Barack Obama, a master of geopolitics?

Many of my Democratic friends think of Barack Obama as a well-meaning but naive and weak reformer.  I think of President Obama as a shrewd and strong defender of the status quo.

Alfred McCoy wrote a good article for TomDispatch arguing that this is just as true of his foreign policy as his domestic policy.

The greatest threat to American world power is the rise of China.  While the USA is dissipating its power through failed military interventions. China is extending its power by economic policies that add to its economic strength.

Obama hopes to counter China by leveraging American economic power through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which will create a global trade bloc from which China and also Russia will be locked out.

The question is how long this will be feasible.  China’s economic power is growing.  American economic power is a legacy from the past.

President Obama has been using America’s status as the planet’s number one consumer nation to create a new version of dollar diplomacy.

His strategy is aimed at drawing China’s Eurasian trading partners back into Washington’s orbit.


While Beijing has been moving to bring parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe into a unified “world island” with China at its epicenter, Obama has countered with a bold geopolitics that would trisect that vast land mass by redirecting its trade towards the United States.

During the post-9/11 decade when Washington was spilling its blood and treasure onto desert sands, Beijing was investing its trillions of dollars of surplus from trade with the U.S. in plans for the economic integration of the vast Eurasian land mass.

In the process, it has already built or is building an elaborate infrastructure of high-speed, high-volume railroads and oil and natural gas pipelines across the vast breadth of what Sir Halford Mackinder once dubbed the “world island.”  [snip]

Obama has invested diplomatic and political capital in advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a prospective treaty that carefully excludes China from membership in an apparent bid to split its would-be world island right down its Pacific littoral.

us-chinaSurpassing any other economic alliance except the European Union, this treaty will bind the U.S. and 11 nations around the Pacific basin, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, and Vietnam, that represent $28 trillion in combined GDP or 40% of gross world product and a third of all global trade. By sweeping up areas like agriculture, data flows, and service industries, this treaty aspires to a Pacific economic integration unparalleled in any existing trade pact.

In the process, it would draw these highly productive nations away from China and into America’s orbit.

Not surprisingly, Obama has faced ferocious opposition within his own party from Senator Elizabeth Warren and others who are sharply critical of the highly secretive nature of the negotiations for the pact and the way it is likely to degrade labor and environmental laws in the U.S.  [snip]

To pull at the western axis of China’s would-be world island, Obama is also aggressively pursuing negotiations for the TTIP with the European Union and its $18 trillion economy.  The treaty seeks fuller economic integration between Europe and America by meshing government regulations on matters such as auto safety in ways that might add some $270 billion to their annual trade.

By transferring control over consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed, pro-business arbitration tribunals, argues a coalition of 170 European civil society groups, the TTIP, like its Pacific counterpart, will exact a high social cost from participating countries.

While the European Union’s labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy and the complexity of relations among its sovereign states make completion of negotiations within the year unlikely, the TTIP treaty, propelled by Obama’s singular determination, is moving at light speed compared to the laggard Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations, now in year 12 of inconclusive talks with no end in sight.

Source: The Unz Review

I think this whole article is well worth reading.   My only criticism is that President Obama’s break with President George W. Bush’s policies isn’t as sharp as McCoy implies.

Americans turned against President George W. Bush because of the disastrous and costly failure of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  President Bush showed that he realized these failures himself by firing Donald Rumsfeld and agreeing to a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

President Obama has figured out how to continue President Bush’s Middle East policies by other and less unpopular means—drone warfare, Special Operations Forces, arming of local forces and cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

Conceivably Obama wants to make a sharper break than he has, but is unable or unwilling to overcome the vested interests in U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

McCoy is right to say that Obama’s priority is to offset Chinese power and (I would add) undermine Russian power.  He also is right to say that Obama, in supporting the TPP and TTIP, gives higher priority to American world power than to the well-being of individual Americans.

How long Obama and his successors will be able to preserve American dominance is an open question.  The more important question is whether world military dominance is a goal any government should be pursuing in the first place.


Grandmaster of the Great Game: Obama’s Geopolitical Strategy for Containing China by Alfred McCoy for TomDispatch (via Unz Review).

The Geopolitics of American Global Decline: Washington vs. China in the Twenty-First Century by Alfred McCoy for TomDispatch (via Unz Review).   An earlier and more skeptical view of U.S. geopolitical strategy.

‘The World Is Too Important to Be Left to America’, by Liu Mingfu of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army  (via The Atlantic).  A Chinese view of world power.

How Great a Security Threat Is China? by James Fallows for The Atlantic.

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One Response to “Barack Obama, a master of geopolitics?”

  1. The geopolitics show | geopoliticalworldblog Says:

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