You need an objective forum to gauge the thinking of people trying to get to grips with the state of things from their own perspectives. Thus, for instance, the propounder of the concept of “soft power” found it incumbent to join issue with the rest when the US was being chided by influential opinion for its “wrecking-ball” approach to global interdependence. The bull in the China shop may not cause immediate damage to himself by his actions; he might even gain.
Joseph Nye and Bernie Sanders have argued that throwing one’s weight around with Iran or North Korea may or may not pay off immediately, but in the long run will definitely disturb the sense of legitimacy on which the world ticks, in turn harming the American quality of life. Long-term counter productivity has been manifested on several occasions in the past.
President Nixon had banned soya bean exports in 1973 to curb internal inflation, but the restriction was instrumental in goading Brazil to grow the commodity to become its second largest producer, second only to the USA. China had tried to squeeze Japan’s access to rare earth metal critical for the manufacture of electronic components, but Japan had found an Australian mining company to have it refined in Malaysia, apart from re-opening a closed mine in the USA, in the bargain depleting China’s share of rare earth metal production by more than 25%. Japan began to acquire a third of its requirements from elsewhere.
The real pinch comes in the area of ecology and climate change. Not only is inter-dependence there a fact of life but a costly one to repudiate. Denial cannot stop either the global emissions of greenhouse gases or the incidence of disease transmitted across the environment. Americans are beginning to express concern over their country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement as “incompatible with the laws of Physics”. The argument now is that if China is ready to be part of a rule-based “liberal” order, of the West’s making, despite selective protest, the USA should persevere in letter and spirit in its own as well as global interest.
There is an obvious effort to save the day with extensive talks after the G-20 meeting in Osaka. China has skilfully posited its case with the USA: if the tariffs imposed on it are not removed there will be a recession. Reports on bilateral talks suggest the two sides are seeking trading complementarities, which cannot be easy, given the USA’s massive trade deficit with China. However, the world will not come to an end, even with that. An investment banker had anticipated that the USA would economically turn a blind eye to greater regional trade to fill the gap. But the rationale of the soft power exponent is persuasion to retain the earlier prominence, not either withdrawal or disruption. The heartening news is that intimations of resilience are growing audible, however faintly. Inter-dependence must truly be the bottom-line of power.
By Uttam Sen
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