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« Sovereign wealth funds globalization's appetite for risk | Main | Fast-forwarding to better storyline in Middle East »
Sunday
Aug122007

To rejoin world, U.S. must rejoin conversation

Sen. Barack Obama is excoriated by fellow presidential candidates and the Bush administration for expressing willingness — if elected — to pursue dialogue with America’s enemies. Some policy experts spot dangerous naivete in such talk, and given the wrong circumstances, clearly there could be.

But Obama’s larger point, that America needs to “reach out to the rest of the world again,” seems undeniably true. On issue after issue, the international community comes together to forge new rule sets for this tumultuous era of globalization while the United States, in its infinite capacity for internal disagreement, is sidelined by our difficult occupation of Iraq, rising protectionist sentiment and know-nothing paranoia about a world we alone imagine to be infinitely more dangerous than the Cold War.

There are many trains leaving this station.

Despite America’s intransigence on its trade-distorting agricultural subsidies in the World Trade Organization’s Doha “development round,” the rest of the world is forming free-trade agreements (FTAs) like there’s more than enough tomorrows to go around. Over a hundred FTAs have been negotiated in the Asia-Pacific Rim alone since 9/11, and roughly half the world’s trade now flows through them.

But America participates in only half as many FTAs as the European Union and barely one-third as many as China currently negotiates or proposes. A recently concluded U.S.-South Korean FTA now languishes in the Democrat-controlled Congress, while China, Korea’s biggest trade partner, promises one with its neighbor as soon as possible.

Despite America’s long-standing unwillingness to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), that global judiciary continues to pioneer prosecutions of war criminals operating out of failed states and rogue regimes. The ICC currently targets bad actors in Sudan, Namibia and Uganda and hosts former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor’s trial under a similarly sponsored U.N. tribunal. Arguably, the ICC’s venue in The Hague could have accommodated Saddam Hussein’s controversial adjudication.

But America didn’t choose that option, losing yet another opportunity to build global case law in this long war. Meanwhile, a string of prison scandals and court challenges back home have prevented the U.S. government from putting even a single enemy combatant on trial in its flailing prosecution of suspected transnational terrorists.

Despite America’s inability to succeed in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction, China, India and other emerging powers are ramping up their investment in previously war-torn sub-Saharan Africa, engaging in a resource grab and infrastructure-building boom that could easily be described as pre-emptive nation-building.

America currently establishes its own, highly innovative African Command for the continent, but do we plan to go it alone here, too? If not, then where’s our high-level strategic dialogue with China regarding its burgeoning profile in the region? If we want to tame Sudan’s janjaweed or topple Zimbabwe’s cruel Robert Mugabe, doesn’t Washington engage Beijing first? Or is that Mia Farrow’s job?

Despite America’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Agreement on climate change, financial markets for carbon credits are popping up all over the planet, and Al Gore’s made the issue both Oscar- and campaign-worthy in a manner too compelling to ignore. Washington might be chronically unable to marshal a national energy plan, but Brazil’s been pulling one off for the past couple of decades, quietly ridding itself of foreign oil through home-grown sugar-cane ethanol.

Meanwhile, car-booming China is rolling out pollution-emission standards that rival California’s ambition while promising more hybrids than Detroit. When GM and Honda look for global leadership on this issue, they’re not looking to Washington.

Add it all up, and America’s growing inability to talk with its friends, much less its enemies, seems to be isolating our country from a series of significant global realignments currently under way. So, no surprise that America polls globally just north of Kim Jong Il, while China’s charm offensive comes off like a clinic on soft power.

How can America grow so disconnected from the world at a point in history when everything — and everyone — grows more interconnected? In a global economy increasingly modeled on our own pioneering political and economic union, why have we isolated ourselves from the very same global trends that we spent so much blood and treasure to enable?

Why have we Americans grown so uncomfortable in this world of our creation?

Absent some solid answers to these difficult questions, this experienced foreign policy hand willingly endures Obama’s post-Boomer navete.

Turn the page? Gladly.

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