Scholars Debate the Future
Chairing a session on the future of Al Qaeda after the death of Osama I was reminded by Leah Farrall that the organisation still has a command. It’s not just part of the zeitgeist. Sure it’s become more diffused and more decentralised, relying on affiliates. But in Somalia and Yemen it is still potent.
In other sessions at the US Studies Centre’s 2011 National Conference some US contributors talking about China strayed very close to a notion of containment. This was reflected in a US insistence that China’s rise be stabilising and consistent with international norms. Who makes the judgment about that is, of course, the hard part. The American scholar-journalist James Fallows pointed out that the US was more conciliatory in the first year of the Obama presidency but seems to be steelier when it comes to China now.
Americans enjoy pointing out that their country – certainly in Asia – is capable of acting disinterestedly, accepting a role to maintain balance even when it proves a costly and complex commitment for the US. Former diplomat Jeffrey Bader speaking by video link from Washington recalled that every time the US suggested putting “leading” in a communiqué in respect of China (as in “leading power”) the Chinese would insist on deleting it. Chinese diplomats seemed insistent on avoiding the impression they had global responsibilities. From an American perspective therefore China is seen as a free rider in the international system, not a full citizen – for example by not accepting responsibility to rein in Iran. While China had been cooperative on North Korea in 2009 they have become indulgent, adopting a “wilful blindness” to North Korean behaviour.
Has the Arab Spring implication for China? Not a great deal was the consensus. China has racked up 10 percent growth for decades, the most explosive growth in history. Their people are rising out of poverty, not sunk in it. Bear in mind, however, that the Chinese think that in 1989 on Tiananmen they waited too long and let dissent gather pace. Their heavy security apparatus deployed now proves they’re not taking this risk again.
And talking of nuclear arsenals, this was the disturbing consensus about North Korea. This puny dictatorship is intent on its own nuclear arsenal. It has no interest in giving up its program. It will talk about slowing or freezing the programs when it feels under pressure but it will not terminate it. On the other hand, quite legitimately, the American interest in the six party process is about denuclearisation. The North Koreans are winning.
Geoff Garrett, the director of the US Studies Centre asked a panel to tip the challenges for the next decade. Here are some of the suggestions that the visiting scholars yielded up:
- Even if the lowest levels of climate change are accepted it is bound to be accelerating and destabilising.
- The decade will be that of food riots.
- It will be about American resurgence, not American decline (but, immediate qualification, faith is not a policy and America will have to do things to bring about the resurgence).
- It will be a decade of European disintegration.
- David Petraeus to be American President in 2017.
- It might see a tipping point in Chinese-American relations in the Pacific – contemplate a rogue faction of the PLA initiating some clash with US forces.