Adrian Hamilton: A welcome case of putting caution before ideology

International Studies
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Whenever anyone claims talks as the "most important in 30 years", you can bet your bottom dollar that they will produce little. Indeed, half the objective of diplomacy – more than half, many would say – is to prevent talks between leaders leading to friction rather than producing results.

So no doubt it will be with the state visit of China's President, Hu Jintao, to the US this week. There's plenty of room for discord. Of that there is no doubt. The US sees China as pursuing a deeply self-centered policy of economic growth and resource acquisition that is damaging to US economic interests and its position in the world. The Chinese equally see the US as locked into a view of themselves as the sole hyperpower that won't accommodate China's own rightful status as the rising superpower.

Most public are the tensions over protectionism and China's manipulation of its currency. Most serious is the arms race developing between the two countries, as Beijing rushes to develop the technology and the arms to challenge America's role as the big boy on the Asian bloc.

The idea, however, that the meeting between Presidents Obama and Hu marks a clash of the Titans – with the fading heavyweight trying to put the young contender in his place – just misses the point. This not a power play, for all the tendency of US think-tanks and former officials to define international relations in those terms.

It's not like that. Internal politics drives external politics far more than ideology or any strategic view. That is particularly true of the US and America at the moment. On his back foot after the mid-term elections, and facing a Congress that is fiercely nationalistic, Obama wants more than anything to see talks that seem constructive, and to keep the pressures off his back. So with Beijing. Mr Hu's main concern has to be with maintaining economic growth at a time of rapidly rising inflation, and to ensure a secure handover of power when he ends his second term in office next year.

The fear always on these occasions is that it is precisely domestic pressures which force a sudden public spat. Pursued by the accusation that he is soft on America's enemies, Obama may feel impelled to show his macho credentials on currency or China's record on human rights. Conscious of his need to show that the US is treating China as an equal not a junior, Mr Hu may equally need to respond to any criticism in kind.

America's weakness at the moment is that Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined its force as a military power whilst the financial crisis has upset its reputation for commercial pre-eminence. China's weakness is that its economy is overheating at home while its neighbours in Asia resent, and feel powerless against, its overwhelming weight. If the US really wants to curb China's growing influence, it is more likely to be achieved through its continued technological innovation and free-market adaptability than giving more military aid to its allies in the region.

Fortunately neither President this week seems to have the appetite for the macho, nor the need. And, for that, one should probably be grateful.

The only course for the Palestinians

"Plan B" for the Palestinians – to damn the peace talks and seek support for a unilateral declaration of statehood – is becoming more attractive by the minute. Russia's renewed promise of recognition, made by President Dmitry Medvedev during his first official visit to the West Bank on Tuesday, must strengthen the case. So must developments within Israel, where Ehud Barak's decision on Monday to leave the Labour party and form a faction of his own can only increase the dominance of the hardliners within Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet. There is nothing to be gained for the Palestinians in keeping up the peace talks, particularly now that Mr Netanyahu has faced down President Obama on the settlement question.

There's nothing to be gained for them either in declaring unilateral statehood, retorts the Israeli government. But that's not entirely true. Russia's promise comes on top of a growing number of states ready to do the same. In practical terms it may not amount to much, but in terms of Israel's growing isolation in the world it is not of negligible import.

The weakness of the Palestinian case remains its own divisions between Gaza and the West Bank. But even that could be changing. Events in Tunisia may or may not lead to real political change there (violent overthrows tend to lead to worse not better regimes) but they are certainly influencing the Arab world around. A change of policy, or even regime, in Egypt would change the position in Gaza dramatically, while a Palestinian Authority pursuit of unilateral statehood might also lead Hamas back to unity.

Need for Aristide

There is something pathetic and certainly obscene about the ill-fated return of "Baby Doc" to Haiti. Let him be put on trial on charges of murder as well as corruption. It's long since time, and if his debt-induced rashness brings it about now, so much the better. But what would surely make the difference to Haiti is the return of their popular former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted by a US-backed coup in 2004 and now in exile in South Africa. He would bring back promise for the future instead of just bitter memories of the past.