Fighting the Colder War

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Is it just me, or did we trade the Cold War for a Colder War in the 21st century? We seem to have collected more enemies in the last couple decades, and worse, they seem to be getting more dangerous. Remember when our favorite rancher George W. called them the Axis of Evil? We always need a bogeyman (or men) to prop up support for military action. But Obama promised a new era in foreign relations, one where bogeymen weren't needed, where we could be tough without being assholes at the negotiating table, and one where military action was a last resort rather than the preferred course of action for a bunch of White House hawks who were willing to distort facts to make their case for war.

Obama has made a difference with his star power alone: Wherever he travels he spreads a message of conciliation very distinct from Bush's "you're with us or against us" stance. Many have criticized his tone as too apologetic or soft, but, with the exception of North Korea, we seem to be making progress where we weren't before. It remains to be seen exactly how Obama will deal with important players who happen not to like us: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Russia is a two-headed monster now, and Obama has the difficult job of navigating the complicated world of Russian politics. While it is widely accepted that former Russian president, now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the puppeteer behind President Dmitry Medvedev's marionette, Obama has gone out of his way to deal with Medvedev as if he's the man. Last week they announced an encouraging nuclear arms reduction plan that would cut nukes in both countries by one-third. I'm not sure we should be comforted by Russia and U.S. each having "only" 1,675 warheads, still enough to destroy everybody on the planet. But it shows that Russia can agree with us on something and Obama did his duty by calling on both heads of state during his trip. He even gave the often-tense Medvedev a friendly touch on the shoulder-man, our president is handsy.

Those who call him weak because we aren't dictating demands to a weakened Russia are missing the big picture. Think of Russia as your insecure friend who once was in great shape but is now getting a bit thicker around the middle. As a friend would you approach Russia and say, "Yo, dude, what's up with the pudge?" and start poking his love handles? Of course not. Bolster Russia's self-esteem, treat them as equals, and they will come with us on many policies, including those dealing with China.

China is already our Colder War nemesis. The Chinese do just about everything cheaper, own much of our debt and the government doesn't run into any of that inconvenient neighborhood resistance when a new skyscraper needs to be built. They are the global Goliath of economic growth, and they scare us in a way the Soviets never could-economically. The Chinese have the best of both worlds: room to innovate and a lack of democratic obstacles and pesky environmental regulations. They also brutally suppress any dissent, as last week's slaughter of Uighur protesters in western China and last year's killing of Tibetans demonstrated.

Obama hasn't had much time to develop a China strategy, but his main objective is to win cooperation on pollution controls and global warming. Good luck with that.

The source of a lot of American foreign policy bungling is a deeply ingrained cultural and political arrogance that has been hard to shake. We are taught that America is best in all things and that other countries all want to emulate us. Think anything else and Bill O'Reilly will tell you're not a patriot. But hey, guess what, we have a great nation founded on admirable principles, but we've slipped on the charts quite a bit. We no longer have the best health care, we do not produce the best cars, and we do not have the best public schools in the world. It's OK, we can work on it, and yes, I still love 'Merica.

We can't assume that democracy is a naturally growing plant in every political ecosystem. Is it possible that people care less about agitating for real democracy and care more about maintaining a minimum quality of life and a strong economy? In other words, if you have a decent place to live, a reasonable job and you can feed your family, are you really going to take to the streets because you don't have the vote? If you've never had one, then probably not.

Don't get me wrong, living conditions in Russia and China for the underclass (particularly the rural Chinese) are deplorable. But they're not the ones who lead democratic revolutions. So why craft a foreign policy under the assumption that their political systems are inferior and will inevitably break under pressure?

We make the same mistakes in Iran and North Korea, two countries that are about to join the fast-growing nukes club. Their defiance is ominous, but not irreconcilable. Obama understands that humility goes a long way when dealing with friends and enemies. It's something we could all use a little more of in our lives.

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