Most of the attention paid to Ferguson’s anti-Obama Newsweek cover story has focused on his mendacious and unprofessional discussion of the administration’s domestic policies — notably its stimulus and health-care legislation.

Less attention has been paid to his foreign-policy criticisms. These are not so much mendacious as the kind of thing you’d expect from a third-rate op-ed hack. Obama didn’t use the Oval Office’s magical chalice to add +10 protest skills to the Iranian opposition. He didn’t order the NSA to activate its super-secret laser and assassinate the entire Iranian leadership. He had to be “cajoled” into bombing Libya (presumably by a bunch of women, the wuss!) rather than, I suppose, simply bypassing the United Nations and using tactical nuclear weapons at the first sign of trouble. And something about lacking the absolute clairvoyance in Egypt that would have enabled decisive, unerring action at the outset. That sort of stuff.


So it was interesting to read Sam Roggeveen defend Ferguson on the China component of the piece.

The reactions to this graph and Ferguson’s piece point out, firstly, that although China might become richer than the US overall it has four times as many people, and they remain much poorer. Second, China’s rise is a good thing; economics is not zero-sum and a big Chinese market is in our interests. Third, James Fallows points out that encouraging China’s growth has actually been settled US policy for some decades

What strikes me about the Ferguson piece and the reactions is that they largely talk past each other. Ferguson criticises Obama for failing to think through the implications of China’s rise as it relates to American power. Yet none of the critiques address that concern. Only David Frum’s piece engages with Ferguson on that level.

So what is the evidence that Obama has failed to “think through the implications of” the conjunction of US fiscal and economic weakness with the rise of Asian powers? One of them, apparently, is that Obama hasn’t followed Ferguson’s repeatedly discredited claims about the nature of those fiscal and economic challenges. Another, I suppose, is that the national-security bureaucracy is putting significant energy into assessing what kinds of capabilities are best suited to global threats and domestic fiscal constraints. “But wait,” a reader might ask, “isn’t that last part exactly what ‘thinking through’ entails?”
Well, yes. But “failing to think through” is weasel language. None of our likely readers, let alone Ferguson, has the slightest idea of whether Obama has thought through any of these things. It is possible that Ferguson, being a hedgehog-like scholar extraordinaire, simply has extremely high standards for thinking through global policy challenges. But it is far more likely that “failing to think through” means, as it usually does, “I don’t really have compelling criticisms here so I’ll level a vague accusation to buttress them.” And, indeed, Ferguson’s criticisms of Obama China policy come down to this: 

Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.

In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another … The United States does not seek to contain China … On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.

Yes, you read that right: a chaired professor of international history either doesn’t understand the difference between Presidential speeches and policy actions or thinks cribbing from second-tier right-wing blogs makes for effective policy analysis.
In truth, the US pursues a rather difficult and careful policy toward China. Washington’s preferred outcome is for Beijing to be a “responsible stakeholder,” i.e., a status-quo oriented power integrated into the global order. At the same time, US policymakers recognize that there are real chances that China’s revisionist tendencies — on display in places like the South China Sea — will come to dominate its geo-strategic orientation. 
Thus, the US is building what might be called “containment capacity” while trying to reassure Beijing that confrontation is far from inevitable. It isn’t the prettiest or smoothest approach, but it has a lot of merit. At the very least, it takes advantage of offshore-balancing dynamics. And, like other aspects of Obama foreign policy, it involves a great deal more than “hug-a-foreigner” speeches. There exist plenty of grounds for criticizing the administration’s China policy; it may, in fact, be insufficiently hardline. But Ferguson isn’t even close. 
At the end of the day, there’s not much going for the foreign-policy components of Ferguson’s bid for access to a future Romney administration. I hope, at least, that he feels the number of hits he’s getting justifies burning through what little remains of his academic credibility.