TOPICS: Growing resistance to US primacy

Stressing the indispensability of American global leadership is standard fare in State of the Union addresses, and George Bush’s speech last night was no exception. But a string of foreign policy setbacks has highlighted growing flaws in Washington’s assumption of international primacy.

China’s rapid rise presents long-term challenge to American ascendancy. It has become the world’s fourth largest economy. And its political clout is growing even faster, as Robert Zoellick, the US deputy secretary of state, was reminded last week. Visiting Beijing, Zoellick said the US wanted China to become a “responsible stakeholder’’ in global good governance. But Zoellick’s plea for China to back the formal referral of Iran’s nuclear activities to the UN Security Council for possible punitive sanctions was rebuffed. China’s simultaneous feting in Beijing of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia meanwhile offered a different, unsettling perspective on the energy security issues raised by Zoellick. Joint agreements on extraction and refining mean increasing amounts of Saudi crude oil will be earmarked for China rather than the US, Riyadh’s long-time number one customer. China’s courting of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, who toured the country last month, may aggravate another of Zoellick’s concerns — how to separate Pyongyang from its ‘nuclear bombs.’

South Korea’s president, Roh Moo Hyun, has warned Washington not to use or even threaten to use force to achieve regime change and the overthrow of Kim. Such mutinous talk from a traditionally close US ally would once have been quite unthinkable — but not now. Similarly jolting rejections of once unquestioned American authority are proliferating. The Palestinian vote for Hamas ignored US pressure and financial string-pulling and left its Middle East peace policy in tatters. While they might once have quietly acquiesced, India and Pakistan reacted sharply and publicly to recent US attempts to block trade with Iran and an “unauthorised’’ attack on a supposed Al Qaeda hideout. Russia has simply ignored US protests over its treatment of NGOs and its gas pipeline rows with Ukraine and Georgia. Despite Condoleezza Ric-e’s bid for a post-Iraq fresh start, European opinion has been alienated all over again by the extraordinary rendition row. In Iraq, allies such as Italy are breaking ranks, intent on bringing troops home whether or not Bush deems the job done.

In his book The Opportunity, Richard Haass suggested that US over-reaching, as seen in Iraq and in Bush’s grandiose second term “vision’’ to set the world free, was partly responsible for the trend towards rejection of American leadership. “It is neither desirable nor practical to make democracy promotion a foreign policy doctrine,’’ Haass, a former US government official, said. But he argued that US primacy was vulnerable to non-military challenges that were beyond the control of any administration. The US should pursue more collaborative, integrated policies or risk rising “passive resistance’’ internationally. — The Guardian