The bad habit with which the United States was left by victory in the Cold War was to believe that the war had been a-zero sum game, which is to say that whoever won, won — they were now and forever Number One, the leader in whatever international situation demanded solution “ISIL? Stand aside — We’ll send bombers and lead a coalition.” “Ebola? — our Special Forces and military hospitals are on the way!” These don’t in fact solve the problems, either ISIL or Ebola, or the rise in Taliban activity in Afghanistan or car-bombings in Baghdad, but all of this contributes to the American self-image as the “indispensible” nation — as Madeleine Albright put it in 1998, a phrase to be recalled and reasserted ever since.

Moreover whoever lost: lost — and was expected to stay lost. Washington and the U.S. press are obsessed with Vladimir Putin today because he is unwilling to stay lost. President Obama’s “reset” with Russia at the beginning of his first administration was expected to have settled for good the Russia problem for Americans. China was now the great challenge in the future. Hence the “pivot” to Asia announced by the administration. Russia was settled, in the Middle East (then, before Mr. Obama lost his complacence) the war supposedly was won in Iraq, and he was now committed to win in Afghanistan.

He would apply the new tactic of the “surge” there, as in Iraq. It was finished off in Iraq by the newly-celebrated counter-insurgency program which had meant generous subsidies to the Sunni tribes to do away with al Qaeda, while the U.S. trained a new Shia army to enable the Shia government to dominate that part of the world. The “Arab Awakening,” followed by uncontrollable uprisings in Syria and Libya, and counterrevolution in Egypt, had yet to come — as had the ISIL — the new Arab Caliphate that exploded out of the Syrian war, to American astonishment.

To bring matters up to date, the new Taliban upsurge in Afghanistan has prompted the United Sates to prolong and increase the size of its army’s stay in Afghanistan, where Barack Obama thought he had a guaranteed new government backed by American forces with a status-of-forces agreement that would let them keep things quiet until after the president had bid goodbye to Washington. Then the Republicans (or Hillary, who would puncture the Clinton myth and leave the Obama administration looking good in retrospect) could take over the thankless (as it had turned out) role of Number One in the world.

The surprise for Washington has been that China, expected to pose a manageable military challenge to the United States, has changed the game. The APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting) hosted by China at the end of November was the latest in a new series of political and economic counters being laid down by China to become the Number One, not in the China Sea region, or just in Asia, but among the members of the Word Community (as the great powers are known). There at APEC was the host, President Xi Jinping, smiling at the center of the official photograph, flanked by his two seeming seconds, Presidents Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama.

China’s existing maritime claims are being extended and reinforced not by military but political and commercial means, extending towards Indonesia, Africa is being cultivated by political and commercial Realpolitik, while the U.S. is extending anti-terrorist military bases in Africa that promise it (and the Africans) no advantages, only engagement in endless Small Wars.

Meanwhile, American super-carriers will cruise Far Eastern waters, which might, or can be, defended by mines, submarines, and missiles; and the United States has no target for its strategic weaponry in the region. In a crisis, would Marines land in China in order to fight? You are joking. The United States in the Far East has only the means for a meaningless, unwinnable, and totally unpopular war in the region. China, anyway, needs simply to proclaim a version of the Monroe Doctrine for Mainland Asia — open for commerce, welcoming trade with the entire world, but closed to foreign interference.

China has proclaimed the development of two new “Silk Roads” leading by sea and newly built land transit through Central Asia to Russia and its energy, and to its and Europe’s markets. The two are discussing new monetary links. The American pivot to Asia was the product of people in Washington who think only in terms of military power — as in trying to annex Ukraine and Georgia to NATO and the European Union. There are new ways of thinking in China and even Russia.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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