Category Archives: National power

The world’s most powerful person

According to a survey in the Eurasia Group asking who the the most powerful people in the world are, nobody came out on top. Literally. The results, published in the Foreign Policy magazine, gives first spot to Nobody and thus highlighting that there is currently no clear leader in the world. The Russian president Vladimir Putin comes second in the list. The German chancellor Angela Merkel – weighing in at number 4 – and thus scores higher than both US president Obama and Chinese communist party head honcho Xi Jinping.

The full top 10 list is:

1. Nobody
2. Vladimir Putin
3. Ben Bernanke
4. Angela Merkel
5. Barack Obama
6. Mario Draghi
7. Xi Jinping
8 (tie). Ayatollah Khamenei
8 (tie). Christine Lagarde
10. King Abdullah Bin Abd al-Aziz

The coming involuntary retreat of the US military

In the aftermath of the US presidential elections and the re-election of President Obama many international players are now starting to plan for a weakened America and a US military in retreat. The election of Obama might have been popular among the Hollywood jet-set and media elite, but most serious analysts are now starting to question the US’s willingness – and ability – to deal with its fiscal situation. To be sure, it is questionable whether a Romney presidency would have been able to deal with the American staggering debt of $16.3 trillion, but it’s Obama’s total indifference and unwillingness to even address the problem which has got the chattering classes preparing for a world with diminishing American power.

Dealing with the US’s budget deficits can be done in three different ways:

  1. Raise taxes
  2. Increase borrowing
  3. Cut spending

Let’s deal with these options in turn. Obama has hinted at raising taxes for the wealthy and it’s likely that this would have broad public support. But the US’s debt is growing by nearly $4 billion per day. There are thus not enough wealthy Americans in the universe that could be taxed in order to plug such a huge gap. Obama could, and probably will, try to raise taxes across the board, but this would put an economic recovery in jeopardy and would be difficult to get through a Republican-dominated Congress. Moreover, a mid-term Congressional election with a middle class who just received a hefty tax bill will surely make life even more difficult for the Democrat party.

The other option for Obama is to increase borrowing. The Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid has hinted at raising the debt ceiling by another $2.4 trillion in the coming months. This will surely start to make US creditors wondering whether the US will be able to pay back any of this debt. This could easily result in a loss of confidence in the US’s ability to pay back debt and could cause the dollar to drop in value, which would cause a financial disaster in the US. Big creditors, such as China, could also use the situation to make demands on the US by threatening to dump US treasury notes on the market. This is how the US itself pushed Britain to back off from the Suez crisis in the 50s. China could now use the same tactic against the US, maybe in demanding US retreat from the Western pacific.

The last option would thus be to cut costs. It would be difficult for Obama to carry out big cost savings in the big spending tickets of the US federal government. Medicare and Medicaid are difficult to cut given the growing elderly population of the US. Obama is also unlikely to cut federal jobs, as the public sector workers constitute a core constituency for the Democrat party. The only really big area where cuts can realistically come from is Defense and it will also be there that the president will cut. It is likely that first in line will be big ticket items like foreign bases and power projection tools such as aircraft carriers. A lot of US foreign units will start to come back home, demoralised and broke.

Now, for a geostrategy buff this will probably make life rather interesting. As the US retreats, others are likely to move their positions forward. Europe is likely to be forced to step up and increase its own defense spending to fill the void, same goes for Japan and South Korea. Russia and China will see it as an opportunity to project their power in the world and opening of foreign bases will be one way of achieving that. Indeed, Hu Jintao stated at the Communist party congress that China should become a maritime power. The Middle East will see increased activity by Islamists and Iran in jockeying for position.

Obama has not proved to be weak on foreign policy as some had feared. He has largely maintained the policies of the previous president Bush, even stepped up the fight against al-Qaida and other terrorists by making more use of drone strikes against civilian targets. A US military retreat is thus not voluntarily, it is forced by an increasingly unsustainable fiscal position. Decline always starts with the money, but it’s unlikely to end there. Unless the US can deal with its shaky fiscal position it is ever more apparent that we’ve reached the end of the unipolar world.

Russia seeking naval base in Vietnam

As the Russian PM Medvedev arrives in Vietnam for a visit, on his agenda will be to seek access to the Vietnamese port Cam Ranh for the Russian Navy. Vietnam is already an important export market for Russian arms.

The satellite launch company Sea Launch, which launches satellites on rockets from a mobile sea platform that have its main land service base in San Diego in California, is contemplating to move its operations to Cam Ranh. Sea Launch is majority owned by the Russian company Energia since emerging from bankruptcy in 2010.

Russia currently only has one naval base on foreign soil, Tartus in Syria, which is under threat from the civil war in Syria. In addition to Vietnam, Russia is in talks with Cuba and the Seychelles on establishing bases for its navy.

China commissions first aircraft carrier

China commissions its first aircraft carrier after years of sea tests. The carrier, which was bought by the Soviet Union as an unfinished carrier, will be named Liaoning.

Aircraft carriers have become less of an effective weapon of war in modern warfare, and instead are more seen as tools for projecting power. However, for China the ability to move airstrike capability beyond its own shores is seen as very important given that the country is surrounded by hostile forces. China doesn’t yet have airplanes that would be capable of taking off and landing on the ship though.

Chinese aircraft carrier at dock in the northern city of Dalian

Olympics and measuring national power

The London 2012 Olympics are long gone, but still to note for a foreign policy wonk, an article in the Foreign Policy magazine makes an interesting comparison between the final medals table and other measures of national power. There is more than just a hint of similarities between sporting prowess and GDP.

Olympic medals table and national power

Westerwelle makes visit to South Asia

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is making visit to India and Bangladesh this week. One of the stops on his tour will be the dynamic southern Indian city of Bangalore where over a 150 German business are active.

Germany and India have been working closely together for quite some time to reform the UN Security Council. Berlin and New Delhi both are seeking a permanent seat on the body.

Mr Westerwelle seems at awe of the economic and strategic power of the rising Asian giants judging by his comment at a recent conference in Berlin entitled “Asia’s New Powers – Values, Economy, World Order”. During a panel discussion, Mr Westerwelle was carrying forward the tradition of German modesty and underestimating itself. Westerwelle said that while Germany certainly was important in Europe, its influence on the world stage was small and that “modesty” was in order. He also stated that “We are no longer setting the pace”.

For realist with a good grasp of the view from Asia, Westerwelle’s views – which are fairly typical of a northern European politician – seem somewhat too modest. Germany is the world’s second largest exporter and the leading voice in Europe. A stronger voice in world affairs is held back only by Germany’s own lack of ambition, not by growing Asian powers.Moreover, Westerwelle was of the opinion that only a united Europe would have a greater influence on the world. That notion seems at odds with how events are developing in the continent.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle – the face of timidity?

Competition for influence heats up in the Indian Ocean

The Dutch Parliament voted last week to boost its military contribution to the NATO force fighting piracy in Somali. The country will spend $16.5 million to provide extra personnel, two Cougar helicopters and an unmanned aerial vehicle to join NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield. Also part of the new deployment will be an additional submarine to join the mission in the second half of 2012.

This week the Dutch frigate HNLMS Van Amstel set to return to the Netherlands after anti-piracy service in the western Indian Ocean. It is being replaced by HNLMS Evertsen up until September.

Unrelated, the Indonesian Navy has agreed to buy a guided missile destroyer from the Dutch shipyard Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding for a total contract of $220 million.

Military activity by foreign powers have been stepped up in the western Indian Ocean in the last decade. The immediate reason is the occurrence of Somali based pirates off the coast of East Africa. On a more strategic level the growing Asian powers are looking to take position in the waters that are vital to global shipping lanes.

The traditional maritime powers in the region, the US, Britain and France have seen the Chinese taking up the hunt for pirates, but also an agreement and plans to set up a naval base in the Seychelles. It is believed that China is also negotiating with other countries in the region for further naval bases e.g. Gwadar Port in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

India is upgrading its own navy to include nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers to get supremacy over the ocean it regards as its backyard. India is clearly annoyed with Chinese activity in the Seychelles and on the island of Mauritius, which India considers part of its sphere of influence.

Japan has opened a naval base in Djibouti in order to support its anti-pirate operations in the Gulf of Aden. This has further prompted China to seek a land base in the region.

Even Brazil has stepped up its involvement in the region although mostly using economical and soft power. The activities have mostly involved increased trade and investments with fellow partner countries in the organisation Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP), an organisation comprising Portuguese-speaking countries. Projects include investments in Mozambique e.g. the Nacala Airport in the north and the construction of a coal terminal in the port city of Beira

Where does this leave the traditional powers? One of the most important strategic military bases to the US, the island of Diego Garcia which it leases from the UK, is kept busy as a staging base for B-2 bomber raids over Afghanistan. France is also clinging on to its bases in the region namely Réunion, Mayotte, Djibouti and the newly established base in United Arab Emirates. Together these form what the French calls quadrilatère français in order to secure France’s interests in the all important region.

Given China’s massive investments in Africa – with the increasing clout this brings with African governments – it would not be surprising to see China trying to create a permanent land base on continental East Africa which would include naval and air support.