While America Fought: The Implications of a New US Foreign Policy Focus

By Palmer, Alex | Harvard International Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

While America Fought: The Implications of a New US Foreign Policy Focus


Palmer, Alex, Harvard International Review


When President Woodrow Wilson set foot on French soil after his trip across the Atlantic to the Paris Peace Conference, he carried with him a new age of US foreign policy. No longer could the United States count on the natural barrier of its two oceans to protect it. No longer could the nation bury its head in the sand to ignore happenings in Europe, despite how hard some Americans, including famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, would try. The United States was now fully invested in the future of Europe, in ensuring that one power would never dominate the continent and threaten US security. During World War II, the strategy was expanded to encompass all of Eurasia, as the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 taught the United States that a foe across the Pacific could prove just as deadly as a foe across the Atlantic. Despite the United States' slow response to the rearmament of Germany in the 1930s, this strategy remained the central geopolitical tenet of US foreign policy and the basis of world security for nearly a century.

Fast forwarding to the present, China is rising in geostrategic importance and displaying its political and military power like never before. Russia is rearming and slowly extending its influence throughout the old Soviet bloc. Meanwhile, the United States is bogged down in two wars in the Middle East, stretched far too strategically thin to offer any real resistance to the steady rise of China and a resurgent Russia. Instead, the United States has chosen to engage in a global War on Terror, to find and destroy pockets of terrorist activity wherever they appear, from Southeast Asia to the Horn of Africa. Some policymakers--notably former Vice President Dick Cheney--have even gone so far as to advocate the so-called One Percent Doctrine, whereby any terrorist attack with even a one percent chance of occurring must be considered a certainty and responded to as such. The emphasis is on non-state actors and radicalized cells, not traditional threats from nation-states.

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This change in US foreign policy marks a fundamental change in the global power balance that is not still fully appreciated. Beneath our feet, the geopolitical groundwork of world security is shifting.

Beijing Bides Its Time

It is hardly groundbreaking to observe that China has undergone a meteoric rise to prominence and power in the last generation. Though today China is still much weaker than the United States, the popular perception that China is on an unstoppable path to superpower status has catapulted the country onto the world stage. Buoyed by exceptional economic growth and a newly active foreign policy, China seems poised to challenge the hegemony that the United States has enjoyed for almost a century. As Warren Buffet recently opined, "The 19th century belonged to England, the 20th century belonged to the United States, and the 21st century belongs to China. Invest accordingly."

Given its sheer geographical size and enormous population, China was bound to assert itself eventually. With over one billion potential consumers eager to get their hands on modern technology and the Chinese government's grudging acceptance of certain free market practices, China is poised to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy. While some have labeled China's economic growth as precarious and say that the bubble is bound to burst soon, such dire predictions have not stopped the country from maintaining an average annual GDP growth rate of over 10 percent for the past 30 years, even during the turbulent booms and busts that marked the turn of the millennium. China's growing economic power presents a clear threat to US hegemony, especially because the Chinese government has been so keen to convert its newfound economic strength into political and military power.

China has been particularly careful in its relationship with the United States. By maintaining a relatively low profile while continuing to accumulate influence and power, Beijing hopes to lull Washington into believing that a rising China can coexist with the United States.

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