The collision between an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet last week triggered a chain of events that has left diplomats and statesmen reeling. That the bamboo curtain is again descending over Asia is reason enough for enormous concern. But the most worrisome aspect of the incident is what it tells us about the new United States president, and the administration he heads.
George W Bush described himself as a compassionate consensus-builder during last year's presidential campaign. In reality, he may well be the most conservative, partisan and hawkish leader his country has ever had.
The American people, some of whom elected Bush, will pay a significant price for having been misled by his rhetoric, in dramatically reduced social spending, tax breaks directed primarily at the rich, and an energy and environmental policy driven entirely by industry concerns. But the other five billion people on this planet those who cannot vote in US elections will pay an even bigger price.
In the past three months, the Bush administration has fundamentally altered the way in which the United States relates to the rest of the world. Any compassion in foreign policy has been replaced by self-interest. Collaboration has been replaced by coercion; multilateralism by unilateralism.
The most striking manifestation of the new approach is Bush's decision to renounce the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Scientists within the US government's Environmental Protection Agency are agreed that global warming is happening, and faster than previously thought, yet Bush expresses doubts about the science. He also points to the costs to the US economy of taking steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, knowing full well that Europe and the developing world will bear the brunt of climate change, and be less able to deal with the results.
The new approach to foreign policy is also apparent in antagonism towards Russia. Russia is now regarded as a failed country, not deserving of respect or financial aid. The expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats and publicized meetings between Chechen rebels and high-ranking US officials have been designed to inform Moscow of a new-found toughness in Washington.
With Russia on the ropes, the military-industrial complex led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense desperately needs new enemies to justify increasing the Pentagon's budget. The attacks on Baghdad in February were aimed at provoking Saddam Hussein, but instead drew unexpected criticism from Arab allies, not to mention Germany and France.
North Korea's status as a "rogue state" has been preserved by the decision to suspend peace talks initiated last year. This constitutes more than an opportunity missed; it seriously undermines President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, whose diplomacy won him a Nobel Peace Prize. Should Kim lose power as a result of American hesitation, the peace talks are over.
But impoverished North Korea is at best a bit player in geopolitics. To properly "wag the dog" of US public opinion, Cheney and Rumsfeld have to create a more credible foe.
Two weeks ago, Rumsfeld presented a strategic plan to the White House that identified China as America's most likely enemy in a future armed conflict. Major expenditures are planned on a national missile defense system, long-range bombers, and stealth warships designed for a hi-tech Pacific war. A decision to sell advanced destroyers, radar systems and a theater defense system to Taiwan is due shortly. Surveillance of China has been increased dramatically from sea, air, space and the Mongolian frontier.
The Chinese government is nervous. Overtures to the West have yielded big dividends in growth, securing the ruling cadre against dissent while enabling it to cut military spending. But recast as a competitor and faced with threats from the world's most powerful military force, the Chinese have little choice but to respond in kind. Military spending is on the increase. Multiple warheads will soon be placed on the 18 missiles able to reach the continental United States, and additional missiles will be added.
Last week's air collision has accelerated a process that had begun. Rumsfeld could not have planned a better means for ensuring acceptance of his strategic plan, as the American press reacts furiously to the Chinese government's detention of the plane and crew ignoring the fact that the US government would have acted in the same way had a similar incident occurred off the coast of California, in its self-declared "air defense zone".
One might ask how anyone even an extreme conservative seeking personal gain could embrace policies that are certain to lead to environmental devastation and a dramatically increased risk of nuclear holocaust.
The length of the electoral cycle is a factor; there is little incentive for American politicians to plan more than four years at a time. But short electoral cycles are a factor in all democratic systems, and in some countries a real commitment to long-term planning on environmental and strategic issues has begun to appear.
A more significant factor is the character of American society, where self-advancement is celebrated and common interests and obligations denied especially among right-wing Republicans. It is very difficult for people who do not trust each other (and who distrust their government) to support policies that require trust in individuals and groups overseas. Exacerbating this distrust is the appalling lack of knowledge most Americans have of other cultures and countries: a more than 50 per cent drop in foreign news coverage on US television in the past five years has hardly helped.
Perhaps most importantly, many Americans have little sense of the past or the future. The wars of the 20th century happened elsewhere; divorce is rife and families scattered or dysfunctional. It is difficult to fear for the future of grandchildren you have only rarely, if ever, met.
That said, the picture is not entirely bleak. Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, has shown considerably more appreciation of the benefits of diplomacy and co-operation than have his more hawkish colleagues. But, despite remaining one of the most popular people in America, Powell has lost the battle for the President's ear. He may well resign before long, perhaps to run for the presidency himself in 2004.
Meanwhile, the only real hope for international peace and environmental protection lies with the governments of the middle powers, such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the UK. A united opposition to American unilateralism, coupled with increased collaboration between these countries and the developing world, could maintain and even foster the values to which the Bush administration is so resolutely opposed: compassion, trust, and a recognition that common interests do exist at international level, and can be advanced only through commitments to shared institutions, obligations and rules.
Opposing bullies, especially those as powerful and ideologically committed as George Bush and his friends, takes courage and conviction. Allowing them to succeed is the best way to ensure that they will bully again.
Michael Byers teaches international law at Duke University, North Carolina.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd