By Robert R. Bianchi
President Mohamed Morsy’s historic visit to Beijing has once again thrust Egypt to center stage in world affairs after three decades of isolation and passivity. Egypt is joining a long line of regional powers in the Middle East and the Islamic world that are holding the United States at arm’s length while moving closer and closer to China. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia all started down this road much earlier than Egypt, and they have gone further in asserting independent foreign policies that fill Washington with resentment and confusion. Afghanistan and the Central Asian successor states of the Soviet Union are tilting in a similar direction. Even Russia, whose elite long viewed modernization as synonymous with Europeanization, is redefining itself as a Eurasian bridge linking the aging societies of the European Union with the booming markets of the Asia-Pacific basin.
The multipolar world is in full bloom. No longer a hypothetical scenario for future generations to grapple with, America’s economic decline has sparked the rebirth of diplomacy and maneuver in aspiring powers everywhere, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. In this increasingly pluralistic world, spheres of influence aren’t what they used to be, and formal alliances have few takers in an era filled with hedgers and freelancers who want to see which way the wind is blowing before they make commitments they might regret later.
The rest of the world is adapting to the new reality much faster than the United States. A recent report of the National Intelligence Council (N.I.C.)—the super-agency that coordinates long-term strategic analysis for America’s defense and intelligence community—sounds the alarm with unusual clarity.
In its latest forecast entitled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” the N.I.C. stresses Washington’s persistent underestimation of China’s rise and its stubborn reluctance to acknowledge the end of American hegemony in world affairs. The authors challenge the foreign policy bureaucracy on the very first page with a barb from John Maynard Keynes: “ . . . the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.”
The gist of the report echoes what most independent observers of international politics have known for years—if American leaders expect to retain even a modest claim to global influence, they must rediscover diplomacy and learn to play weaker hands more skillfully. They have to realize that their military advantage is often a trap that lures them into one quagmire after another. Superior firepower is no match for guerrilla stamina and counter-insurgency becomes a euphemism for a wounded empire that bleeds itself to exhaustion.
Morsy’s overtures to Beijing underscore the gravity of the N.I.C.’s warnings. The Obama Administration is trying to stretch diminishing resources over an even wider geographic area by plunging into Pacific conflicts while it is losing its grip in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Obama-Clinton pivot to the Pacific is a belated answer to China’s westward expansion into what Americans had come to see as their zones of privilege in the Middle East, the Caspian Basin, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean. But bringing the battle to China’s shores merely makes Washington weaker without slowing Beijing’s momentum in economic and political expansion.
The more the United States tries to tie down the Chinese in their own neighborhood, the more the Chinese are encouraged to push back in every other region where America is vulnerable and overextended. Washington cannot seal off flashpoints from one another, hoping to prevent chain-reaction conflicts and transcontinental escalations. Such efforts are bound to backfire because there are too many moving parts and too many opportunities for miscalculation.
America doesn’t make itself safer by adding the deep-seated hatreds of the Pacific-Indian Ocean region to the full-blown calamities of the Middle East. No matter how many aircraft carrier groups are relocated to Australia, they will never be enough to put out all the fires between Suez and the Yellow Sea.
Above all, America’s foreign policy needs to respect its domestic demands and limits. The United States cannot squander its resources trying to parry Chinese influence in every corner of the globe and then expect to have enough left over to fix its own crippling economic and social problems. President Obama should take to heart his own admonition in his acceptance speech at the Charlotte convention that America needs to focus on nation-building at home before it tries to heal the rest of the world.
In her effort to sell the Pacific pivot, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s greatest assistance has come from the hawks in Beijing who are pushing a more assertive stance in pressing maritime claims. China is its own worst enemy in frightening neighbors whose goodwill and trust it needs for peaceful development and economic cooperation. Sooner or later, China has to stop flouting the law of the sea and listen to its own maritime lawyers who include some of the world’s leading experts in the field.
The weakness of the current Chinese claims will become increasingly evident and embarrassing as Beijing petitions for inclusion in the Arctic Council’s deliberations over transit rights through the northern shipping routes to Europe that are being created by global warming. China can hardly expect to muscle its way in the Western Pacific while pleading for fair play in distant waters where it has no territorial or historical claims at all. The moment China’s leaders embrace a sensible split-the-difference approach to maritime disputes they will undercut the regional support for a stronger American military and diplomatic presence, and most Pacific nations will be happy to keep the U.S. Navy out of sight and well beyond the horizon in Guam and Hawaii.
In a deeply flawed attempt to do more with less, Secretary Clinton has put a brave face on a grim predicament. But too often she is seen as scolding and hectoring, quickly wearing out her welcome and leaving U.S. interests more exposed than before. Her apparently imminent retirement will give President Obama a freer hand in shaping more pragmatic approaches to foreign policy that lower the decibel level of political conversations.
Egypt’s budding friendship with China suggests a new direction for American diplomacy that moves beyond both Secretary Clinton’s muscle-flexing and the N.I.C.’s hand-wringing. For at least the next generation or two, the United States will have to cope with a more powerful China and with a more self-confident set of resource-rich Muslim nations espousing independent ideas about reshaping global governance. Instead of trying to weaken these forces or hoping to turn them against one another, Washington would be well advised to offer them all a greater share in the collective management of world economic and political crises before they reach the point where no set of alliances or institutions can save the day.
The whole world knows where that effort must lead—to insuring equitable access to vital sources of energy, water, and food, to developing a multi-currency standard for global commerce, to broadening representation in the United Nations Security Council, and to forging a global ethic based on the shared wisdom and experience of Western and non-Western civilizations. China and the Islamic world are indispensible partners in all of these ventures and many more. As America becomes more aware of its inability to lead alone, it should make every effort to turn the most likely rivals into friends instead of enemies.
What qualities does America’s next chief diplomat need to bring to the job in order to make these goals achievable? Probably not the epic vision of a Marshall or Acheson, who presided over the birth of an elaborate institutional architecture, nor the cunning of a Kissinger or Brzezinski, who outmaneuvered the would-be challengers to that edifice. Instead of a midwife or chess master, we might be better served by a more modest politician who can cope with deadlock and uncertainty without becoming dispirited or disagreeable—someone very similar to President Obama himself when doggedly wearing down his Republican opponents and, with a knowing smile, exposing their disregard for the public good. A Secretary of State who sees counterparts from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, and China as equals and even as prospective teammates—that’s something to cheer the soul as we head into the windy season of presidential campaign madness.
Robert R. Bianchi, Visiting Research Professor at MEI, is a political scientist and an international lawyer with special interests in China and the Islamic World. He received his doctorate and law degrees at the University of Chicago. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Nanjing University, Qatar University, the American University in Cairo, and the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently writing a book about China’s deepening connections with Islamic countries and their role in altering the balance of power regionally and globally. His previous books include Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World (Oxford University Press, 2004), Unruly Corporatism: Associational Life in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Oxford University Press, 1989), and Interest Groups and Political Development in Turkey (Princeton University Press, 1984).
 For a sample of international commentary on Morsy’s visit to China, see M. K. Bhadrakumar, “Egypt Thumbs the Nose at U.S.,” Asia Times Online, 21 August 2012; Atul Aneja, “Morsy on Path-Breaking Visit to China, Iran,” The Hindu, 21 August 2012; David Schenker and Christina Lin, “Egypt’s Outreach to China and Iran is Troubling for U.S. Policy,” Los Angeles Times, 24 August 2012; Gong Shaopeng, “Aid No Longer Buys Affection for U.S. on Egypt’s Streets,” Global Times, 27 August 2012; Farah Halime, “Chinese Firms Brave Uncertainty in Egypt to Gain a Foothold in Middle East,” New York Times, 29 August 2012; and Brendan O’Reilly, “Egypt Joins China Club,” Asia Times Online, 31 August 2012.
 Robert R. Bianchi, “China-Middle East Relations in View of Obama’s Pivot to the Pacific,” China Report, November 2012, forthcoming.
 Vladimir Putin, “An Asia-Pacific Growth Agenda,” Wall Street Journal, 5 September 2012; David M. Herszenhorn, “Putin’s Ambitions Turn to the Far East,” New York Times, 6 September 2012; and Dmitri Trenin, “Russia’s Stake in Asia-Pacific,” China Daily, 6 September 2012.
 National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Washington, D.C., 2012, i.
 Simon Tisdall, “Hillary Clinton Won’t Unite South-East Asia Against China,” The Guardian, 3 September 2012; Philip J. Cunningham, “Deceit Pivots U.S. Foreign Policy,” China Daily, 3 September 2012.
 Text of Obama’s Acceptance Speech at the Democratic National Convention, Washington Post, 6 September 2012.
 For an excellent summary of the World Court’s approach to recent maritime disputes, see the definitive article by the retired judge who represented China on the Court: Shi Jiuyong, “Maritime Delimitation in the Jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice,” Chinese Journal of International Law 9, 2 (2010): 271-291.
 Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China’s New Strategic Target: Arctic MineralsTop of FormBottom of Form,” Wall Street Journal,18 January 2012; Jian Junbo, “China, Seeking a Voice in Arctic Affairs, Says it Has Swedish Support for Arctic Council Role,” Associated Press, 16 April 2012; “China Won’t Be Frozen Out of the Arctic,” Asia Times, 3 May 2012. See also Linda Jakobson, “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic,” SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) Insights on Peace and Security, March 2010.