America and China are the world’s two major powers, with the largest economies and militaries. The stakes are high for them to practice what they preach on foreign policy: their words and actions influence the global economy, as well as the behavior of allies and enemies.
The problem: Xi Jinping and Barack Obama want to have their foreign policy cake and eat it, too. For both leaders, international engagement isn’t top of mind: they want to downplay their global leadership roles in order to focus on more pressing concerns at home.
But at the same time, they have certain priorities that they’re willing to pursue unilaterally and aggressively abroad. This inconsistency gets them both in hot water. It leaves other countries guessing, it undermines global collaboration, and it allows crises like Ukraine and Iraq to burn hotter, for longer, more often.
The closest thing that Obama has to a foreign policy doctrine is the consistent lack thereof. In his recent speech at West Point, he argued against engaging in conflicts that are not core interests. He emphasized buy-in from a coalition of other partners and the use of the military option only as a last resort. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.
This Jekyll and Hyde foreign policy may actually be two sides of the same coin. It’s because Obama is so risk averse with conventional military engagement that he’s willing to resort to unconventional alternatives. Obama justifies this unilateral engagement by claiming that we can “take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves.” But how direct must the threat be before he can engage?
In response to Islamic extremist militants taking the Iraqi city of Mosul, Obama declared: “I don’t rule out anything” in terms of the U.S. response. But he also announced that he “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” Iraq exposes Obama’s contradiction best: the conflict is a true threat to American interests — and the last entanglement that Obama wants to take on. He has touted his winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as his signature foreign policy achievement. This makes it that much more politically costly to engage in Iraq as opposed to Yemen, even if doing so might be as or more necessary for American security. Obama’s risk-aversion and contradictory policy undermines American interests in the long run.
China’s Xi Jinping has his hands full with an ambitious set of reforms intended to shift China’s economic model. It’s an unprecedented experiment, and a big part of why China remains unwilling and unable to become a “responsible stakeholder” on the global stage. Xi would prefer to undersell China’s global strength until it is actually much stronger.
This hesitancy to engage internationally is why China has clung to a policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs for decades. After Sunni militants sacked Iraq’s second-largest city, China didn’t even make an official statement condemning the attacks. It abstained from the U.N. vote on the legality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and it stayed on the sidelines of the Ukraine crisis, not over-committing to Russia or the West.
China lays claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, stoking tension with every country in that neighborhood. But Beijing took it to a whole new level when it sent an oil exploration rig deep into contested waters — and very close to the Vietnamese shore — accompanied by a flotilla of fishing boats. We’ve since seen a violent spike in anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam, and a huge hit to the economic relationship.
Xi wants to keep his undivided attention on China’s growing pains at home. But his foreign policy outbursts are a dangerous divergence — and they undermine China’s long-term economic interests.
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have fundamental inconsistencies at the heart of their foreign policies. They are undermining their countries’ long-term health. For allies and neighbors, it’s the worst of both worlds. They can’t rely on the world’s two most powerful countries for global leadership, and yet they still need to account for them engaging unpredictably and unilaterally overseas. The countries that are caught directly in the crosshairs, on the wrong end of a Chinese or American core interest, have it worst of all.
For Xi and Obama, their focus on domestic priorities is understandable. Smoothing out the contradictions in their foreign policies would help their cause at home.
PHOTOS: China’s President Xi Jinping speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R), on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit, in The Hague March 24 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque