had to study, echoed Spengler in a way when he stated that nations were confronted by the choice between distributing their resources between guns or butter). Brooks informs us that as late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 percent of GDP on defense. “Now that spending is closer to 1.5 percent and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further”. Brooks believes that the United States will undergo a similar process. He tells us further that the current budget calls for a “steep but possibly appropriate decline in defense spending from 4.3 percent of GDP to 3 percent according to the Congressional Budget Office.” Brooks opines correctly in my view that “as the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history.” Here is it is worthwhile noting that the defense budget of the United States running around $700 billion annually is still more than that spent by the next 15 countries. With the cold war more than two decades old, in combination with America’s severe economic problems, the rationale for such a huge outlay on defense becomes increasingly difficult to justify or sustain. Admiral Mike Mullen former Joint Chiefs of Staff made the significant observation that the biggest national security threat facing the United States was its national debt. According to some analysts including Brooks, President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel a decorated Vietnam era war veteran and former US Senator, to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense, to wield the scalpel at the Pentagon. This appears to be an astute political move as the President needs cover through a Secretary of Defense with Republican credentials. Yesterday’s NPR reports that Hagel is being grilled by the likes of Senators McCain and Lindsay Graham on his past statements as the former Senator from Nebraska. For instance McCain wanted to know why Hagel had characterized the US military surge in Iraq as the biggest mistake since Vietnam. From the exchange reported by NPR it appeared to me that as a seasoned politician Hagel was able to parry the question. Some Republican Senators, uneasy with some of Hagel’s past pronouncements consider him as too dovish for their liking and are therefore trying to derail his nomination. However it appears that unless they can persuade some Democratic Senators to join them, Hagel would be confirmed. If that happens, the team of Kerry at State and Hagel at Defense is expected to follow a cautious and moderate course in foreign affairs, in contradistinction to the neocon hubris which has cost the US an almost unbearable amount of blood and treasure. The other noteworthy thought captioned “Australia shows the rest of the world how to pivot to Asia,” is contained in an op-ed in the Financial Times. The author, Irvin Studin has made some interesting observations. According to him the main point and an extremely important one, is that Australia is making conscious efforts to integrate into Asia. Its students are being encouraged to immerse themselves in ever increasing numbers into Asian languages and cultures. Wisely discarded some decades ago by the Australian leadership were Australia’s obsolescent “White Australia” policies identifying it with the Anglophone countries. This positive trend seems to have gained increasing traction in the past few years. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s strategy aims to give all the country’s students access to at least one ‘priority’ Asian language. In contrast, Studin avers that the pivots of both North America and Europe are halfhearted. This is because “Asia continues to figure little in their ‘imaginaries’- the values and cultural references that tie people together.” My own assessment is that that the above regions do not find it easy to bury the past ghost of Orientalism which still continues to inform in some respects it attitudes to both Asia and the Middle East. The recent Coca Cola advertisement showing an Arab struggling with his camel which has been criticized as racist in the Middle East is a case in point. The writer makes the further point that Washington’s pivot is overwhelmingly military in emphasis. This is a matter of serious concern to China. Coming after the US’ reverses in Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy makers in Obama’s administration would be well advised to study Australia’s approach to Asia, unless they want to repeat America’s past errors of judgment in the wider Middle East. These advisors should also give serious consideration to the celebrated Harvard academic Joseph Nye’s advice: do not treat China as an enemy. Instead, seek mutually profitable avenues of collaboration with the second most powerful country in the world. This is exactly what Australia is trying to do instead of clinging to past perspectives. The approach advocated by Nye and followed hopefully by Kerry and Hagel (if the latter is confirmed) would naturally earn approbation from China, which would also lead to a less tense global environment.


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