President Barack Obama made some interesting, even surprising, comments about Russia and China in an interview with The Economist, the respected British news magazine. They reveal some of his thinking in the aftermath of his mostly failed “reset” with Russia and his limping “Asian pivot” involving China. Moscow and Beijing may think Obama a little high-handed.
A full text and audio of the interview is here:
Barack Obama talks to The Economist, An interview with the president; Aug 2nd 2014
The Economist: What about the people who are just outright difficult? Russia being the obvious example at the moment. You tried to “reset” with Russia. Angela Merkel spent the whole time telephoning Vladimir Putin. To what extent do you feel let down almost personally by what’s happened?
Mr Obama: I don’t feel let down. We had a very productive relationship with President Medvedev. We got a lot of things done that we needed to get done. Russia I think has always had a Janus-like quality, both looking east and west, and I think President Putin represents a deep strain in Russia that is probably harmful to Russia over the long term, but in the short term can be politically popular at home and very troublesome abroad.
But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.
… the post-World War II order was necessarily a creation of the United States. There had been times where the United States took advantage of that post-World War II order to extend the reach of its companies and to extend the reach of its products, but now it really belongs to everybody. It’s an ecosystem that’s been built for everyone.
And when we look at something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, yes, we think it’s good for the United States, but we also think it’s good for a country like Vietnam who, in the absence of these kinds of rules, is going to have a very difficult time negotiating with its giant neighbor and getting decent terms of trade. We think it’s going to be good for a country like Malaysia that has an interest in maintaining navigation and freedom of movement in the South China Sea.
And I do think that what’s happening in the ASEAN countries and their concerns about the Chinese posture on maritime issues is instructive. You’ve seen many of those countries say, we want great relations with China, we don’t want to have to choose between China and the United States; on the other hand, we don’t want to be bullied just because we’re small.
The Economist: Because that is the key issue, whether China ends up inside that system or challenging it. That’s the really big issue of our times, I think.
Mr Obama: It is. And I think it’s important for the United States and Europe to continue to welcome China as a full partner in these international norms. It’s important for us to recognize that there are going to be times where there are tensions and conflicts. But I think those are manageable.
And it’s my belief that as China shifts its economy away from simply being the low-cost manufacturer of the world to wanting to move up the value chain, then suddenly issues like protecting intellectual property become more relevant to their companies, not just to US companies.
One thing I will say about China, though, is you also have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance. They’re not sentimental, and they are not interested in abstractions. And so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient. There have to be mechanisms both to be tough with them when we think that they’re breaching international norms, but also to show them the potential benefits over the long term. And what is true for China then becomes an analogy for many of the other emerging markets.
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