Easternization: Asia's Rise and America's Decline from Obama to Trump and Beyond
In his 1964 classic, Suicide of the West, James Burnham expressed the global geopolitical contraction of the West by showing the unmistakable trend of the Western powers’ loss of control over political acreage since 1914.
Burnham’s focus was geography. Gideon Rachman’s focus in his book Easternization is economics, but his message today is similar to Burnham’s of 50 years ago: The global balance of power is shifting away from the West.
Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, defines Easternization as “a shift in power and wealth from the West to Asia.” This shift has manifested itself in China’s relative rise in economic power vis-à-vis the United States and other Western powers, the increased militarization of China and other Asian powers in the face of U.S. and European defense cuts, and China’s expanded diplomatic and economic ties to nations in Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
China’s rise has caused some observers to warn about the dangers of the “Thucydides trap.” This harkens back to the great Greek historian’s belief that the Peloponnesian War was caused by Sparta’s fear of a rising Athens.
Some modern day strategists worry that the next major war could result from America’s fear of a rising China. Rachman shares their concern.
Rachman notes that much of this shift in power from West to East occurred during the Obama presidency, yet he hastens to absolve President Obama from major responsibility for this development. “The process of Easternization,” he writes, “is rooted in deep historical and economic forces that are beyond the power of any single U.S. president to change.”
In general, Rachman is probably right about that, but he nevertheless details instance after instance where the Obama administration’s actions or its failure to act contributed to the West’s relative decline.
For example, Rachman shows that Obama’s much-heralded “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific was more rhetoric than reality. You cannot effectively conduct a security pivot while simultaneously cutting the military budget. Obama’s rhetoric did not cause China to abandon or even pause its aggressive moves in the East China and South China Seas or elsewhere.
Moreover in the midst of the pivot, Russia moved aggressively in Ukraine and Syria, and the so-called Arab Spring transformed into a jihadist winter as Islamic extremists gained the upper hand in several areas of the Middle East.
Obama’s timid responses to these developments produced a perception, Rachman writes, of “a vacillating president . . . who had lost control of events.”
During the Obama years, Rachman writes, statesmen and leaders in major world capitals complained about a “timid America [that] was losing its grip on world affairs.”
Despite Rachman’s obvious personal admiration for President Obama, he concludes that the Obama years were “a period when American power was challenged all over the world—but especially in East Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.”
In truth, the West’s decline started long before Barack Obama became president. In broad terms, the combined consequences of the First World War, Second World War, and the end of colonialism produced Western geopolitical decline, and Western liberalism’s loss of faith in its own superiority reconciled its leaders to this decline. That is why James Burnham called liberalism “the ideology of Western suicide.”
Rachman is surely correct that there are objective historical forces at work here, but that does not absolve statesmen of their responsibility to counter or resist such forces when necessary to protect and promote their country’s interests. After all, Winston Churchill in 1940 was dealt a bad hand when he became England’s prime minister, but he demonstrated the wisdom and will to prevail.
Easternization can be resisted. As Rachman notes, the West still has some cards to play, including latent military and economic power and control of key institutions that “underpin the global order.” As in times past, the question is one of will.
As I write this, President Trump has just launched a cruise missile attack against Syrian forces after the Assad regime again used chemical weapons against its internal enemies, effectively enforcing the “red line” that President Obama announced but was unwilling to enforce. Moreover, Trump carried out this attack while hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Perhaps America’s timidity has ended.