The Realist Prism: Political Contests Abroad Show Limits of U.S. Power

An unfortunate legacy of America’s “sole superpower” status is the tendency to over-emphasize Washington’s agency in shaping the global environment and downplay the role of others. For instance, the Obama administration deserves a great deal of credit in changing the tone of the U.S.-Russia relationship. But also critical to the reset’s success were Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election, which took that country off the European geopolitical chessboard, and the ongoing instability in Pakistan, which made the Northern Distribution Network more vital to supplying the military mission in Afghanistan.

It may sound like a truism, but it is one that U.S. policymakers would do well to keep in mind: Domestic political factors beyond Washington’s control will continue to have an impact on the United States’ ability to achieve its objectives in vital regions around the world.

U.S.-China relations and American policy in Asia as a whole will certainly be affected by the results of the 2012 presidential elections in both Taiwan and South Korea. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008 on a mandate of improving ties with Beijing, with an eye to eventual reunification. The resulting decrease in tension in the Taiwan Straits has been a key factor in helping to stabilize Sino-American relations. His opponent in next year’s election, Tsai Ing-wen, has stressed Taiwan’s right to determine its own destiny, including seeking independence or recognition as the “Republic of China” separate from the PRC. Should she win, Washington might be faced with a crisis in its relations with Beijing that it is unprepared for.

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