Better to Be Respected or Feared?

Is it better to be feared or respected? A classic question of politics, especially so when it comes to geopolitical matters.

Notwithstanding the Nobel Peace Prize handed to President Barack Obama for not being George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, the posture emerging from the U.S. of late -- not all of it by design, of course, as ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden is hardly serving the Obama agenda with his explosive revelations -- suggests the judgment in White House precincts is more the latter than the former.

The complex geopolitical pivot from our fateful post-9/11 over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Centra Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific has gotten easier with some recent developments. (See Pivot archive here.) It's gotten harder, too, as we saw with the advantage that knowledge of the Snowden revelations handed Chinese President Xi Jinping at last month's California summit with Obama in squelching American complaints about Chinese cyber-espionage.

The U.S. is suddenly showing up -- and shown to be showing up -- with some very big sticks. America is suddenly showing a great deal of power, the sort of power that in many respects is a massive leap forward beyond even its world-leading capabilities of the recent past, power with frankly frightening dimensions for those who might find themselves in opposition to it. And for all of Obama's rhetoric about new pathways to peace, his administration is making some stunning moves that were, say, the previous president to have done so all hell would have broken loose in domestic politics.

Getting NATO allies to deny their airspace to the Bolivian presidential plane on the mere, and frankly, decidedly non-serious rumor that ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden might be on board, is one of the classic cowboy moves of recent memory.

But maybe, silly though it was -- since Snowden is stuck in an airport on the other side of Moscow from the airport from which foreign leaders' aircraft take off -- that was the point. Demonstrating a ruthless resolve and willingness to simply intimidate a much smaller country.

In any event, that's just the sizzle. There's plenty of steak here. (Since the Obama administration clearly is not vegan.)

The development of the new Navy drone aircraft, which, guided by its own software, made the first landings of an unmanned aircraft on an aircraft carrier last week, gives the U.S. a massive edge in power projection across the Pacific.

What is the great political advantage to having carrier-launched drone aircraft? No need for a compliant government to host an American drone base, increasingly a problem as drones become more controversial.

And what is one of the great military advantages? The ability to mount relatively low-risk long distance air operations in and around places with vast numbers of land-based anti-ship missiles. While Iran has a lot of anti-ship missiles, the country which has really loaded up on those systems is China, the nascent superpower at the other end of America's geopolitical pivot.

The Chinese navy is ramping up, and can certainly overawe its neighbors on the deeply strategic South China Sea as it pursues its extraordinarily expansive claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire body of water. But it's a long ways from being able to go head to head with the US Navy. In fact, its pilots still are trying to learn how to land planes on the country's new aircraft carrier, a feat performed last week by the big American X-47B drone guided only by its own software.

With these advantages, the next generation of American drones provides fantastic assets for purposes of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting. And they will be able to deliver strikes of their own, operating with ranges and speeds that will make the feared Predator drone of today look like a model airplane.

The ongoing Snowden revelations also have to give other countries a great deal of pause. That much if not most of the globe is blanketed by surveillance satellite coverage has long been known. But the latest revelations show that surveillance has become much more personal than that, with direct access to records of personal computer and phone operations.

The fantastic emerging power of new robotic aircraft, the pervasive scrutiny of global surveillance systems, it's all more than a little reminiscent of the Terminator universe. Which, coincidentally, is in the midst of being rebooted as a film series. To be sure, there is no Skynet. But a striking number of the ingredients of Skynet are, it turns out, coming online.

The question, though, is whether it's too much power, whether all that capability -- and especially the evident intention to use it without consultation even with some friends -- will generate its own backlash.

There are signs that these new revelations of U.S. military and intelligence power are beginning to generate a major backlash. But will it matter?

We're seeing a big reaction against the increasingly pervasive surveillance tech, with talk in Western Europe and Latin America of building international alliances against America and the American companies which have aided the new system. And there are signs that American moves in the naval sphere are pushing friendly and not so friendly rivals together, with Russia and China having just ended a week of big naval maneuvers conducted very pointedly near longtime American ally and security treaty partner Japan.

Russia has subsequently begun its biggest war games in decades, with combined force operations appearing to send simultaneous signals to ally China (there are longstanding Russian fears of China grabbing border territory, and the two countries fought a very brief brush-fire war in 1969), Japan, and of course the US. While Moscow undoubtedly has some multiplex messaging in mind -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, the spymaster head of state, is not one for simplistic politics -- it has long since chosen China as its partner on the UN Security Council in opposing efforts by the US and other Western powers to create a model for humanitarian interventionism. Which China and Russia see as an excuse to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. Including their own, something they, not at all surprisingly, profoundly oppose.

It's a tricky question as to what blend of force and diplomacy is best calculated to advance American interests without engendering a fearful and ultimately powerful reaction against it. Assuming, as we should, that the US government, or any likely US government -- with all due respect to President Dennis Kucinich, whose political high-water mark arrived with a victory in the Maui portion of the 2004 Hawaii Democratic caucuses -- has no interest in being a pacifist power, as distinguished from a Pacific power.

This, it seems to me, is a debate worth having. One free from the absolutist designs of the reflexive anti-interventionists and the reflexive interventionists alike. One based on an intelligent and candid discussion of American interests in the world -- and there are very real interests, good and decidedly not so good -- and how far the government should go in pursuing those interests.

I don't have easy answers here, especially coming at the tale end of a column presenting the nature of the challenge created by the recent and -- according to Snowden and his supporters -- ongoing revelations about massive new American powers already in play.

My guess, not surprisingly, is that coming off as a bully, while perhaps effective in some short-run situations such as preventing Snowden's escape earlier this month from Moscow, would in the long run create far more trouble for America than it's worth. But, and still just guessing now, there may be those who disagree. That's a little joke.

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