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Does strategy even matter in foreign policy?

Continuing on the grand strategy theme from yesterday, I see that China is blowing off the G-20

China tried to pre-empt a potential showdown at the upcoming G20 summit on Thursday when it warned the other large economies not to use the Toronto meeting as a platform to criticise its currency policy.

Fearing that the policy of pegging its currency to the dollar will come under attack, Chinese officials said the June 26-27 summit was not the correct place to discuss the level of the renminbi and cautioned against an outbreak of “finger-pointing”, which they said would be damaging to the world economy.

The comments will reinforce firming sentiment in Beijing that China is not readying a last minute anouncement on the currency ahead of the summit, despite the recent recovery in Chinese exports and rising anger in the US Congress....

A senior Chinese government official said that the G20 summit should be about co-ordinating policy, not criticizing individual countries.

“If we allow the G20 to turn into a process of finger-pointing, then it will certainly send out a very confusing and misleading signal to the markets,” he said. “This will certainly lead to very serious consequences in the global economy.”

Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, delivered a similar message. “We believe it would be inappropriate to discuss the renminbi exchange rate issue in the context of the G20 meeting,” he said.

In addition to the US, Brazil and India have also recently voiced criticisms of China’s currency policy. According to Reuters, a senior Canadian official said a stronger Chinese currency would benefit both China and the rest of the G20, although he added the G20 had to be careful not to put too much direct pressure on China.

A few thoughts.  First, as near as I can figure, here is the list of topics that Beijing feels would be "appropriate" to discuss at the G-20 meeting:  

1.  Debating the role of the developed world in triggering the global financial crisis

2.  Sorting out the redistribution of power in the IMF and World Bank towards rising developing countries

3.  Reaching agreement on cool G-20 uniforms for the next summit. 

4.  Reaffirming the global consensus that chocolate is awesome

5.  Hugging puppies.  Puppies!! 

Second, China's strategy here is of a piece with their behavior over the past nine months or so, which, intentionally or not, could be characterized as "Pissing Off as Many Countries As Possible." 

Seriously, it's a distinguished list.  The Europeans are furious at China because of how the country acted at Copenhagen.  The Japanese and South Koreans are furious at China because of how Beijing has handled the Cheonan incident.  India is unhappy with China's naval aspirations, nuclear aid to Pakistan, trade imbalances, and an unsettled border.  A fair number of ASEAN nations are upset with China's currency policies and its reassertion of territorial claims and spheres of influence in  the South China Sea.  And then there's the United States, where despite some understanding between Obama and Hu, the People's Liberation Army and the Ministry of Commerce seem bound and determined to derail any warming trend between the two countries. 

This is a long and distinguished list of countries to alienate.  It certainly signals a shift, intended or not, from the "peaceful rising" approach of the past decade or so.  It also appears to be bad strategy -- simultaneously angering the countries that could form a balancing coalition is not an exercise in smart power.  And as I've said before, China has badly overestimated how it can translate its financial capabilities into foreign policy leverage. 

All that said, the question is whether poor strategy matters all that much.  Even if China's property bubble bursts, the country possesses formidable advantages, and the trend lines in terms of economic and military do seem favorable to Beijing.  China is now the largest manufacturing power in the world, and its economy is imbricated in global production chains.  Its military is only growing stronger.  Robert Kaplan argues that it's geographically well-placed.  It might be the case that enough countries in the list above -- plus Russia, Brazil, Africa and the Middle East -- decide that Beijing's bellicosity is a price worth paying to stay in China's good graces.  Indeed, the underlying assumption behind China's policies is that nothing succeeds like success.  

A lot of commentators notice these material advantages, and then mistakenly infer that China has pursued a brilliant grand strategy.  At this point, however, China's continued rise seems to be occurring in spite of strategic miscalculations, not because of them.  That's the thing about grand strategies, however -- they matter less when the margin for error is greater.  Which is why greater attention needs to be paid to U.S.. grand strategy now than before. 

Developing.....

Daniel W. Drezner

Second thoughts about Obama's first NSS

Hey, remember last month when I promised I'd do more than skim the National Security Strategy? It took me a while, but I finally got around to looking closely at the entire document.

My assessment perfectly mirrors The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's assessment of Earth: mostly harmless.

First of all, when reading these documents, you need to separate the parts that seem really important from the parts that seem.... boilerplate. For example, consider this laughably overtaken-by-events pledge:

Effectively Manage Emergencies: We are building our capability to prepare for disasters to reduce or eliminate long-term effects to people and their property from hazards and to respond to and recover from major incidents. To improve our preparedness, we are integrating domestic all hazards planning at all levels of government and building key capabilities to respond to emergencies. We continue to collaborate with communities to ensure preparedness efforts are integrated at all levels of government with the private and nonprofit sectors. We are investing in operational capabilities and equipment, and improving the reliability and interoperability of communications systems for first responders. We are encouraging domestic regional planning and integrated preparedness programs and will encourage government at all levels to engage in long-term recovery planning. It is critical that we continually test and improve plans using exercises that are realistic in scenario and consequences.

Planning integration!! Community collaboration!! More integration!! Hey, that's killer material in the NSS. It's a good thing this stuff is being done to prepare for a real emergency. Oh, wait....

As to the portions that matter: it's not that bad. In contrast to some previous strategy documents, this NSS is an actual strategy rather than a laundry list of regions and countries. The administration wisely notes the connections between domestic economic vitality and the ability to project and husband power in a complex world. In contrast to a lot of criticism I read, the administration makes a clear distinction between allies (NATO, Japan) and partners (Russia, China). The attitude towards multilateral institutions is appropriately clear-eyed. Al Qaeda is discussed but not to the point of obsession. The strategy could have just quoted John Quincy Adams rather than trying to perfect his prose about promoting democracy abroad by practicing it at home -- but that's picking at nits.

So, most of it is harmless. There are two things that nagged at me after I'd finished it, however.

First, there's a mismatch between the Obama administration's emphasis on retrenchment/"hard choices" and their sincere commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. From his 2007 Foreign Affairs essay onwards, every major strategy document has emphasized that the administration will "Pursue the Goal of a World Without Nuclear Weapons." This is the part of the NSS with feeling, and the part where the administration has racked up some significant achievements.

The thing is, a retrenchment strategy requires relying on the tools of power that yield the greatest bang for the buck. Nuclear weapons accomplish little as a means of compellence, but they are the best and most cost-effective deterrent capability imaginable. Now, nothing the Obama administration has done to date compromises that deterrent capability. They seem to be moving in that direction, however. Pledging to eliminate nuclear weapons involves investing a lot of diplomatic capital towards a goal that fundamentally contradicts the national interest of the United States.

The second problem is the strictly horatory nature of some of the key NSS planks. There's a lot of "rising fiscal and trade deficits will... necessitate hard choices in the years ahead" kind of talk in the document. There are repeated emphases on getting America's fiscal house in order. Which is great, until we get to the paragraph on how this is going to happen:

Reduce the Deficit: We cannot grow our economy in the long term unless we put the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path. To begin this effort, the Administration has proposed a 3-year freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending, a new fee on the largest financial services companies to recoup taxpayer losses for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the closing of tax loopholes and unnecessary subsidies. The Administration has created a bipartisan fiscal commission to suggest further steps for medium-term deficit reduction and will work for fiscally responsible health insurance reform that will bring down the rate of growth in health care costs, a key driver of the country’s fiscal future.

That's it? I was expecting a bit more. True, budget pledges in a National Security Strategy don't count for much, but would it have been so bad to articulate a more detailed vision of our fiscal future? If the administration can pledge to double exports in the next five years, can't it put in a goal for what the debt/GDP ratio will look like by 2015?

Still, on the whole, it's a decent strategy document as these things go.

Mostly harmless. Mostly.

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