This is a translation of an article from the German news magazine Der Spiegel by Marc Hujer, originally published as “Obama bekommt Chinas neue Macht zu spüren” at Spiegel Online on Nov. 12, 2010. I post this here only because I think it is an important article, and no English translation is currently available. I will remove this post as soon as an official translation is available to English-language speakers.
This is what a power shift looks like: During his visit to Asia, Barack Obama is learning that American influence in the region is waning. While the U.S. president is holding speeches, Beijing is creating realities with its billion-dollar investments. During the G-20 summit, China’s delegation even gets away with a diplomatic affront.
One of president Obama’s favorite jokes is that really he’s just Number Two — Number Two after Michelle Obama. He married up, he adds, basking in the friendly laughter he elicits. It is a joke he can afford to make. As president of the United States, he is automatically considered Number One.
Now Barack Obama is traveling through Asia. His ten-day journey leads him via India and Indonesia to the G-20 summit in South Korea and then on to Japan. It is the longest trip of his presidency, and it comes directly after the lost mid-term election.
On the second day of the trip, he sits in one of the back rows at the Holy Name High School in Mumbai. At the front of the room, Michelle Obama dances, surrounded by tenth graders. Absent-mindedly, President Obama sways to the music. It is unlikely that he suspects he is up next, when two Indians walk over to him and bully him into dancing with Michelle.
By evening, these are the images that flicker across news screens. The question arises how seriously to take them. The man dancing there — is that world politics’ Number One?
Last week, Forbes Magazine gave a clear and sobering answer: No. Obama is now only world politics’ Number Two. Number One is someone who can tackle problems, who can overcome resistance. And for Forbes, that someone is China’s president, Hu Jintao. Hu can even re-route rivers, without interference from pesky bureaucrats and courts. What, in comparison, does Obama have to offer?
Obama wants to show China its limits
Obama’s trip to Asia was meant to turn the page by setting a new agenda, away from domestic squabbling after the defeat in the mid-term election, towards foreign policy. It was meant to give Obama, the self-proclaimed “first Pacific president,” new weight. Obama came to evoke common ground, with India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. These countries are not just economic powers, but also democracies. Obama also came to secure business deals, to negotiate trade contracts that will secure American jobs at home. And he came to show China its limits, to draw a line in the sand for its model of authoritarian capitalism.
China has prepared for this. While Obama travels from Mumbai to New Delhi in India, while he sings the praises of India, the new economic superpower, and while he makes the long-craved promise to India’s parliament that the United States will support the country’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, President Hu pays a visit to France. In India, Obama announces trade deals worth 10 billion dollars. In France, Hu publicizes his own figures: 20 billion, doubling Obama’s.
Mumbai university students ask President Obama how America has changed after the mid-term elections. They ask whether not just now, but over the last few years, the United States has been wielding the same sort of geopolitical power it once did. George W. Bush would have launched into a speech about what is great about America. Obama replies more pensively. He will turn 50 next year, he says. In the nearly 50 years that he’s been alive, the United States has always been able to dictate its position to the world:
The US was such an enormously dominant economic power, we were such a large market, our industry, our technology, our manufacturing was so significant that we always met the rest of the world economically on our terms. And now because of the incredible rise of India and China and Brazil and other countries, the U.S. remains the largest economy and the largest market, but there is real competition.
Obama and the mango tree in his front yard
Indonesia is the second stop on Obama’s Asian trip. It is easier for him to win sympathies here. After all, he lived in Indonesia for four years, so the country is home turf. But in the end, here, too, it’s the numbers that matter. And here, too, the Chinese are well ahead of him. One day before Obama steps off Air Force One, a Chinese business delegation promises Indonesia 6.6. billion dollars worth of investments into roads, bridges, and canals that Indonesia desperately needs. And Obama?
At the presidential palace in Jakarta, President Obama stands next to Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and does his best to use as many Indonesian words as possible. He talks about his youth, his house in Jakarta with the mango tree in the front yard, about how Jakarta had only a single high-rise building back then. But when it comes to figures, to export contracts and direct investments like the Chinese have announced, he has little to offer: In Indonesia, he concedes, “we’re number three right now in terms of trade volume and investment.”
Democracy is complicated. One gets bogged down. And in a way, Forbes may have assessed correctly that the United States cannot compete on a level playing field with a country that can simply issue orders, and whatever arrangements it thinks will strengthen its power will promptly be made. It cannot compete on a level playing field with a country that knows nothing of majorities and mid-term elections. And, President Obama points out, is it really all about the numbers? ”Prosperity without freedom,” Obama says in Jakarta, “is really just another form of poverty.”
Made to feel irrelevant
On Thursday they finally meet, Obama and Hu, for the seventh time. They sit in a hotel suite in Seoul. Between them stands a table with a vase of flowers, behind it four flags: two American, two Chinese. Obama has crossed his legs. Hu sits straight, both feet on the ground. They exchange diplomatic phrases, the necessary niceties, words without weight, to avoid unnecessarily exposing themselves.
“The Chinese side values its relationship with the United States,” the translator says. And Obama replies, “It’s wonderful to meet with President Hu.” They go on like this for a few minutes, but it becomes difficult to hear what they are saying. The Chinese delegation standing next to Hu chatters loudly and unabashedly. The Americans are irritated, but they do not complain. Today is not about etiquette.
It’s about who can get away with what.