Downbeat in Doha

In Qatar's gilded schmoozefest forum, some weird ideas about America were getting tossed around this year.

Earlier this week I fell into conversation with a local journalist outside the main conference room of the Doha Forum, held in the Ritz Carlton Hotel. "This place is dead," he said, gesturing poignantly at the acreage of empty carpet around us. "Five or six years ago, you could hardly find a place to stand." In those palmy days, foreign ministers mingled with world-class journalists. Today, Doha attracts European Union parliamentarians. And me. It was like getting to Goa after all the hippies had packed up their hash and left for Kathmandu.

Doha is, of course, the capital of Qatar, the Beverly Hills of the Gulf, a micro-nation of 200,000 citizens nourished by bottomless pools of natural gas. For the last decade, the al-Thanis, Qatar's ruling clan, have used their wealth to position the state as the regional capital of diplomacy, journalism, and palaver. Al Jazeera is there, and Brookings Doha, the Doha Debates, and, of course, the Forum, which aspires to serve as the Davos of the Gulf. Compared to, say, Dubai, which appears to model itself on Las Vegas, it's a pretty serious profile.  

Still, one look at the layout of the main hall and you could see why, even on a good day, Doha may fall as far short of Davos as Dubai does of Vegas. On the raised dais, invited speakers were lodged in modular units which faced directly outwards, precluding any exchange among them. Thirty feet of empty carpet separated the stage from two rows of throne-like VIP seats, behind which lay general seating. A "panel" typically consisted of four or five experts delivering orations, followed by recitations from audience members which tended to begin with disheartening expressions like, "I wish to make four points." The Qataris do not seem to have internalized the norms of Western discourse, which may help explain the Forum's diminishing status.

The implicit subject of the two-day event was, "Where is the region heading in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?" The panels covered democratic development, human rights, energy, trade, and the media. (Your humble columnist offered a gloomy narrative of the reversals of press freedom in the Arab world over the last two years, and warned against treating social media as intrinsically liberatory.) The mood was suitably downbeat, though the panelists were divided over whether one should blame the West for trying to meddle in Arab affairs or for failing to stand with Arab citizens against autocratic leaders.

The Forum's headliner was Dominique de Villepin, former French foreign minister and prime minister, and future presidential hopeful. Villepin is a wonderfully handsome man with a fine mane of silver hair and an astonishing gift of verbal fluency. He makes the most abstract formulations at peak speed, like a Grand Prix orator. At our opening dinner, Villepin explained that the world had been thrown out of balance by the "excess" of American ideology and aggression. Statesmen needed to re-discover the wisdom -- the very French wisdom -- of "balance."

In a speech on democracy the following morning, Villepin made an extended case for Gaullist realism. He argued that the ideology of democracy promotion had not only weakened its intended beneficiaries but hastened the decline of the nation-state itself. Yes, that's what he said. The European Union, he asserted, was as guilty as the United States. EU expansion had produced "formal democracies without the democratic spirit" and "a return to corruption and clientilism." Villepin proposed instead a "second age of democracy," guided by the recognition that each nation must evolve according to its own organic logic, and in its own time. This is an admonition which very few senior Western diplomats actually need to hear; one had the impression that, having led the international campaign to stop the United States from going to war in Iraq, Villepin was re-litigating 2003.

A rejoinder of sorts came from Jacek Protasiewicz, the Polish vice president of the European Union. As the official responsible for the Eastern partners to whom Villepin had referred, Protasiewicz said that he was struck by how often autocrats in places like Belarus and Azerbaijan said, "Our people don't want democracy; we prefer strong leadership," while on the other side of a border citizens demanded democratic freedoms. How strange that one people separated only by a river should be so different from one another! Of course, democratic development takes time, Protasiewicz conceded, but we should not allow the stratagems of dictators to blind us to people's aspirations.

There were a few genuinely odd moments. Shahid Malik, a British former minister for international development in the government of Gordon Brown, harangued the audience with a litany of the West's abject moral failures in Syria and Egypt. Malik compared the jihadists who travel from England and other European countries to fight in Syria to the anti-fascists who fought in Spain in 1936. Westerners were in no position to criticize such choices, he said, so long as they clung to the "double standard" of mounting a military intervention in Libya, but not Syria. When an audience member wondered whether the jihadists might be even worse than the regime they sought to topple, Malik ridiculed the question as "silly," since no imaginable government could be as evil as that of Bashar al-Assad. Take that, M. de Villepin!

The panelists went round and round on Syria and the Arab Spring. On the sidelines, where most of the invitees spent most of their time, there was much talk of Qatar itself. Saudi Arabia has picked a nasty fight with its tiny Gulf neighbor, which maintains relations with Iran, the Saudis' mortal enemy, and has offered refuge to leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis view as a regional fifth column. The Saudis have broken diplomatic relations, demanding that Qatar expel senior Brotherhood figures and, for all intents and purposes, close down Al Jazeera. The Saudis seem intent on punishing Qatar for seeking to fill a diplomatic vacuum created in part by the Saudis' own traditional passivity.

The view at the Forum was that this tempest in a gilded teacup says more about Riyadh's insecurity than it does about Doha's ambitions. "Why do they feel a need to prove their superiority?" asked a Western diplomat who uses the forum as a schmoozefest. "They have the wealth, the population, the industrial base. It just shows you how brittle they are."

The Saudis are, of course, even more exercised at the United States than they are at Qatar. At a panel on U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy, Abdullah Alshammari, a former Saudi diplomat, accused the United States of staging an "intervention" by calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011, and of "crossing a red line" in relations with Saudi Arabia by holding secret nuclear negotiations with Iran. An irate audience member -- German, not American -- tartly reminded the speaker that Saudi Arabia was "a "security receiver," not a "security provider," and suggested the kingdom "step back" and start "behaving as an adult."

That may have been the most satisfying moment of the Doha Forum. The American arrogance which Dominique de Villepin rebuked is an artifact of a bygone era of overreach. The much more salient critique is the one heard relentlessly from senior figures in the Gulf -- viz, that the Obama administration is faithless and feckless. The wise men of international affairs, peculiarly susceptible to the hard-headed Saudis, have recycled this contempt and given it the force of conventional belief. It is, at least, closer to the truth than the tired shibboleths of American belligerence. Nevertheless, the Saudis need a reality check far more than the Americans do. That should be the theme of next year's forum.   

Warren Little/Getty Images


What Has Asia Done for Uncle Sam Lately?

Why Washington should demand more from its Asian allies when it comes to China.

I'm recently back from two weeks lecturing in Australia, as a guest of the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, with side visits to the National Security College at Australian National University in Canberra and the "In the Zone" conference at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I spent most of my time discussing China's rise, the U.S. "pivot" (oops "rebalancing"), and the implications for alliance relations in Asia. My visit coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama's recent Asian tour, so there was considerable interest in where U.S. policy was headed and what this would mean for the region.

Three features were especially apparent during my visit. First, there is considerable support for an active U.S. role in the region and only the mildest hints of the anti-Americanism that you sometimes hear in the Middle East, Latin America, or even in Europe. This is especially true among Australians -- for various historical reasons -- but also true of the other Asians I met in different venues.    

Second, people in the region want to know if the United States is really committed to an enhanced security role in Asia. But their ambivalence was sometimes hard to miss: Although they continue to want U.S. protection, they don't want the United States to do anything risky or provocative, and certainly nothing that would force them to choose between their security ties with the United States and their economic dealings with China.

Third, and most important as far as I'm concerned, the Asian states who are supposedly worried about China's rise don't seem willing to do very much to balance against it. Instead, they seem to be mostly interested in getting Washington do the heavy lifting, while they continue to enjoy profitable economic ties with Beijing and keep their own defense burdens low.

To me, this is the Big Question that will shape U.S. policy in Asia for many years to come. Assuming China continues to rise economically and militarily, and continues to press territorial claims of various sorts, how much effort should Washington exert if its Asian allies aren't willing to do very much themselves?

As I told various audiences in Australia, the United States is serious about the so-called pivot to Asia, because it is consistent with long-standing principles of U.S. grand strategy. Since becoming a great power around 1900, the United States has sought to be the only great power in the Western hemisphere and to prevent any other country from achieving a similar position of hegemony in its own region. The United States entered World War I to prevent Germany hegemony in Europe, and entered World War II to stop another German attempt at hegemony and to keep Japan from establishing a dominant position in Asia. Similarly, the Cold War strategy of containment aimed to prevent the USSR from dominating Europe or Asia (or the Persian Gulf) for much the same reason.

The underlying rationale behind this policy is straightforward: As long as Eurasia is divided among many major powers, these states tend to worry most about each other and cannot concentrate their capabilities or their attention on the United States. Nor can they do much to interfere in the Western hemisphere. This situation maximizes U.S. security and makes it possible for the United States to intervene in far-flung regions without having to worry very much about defending its own soil.  

It follows that Asian concerns about U.S. credibility are overblown. What the United States does or doesn't do in Ukraine, Syria, or South Sudan says nothing about its commitment to maintaining the status quo in Asia, because these other issues are of lesser importance to the long-term balance of power. Indeed, the U.S. position in Asia will be stronger if it does not get distracted by secondary issues, or get drawn into costly quagmires in areas of little strategic importance.

When our Asian friends ask what Uncle Sam is going to do for them, therefore, U.S. officials should toss the question right back at them: What are they going to do for us, and for themselves? After all, preventing Chinese domination ought to be even more important to them than it is to us. To repeat, the real question is not whether the United States is still committed in Asia, but how much our Asian allies are willing to help.

Just last week, the ASEAN nations refused to take a position on China's recent deployment of an oil drilling rig in contested waters in the South China Sea, a move that provoked a naval confrontation with Vietnam. Vietnam raised the issue at the ASEAN summit in Myanmar, but the conference merely expressed "concern" about the issue and did not even mention China by name. (A previous ASEAN summit two years ago was similarly deadlocked and could not even issue a final communiqué).

Or consider Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revise the Japanese constitution and improve Japan's military capabilities, but defense spending will still be hard-pressed to exceed 1 percent of GDP. And even though Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Japan and said the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands fell within the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Tokyo refused to make any concessions in the stalled negotiations for the administration's signature Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Moreover, Japan and South Korea continue to snipe at each other in various counterproductive ways, which suggests that either they aren't as worried about China as they pretend, or they are so confident that Uncle Sam will back them that they won't take concrete steps to put the past behind them once and for all.

Similarly, Obama reached a new defense pact with the Philippines during his visit there, but the main upshot of the deal is to make it easier for the United States to come defend another ally. To be sure, Manila is no match for a rising China on its own, but they could do a much better job with the resources they do have. But as Richard Jacobson observed last summer, "Even now, with the ‘immediate' and ‘credible' threat of Chinese aggression, there appears to be little public appetite for a significantly stronger military." For the record: The Philippines spends about 1.2 percent of GDP on defense.

What about India? The United States has pursued a new "strategic partnership" with India, but the payoffs to date have been disappointing, in part because the Indian economy has yet to match China's recent performance. The country seems to be mired in deep domestic wrangling, and flirting with a rightwing Hindu resurgence that could fuel internal conflict and complicate U.S. efforts to build a broader Asian coalition.

Even Australia, where pro-American sentiment is especially strong, is torn between long-range concerns about China's rise and the short-term desire to maximize economic gains. Australia has gone more than two decades without a recession, a boom fueled by massive exports of iron ore and other natural resources to China's expanding economy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged to bring Australia's defense spending up to 2 percent of GDP during the last election campaign, but the government is presently facing a budget shortfall and implementing various austerity measures, and nobody I met there believes that this 2 percent figure will be reached.

When one looks broadly at Asia, in short, we see a situation where the United States is expected to do most of the heavy lifting while its various allies -- i.e., the states that would be most directly affected by a more powerful and assertive China -- continue to saunter along spending 1-2 percent of GDP on defense.

At one level, this is not surprising. The theory of collective goods tells us that the stronger powers in an alliance will usually bear a disproportionate share of the collective burden. Why? Because if it is in the strongest power's self-interest to have an effective alliance, it will step up and provide the wherewithal even its allies do not, thereby allowing weaker members to free-ride. Weak allies can exacerbate this tendency by constantly fretting in public about U.S. credibility and demanding constant reassurance, complaints that hardliners back in Washington can seize upon to explain why Uncle Sucker needs to do more.

But there are limits. Americans will be loath to spend billions and run significant geopolitical risks on behalf of distant allies who don't seem willing to do very much to help themselves, and who aren't willing to make concessions or adjustments on other issues like TPP. Just wait till Rand Paul figures this out, and makes burden sharing a key part of his campaign speech. And so the Big Question remains: How much cooperation will Washington demand from the Asian allies it is committed to protect, and what will it do if they remain reluctant to provide it? 

One final thought. A number of people in Australia took issue with my analysis, and argued that China's leaders would be preoccupied with vexing internal challenges and unlikely to make a serious effort to alter the Asian status quo anytime soon. There's much to be said for this point of view, and it is worth remembering that China's own strategic position is not enviable, with 14 neighbors (four with nuclear weapons), several serious territorial disputes, a potential failed state across the border with North Korea, and growing dependence on external markets and resources. So maybe there's no real reason for concern, and everyone can just concentrate on getting rich.

Sadly, this view is probably too rosy. China's internal challenges may slow its efforts to establish a dominant position in Asia, but they are unlikely to derail such goals forever. And as I've said before, creating and leading an effective balancing coalition in Asia is going to be a demanding task, especially if America's Asian allies have to be cajoled into making a serious effort. Unfortunately, nothing I heard Down Under led me to change my mind about how serious a challenge this will be.