US: Leading through collective action

WASHINGTON - Collective action will remain a key pillar of United States foreign policy, even if its alliances and relationships have become more complex, says US National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Expanding on the foreign policy reboot launched by President Barack Obama two weeks ago, she said that while America will still lead, it will change how it leads.

"The architecture that we built in the 20th century must be re-energised to deal with the challenges of the 21st," she said at the annual conference of the Centre of New American Security (CNAS) think- tank on Wednesday. "With emerging powers, we must be able to collaborate where our interests converge, but define our differences and defend our interests where they diverge. Our coalitions may be more fluid than in the past, but the basics haven't changed. When we spur collective action, we deliver outcomes that are more legitimate, more sustainable, and less costly."

While she did not address the criticism of Mr Obama's speech directly, her comments appear to move the Obama doctrine away from the hubris many had read in his words. This time, there was no mention of "American exceptionalism" or the idea of the US as the "one indispensable nation". Rather, her hour-long speech focused on the importance of everyone doing their part.

"Collective action doesn't mean the United States puts skin in the game while others stand on the sidelines cheering. Alliances are a two-way street, especially in hard times when alliances matter most," she said.

Like Mr Obama's speech at the West Point Military Academy, Dr Rice's remarks were light on anti-China rhetoric, coming at a time when some analysts are calling on the White House to start healing an increasingly strained Sino-US relationship. At the CNAS and another Asia-focused dialogue here on Wednesday, international relations experts spoke on the need for the US to do more to convince China that their ties involve cooperation and not just competition.

Over at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies Christopher Johnson said the upcoming US-China strategic and economic dialogue was a good opportunity to "arrest the deterioration" of ties.

"We've seen some very challenging comments recently and my sense just coming back from China is that to some degree, the Chinese are very confused about what the US approach to the relationship is," he said.

"I think President Xi Jinping feels President Obama is not engaged in the relationship, that indeed he may not even be in control of his own system, from their perspective."

Mr Ernie Bower, the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the same think-tank, echoed the sentiment, noting that there is no path to success for the US in Asia without a successful China.

He said: "We need a safe and secure China, one that is productive and feels like its part of making the rules and implementing those rules. But I think to do so we've got to dissuade Asia and China specifically that the US is somehow distracted."

At the CNAS conference, Dr David Gordon of the Eurasia group said Beijing does not currently see its relationship with the US as being cooperative in nature. He said the US needs to work harder to focus on areas where it can show the Chinese that the two powers can be partners.

"I'm in favour both of toughness with allies and sending clear signals, but also really seeking out where are the areas of collaboration where we can make this manifest for Chinese goals and Chinese interests."

This article was first published on June 13, 2014.
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