Opinion

Thinking Global

Obama’s chance for a legacy

Feb 19, 2013 19:52 UTC

President Barack Obama devoted just one sentence in last week’s State of the Union address to call for a new transatlantic trade and investment deal. However, if negotiated with sufficient ambition and presidential engagement, it is Obama’s best chance yet at leaving a positive foreign policy legacy.

The other global issues Obama catalogued in his speech were largely about avoiding the worst: North Korea, cyber threats, Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern upheavals.  Achieving what Obama called “a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership,” however, has all the makings of grand strategy.

It is about nothing less than combining the world’s two largest economies and communities of common interest in a manner that could reshape all global trade and investment standards. It would also reinvigorate the Cold War’s victors, known then as “the Free World,” at a new inflection point of history. Only through common cause can the United States and Europe ensure they continue to write global governance rules even as they lose relative power and influence to countries that are less committed to democratic rights and free markets.

The magnitude of U.S.-EU economic relations still has no rival. Despite the euro zone crisis and slow U.S. growth, the United States and the European Union still account for roughly 50 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and enjoy more than $3 trillion in cross-foreign direct investment. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services accounts for 40 percent of the world total, or $636 billion in 2011. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reckons that figure could increase by $120 billion in the next five years  – if the two sides can eliminate tariffs.

Yet numbers don’t tell the whole story. A far-reaching trade and investment agreement would mark a transatlantic recommitment ceremony of historic significance, reversing a dangerous drifting apart.

Historic stakes are higher in China than in U.S.

Nov 8, 2012 21:07 UTC

Now that all the high-cost, mud-slinging drama of the U.S. presidential campaign is over, the world can focus on another political transition of potentially greater consequence: China’s 18th Communist Party Congress, which began today.

Don’t be misled by the choreographed orderliness of the moment when China’s new leaders parade on stage in order of seniority; the selection process this time has been marred by the murder of a British businessman and the purge of the provincial party boss Bo Xilai, punctuated by a blind political dissident seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy, and soiled by corruption charges and a New York Times report on the estimated $2.7 billion wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao’s family.

Beyond the unusually public Chinese drama, the ripples from China’s congress, known as Shí Bā Dà — or “the 18th Big” — could be of much greater historical significance even than the re-election of America’s first African-American President. This is because this new generation of Chinese leadership, following the almost certain transition from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping, will be unable to avoid fundamental and structural decisions about the direction of China’s economy, foreign policy and political structure.

China’s political intrigue ventures west

May 2, 2012 16:20 UTC

Imagine that an American intelligence agency organizes an “exercise,” as one occasionally does, on how to manage an unwanted but inescapable Washington role in a Chinese leadership struggle. Throw in the following scene-setting facts:

    With the Chinese Communist Party confronting a decisive leadership transition, a provincial police chief takes refuge in a U.S. consulate and spills the beans on a corruption and murder story swirling around Bo Xilai, whose populist, Maoist campaign threatens the establishment. Just a week before the visit to Washington of Vice-President Xi Jianping, who is in line to become paramount leader this autumn, President Obama takes sides. Although Bo’s forces are circling the consulate, the U.S. releases the police chief to Beijing’s leaders. With that crisis solved and Chinese leaders indebted to Obama, a blind human rights activist dramatically escapes house arrest and takes refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. With Secretary Hillary Clinton arriving for a high-level Sino-U.S. summit, both sides enter crisis management mode.

It’s no wonder that the intellectual salons of Washington have grown a bit bored with the ongoing U.S. election campaign and have shifted their interest instead to Chinese domestic politics. The reasons are obvious: The details are juicier, the drama is more immediate and the historic stakes are considerably more significant.

That’s because any U.S. president, whether named Obama or Romney, will operate within a well-established constitutional framework and democratic habits. While the U.S. has managed 43 peaceful transitions of power over the past 223 years, Communist-led China has managed a smooth handoff only once since its 1949 revolution, and that was in 2002, when Deng Xiaoping engineered the rise of the current premier, Hu Jintao.

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