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Why is the United States Always the Supplicant?

Part of the answer, no doubt, is our uninhibited displays of eagerness.

9:00 AM, Jun 17, 2010 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Diane Feinstein, freshly back from a trip to Asia, was pressing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, yesterday about the need for engagement with China: “I think that the most important thing we can do right now is establish some military-to-military contact," she said to him in a defense appropriation hearing.

According to an AFP dispatch, Mullen echoed her view:

saying China "is increasingly opaque, and these dialogues are absolutely critical to try to understand each other."

"Each time, at least from my perspective, each time it gets turned off, it gets turned off by the Chinese, and then we will go through a period of time where we have no relationship," he said.

The admiral noted that the United States has had no relations with Iran since 1979, "and look where we are."

"And so if I use that as a model, that's certainly not one that we can afford as a country or as a military with China as China continues to grow."

As the exchange suggests, our policy toward China consists, in part, of the following plea: Please, please talk to us. The logic of engagement implicit in both Feinstein's and Mullen’s remarks—and the Obama administration’s overall policy toward not only China but other countries including Iran, North Korea, and Syria—is that if we only can have a dialogue, we might arrive at a mutual understanding.

The fallacy of this view has already been exposed by its fruitlessness. But an interesting question to ask about the policy is: Why is the United States always the supplicant? We have enormous military and economic power. Yet no countries are begging for talks with us.  

Part of the answer, no doubt, is our uninhibited displays of eagerness. Why should an adversary bother to knock on our door and beg for entrance when we are going to come knocking and begging ourselves?

Another part is that a deep strand of American liberalism places irrational faith in rationality.  We tend to overlook that deep antagonisms among states are rooted in geography, history, and ideology that jaw-jaw can often do little to resolve. Our adversaries come from very different political traditions and do not share our illusions.

Whatever the explanation for our peculiar behavior, one of its unhappy effects is that it squanders our enormous military and economic leverage. We are capable of projecting enormous power, yet we wind up projecting weakness. 

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.

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