By Rowan Callick
The US is still struggling to come to terms with the continuing success of authoritarian leaders around the world — after believing they would fade into oblivion following the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.
Addressing the growing power of Russian President Vladimir Putin and of China’s President Xi Jinping will be at or near the top of the agenda of the next US president, Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said yesterday.
He forecast that the best hope of the US congress passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership lay in the “lame duck” period between next year’s election and the inauguration in January 2017.
“Both Democrats and Republicans would rather not vote on it before the primary season,” he said.
Hiatt, who also writes editorials and columns for the Post, and is visiting Australia for United States Studies Centre talks, told The Australian that “there was a widely held expectation that democracy was going to continue to advance, particularly in the internet era, and that without an ideology behind them, dictators wouldn’t be able to survive”.
However, he said, “it now turns out that they are not letting history act on them”, and that Mr Putin especially is “trying to fashion a counter-ideology” to liberal democracy, incorporating xenophobia, homophobia and nationalisms of various kinds’’.
Some countries have been moving in this direction for a dozen years, Hiatt said, “and Putin and Xi both fit into this”.
It never occurred to the US that this might happen, he said, “and Putin has taken advantage of that”. When US President Barack Obama says that Mr Putin represents a throwback to the 19th century and that he is bad for Russia, “that’s true in the long run, but such people often don’t act in the interests of their own country”.
“Many of them are massively corrupt, they’re like mafia dons, and if the GDP of their country shrinks and that doesn’t interfere with their political control, they can live with that.”
He said that since the Tiananmen deaths in 1989, US election campaigns had focused on conflict with China, and candidates had promised to get tough. But afterwards, continuity always took over as the core theme, he said.
“I think in this coming election, that’s still the best bet.”
Hillary Clinton, he said, was presenting herself as “a bit more activist” than Mr Obama over China, whereas the other leading Democrat candidate, Bernie Sanders, leant more towards “the withdrawal, let’s-do-nation-building-at-home side of the party”.
Not a single politician or pundit would a year ago have predicted, said Hiatt, that the front Republican runners would have been Donald Trump and fellow political novice Ben Carson.
“So predicting where we’ll be a year from now is probably also something of a fool’s errand … There is a strong anti-establishment, anti-incumbent streak in both parties,” he said.
After 2013, when Mr Obama refrained from bombing Syria in the wake of President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite his having previously described that as a “red line”, conventional wisdom held that the Republicans would run to the hawkish side of Mr Obama, Hiatt said.
That would mean, he said, attacking Mr Obama for being a weak president and allowing Mr Putin to push the US around, thus requiring a tougher-minded leader — a policy direction whose likelihood was reinforced by the rise of Islamic State.
But, he said, “there remains a very strong streak within both parties of believing that the US can’t sort out the problems of the Middle East, and that the lessons of the last 10 years include that the US doesn’t know how to do nation-building abroad, and we should just stay home”.
Mr Trump, he said, appealed to many people in both camps — not letting people push America around, but also not getting involved in other people’s business, views common among followers of both parties.
Hiatt said the need for the US’s pivot or rebalance back to Asia, announced by Mr Obama in Canberra four years ago, was not contested — only the credit, which Republicans said should be theirs because it began in George W. Bush’s second term.
But, he said, “while you may declare that the Pacific is more important than the Middle East or central Asia, the world may have other ideas. If you are the US, you can’t make decisions based entirely on whose GDP is growing or fading, but where there are problems and potential threats”.
The way in which Mr Obama announced the pivot, he said, might have set it back since many problems elsewhere deteriorated.
“Yes, Asia has to be a priority, but we can’t take our eye off other balls in the air.”
After the election, China policy was likely to revert to a combination of engagement and attempted restraint, he said.
Chinese leaders had earlier, he said, promoted the belief that bringing the nation into the world system and encouraging through trade its rising living standards, would lead it to work within the existing frameworks of rules.
But it has taken a different turn, Hiatt said, especially since Mr Xi became leader, becoming “more aggressive in stealing cyber property and in imprisoning its own citizens, including lawyers operating under China’s own constitution”.
He said this change of direction was not anticipated, and not one with which the West had come to terms.
He said Washington, in delaying “freedom of navigation” sea or air passages near China’s newly constructed bases in the South China Sea, “is not surprisingly figuring out how to do this in a way that ratchets down confrontation rather than ratcheting it up”.
The rebalance to Asia was bipartisan, he said, and was a multilateral approach in which US allies, especially South Korea, Japan and Australia, ware linchpins. “The key question is, are we going to be able to back it up with rational budget and policymaking.”
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