To a casual observer it might seem that President Barack Obama’s four-nation tour of East Asia, which took him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, came at a time of America’s undisputed global predominance.  The visit strengthened existing U.S. military commitments to the region, created some new ones, irritated China, and emboldened American allies to play hardball with Beijing.

In Tokyo, Obama reiterated that the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands—over which Japan and China have been locked in a dispute for decades—were protected under the U.S.-Japan mutual-security treaty: “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territory that is administered by Japan,” he said at a press conference on April 23.  The metamessage was clear: Japan is not Ukraine, the islands in the East China Sea are not Crimea, and the United States is there to ensure that this stays so.

“The U.S. government is trying to send a firm message to China against any attempt to change the status quo by force,” commented Tsuneo Watanabe, director of policy research at the Tokyo Foundation.

The Chinese got the message and responded accordingly: “We firmly oppose putting the Diaoyu Islands within the scope of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” said a foreign-ministry spokesman in Beijing.

In Seoul, Obama warned that the United States, South Korea, and their allies would consider levying new sanctions against North Korea.  More significantly, he said he would likely postpone the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military from the United States to South Korea, which was scheduled for next year.  The 28,000 U.S. troops will remain in South Korea indefinitely, with Obama telling a military audience that the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” to defend allies.

In Manila, Obama arrived only hours after a new defense pact was signed, allowing for the rotational deployment of U.S. troops, aircraft, and ships in the Philippines.  The pact will enhance the presence of American forces and provide for the biggest U.S. buildup in the region since Vietnam.  Obama vowed to a military audience that the United States would protect the Philippines from attack: “Our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad and the United States will keep that commitment, because allies never stand alone.”  Alluding to the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China, he insisted “that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded.”  Chinese state news agency Xinhua responded with a commentary arguing that the intention of the Aquino administration was “to confront China with US backing,” and that the pact could “intensify regional tensions.”

Obama did not get much from his hosts in return for his tough talk.  The Philippines have nothing to offer besides facilities for U.S. troops.  The treaty makes the possibility of armed confrontation in the “Asian Mediterranean” more, not less, likely.  China’s leadership is well aware that the pact is directed against Beijing, and it will be honor-bound to devise a strong response that will test American resolve.  (The Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea seems a likely flashpoint candidate; remember that name.)

Further north, it is now less likely than before that Japan and South Korea will be induced to seek military self-sufficiency, though it is long overdue, and their economic power makes it possible.  In the northeastern Pacific, the American nuclear umbrella will remain wide open for years to come, with no love lost between Tokyo and Seoul.  As Christi Parsons and Barbara Demick write in the Los Angeles Times,

South Korean attitudes toward Japan, as reflected in a poll published in February by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, remain almost uniformly hostile.  Besides the historical issues, South Koreans are unhappy about [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s claims to disputed East China Sea islands known as Dokdo to South Koreans and Takeshima to Japanese.

“Perhaps Mr. Abe’s only saving grace has been that North Korea has continued to pursue provocations, ensuring that Japan remains only slightly more favorable,” the institute concluded.

Obama’s supportive words notwithstanding, Abe has not eased his tough conditions in the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade talks.  Talks have been deadlocked as the United States and Japan faced off over farm and auto exports.  Obama said in Tokyo that the two sides have made “important progress” in their TPP talks, which is to say that no real progress has been made.  Washington and Tokyo have one important area of agreement: the desire to exclude China.  As freelance journalist Gwynne Dyer writes,

The usual formula is to say that China would be welcome to join if it can meet the standards of financial transparency and equal access to domestic markets that are being accepted by the TPP members—but of course it can’t, unless the regime is willing to dismantle the controls on the economy that it still sees as essential to its survival.

At the same time, Japan—a major consumer of Russian natural gas—appears unwilling to impose any new sanctions on Russia.  Secure in the knowledge that Obama’s Asian “pivot” will make him more willing to confront China in general, and assured of his support over the disputed islands in particular, the Japanese can now afford quietly to ignore Obama’s other global concerns.  This attitude was exacerbated by the Europeans’ recent unwillingness to impose serious sanctions on Russia.

It is unwise for a great power to alienate two of its nearest rivals simultaneously.  The crisis in Eastern Europe is far from over, but the situation in Asia is potentially more volatile than in Ukraine, with which the United States has no bilateral security treaty.  Dealing with both theaters from the position of presumed strength and trying to dictate the outcomes is self-defeating, as many would-be hegemons, blinded by arrogance, have learned to their peril.  Philip II and his inept successors fought too many wars against too many enemies.  By the time the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, Spain—the most powerful country in the world a century earlier—was defeated everywhere, thrice-bankrupted, and reduced to a second-rate status.

Louis XIV thought he could threaten and bully the Dutch, the Habsburgs, and the English, two at a time or even simultaneously.  There was nothing Le Roi Soleil liked so much as flattery, according to Saint-Simon, “or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it.”  After a series of inconclusive but ruinously expensive wars, in the end the French state was bankrupted, and Louis died a broken man.

The Wilhelmine foreign policy after Bismarck undermined the fruits of the Iron Chancellor’s brilliant efforts in the preceding two decades.  Unpredictable, neurotic aggressiveness and shrill rhetoric replaced caution and even diplomatic temper.  (Susan Rice’s condemnation of Chinese and Russian vetoes of the U.S.-supported U.N. resolution on Syria as “disgusting,” “shameful,” and “unforgivable” comes to mind.)  The Kaiserreich simultaneously pushed Russia into an alliance with France and terminally alienated Britain by building the High Seas Fleet.  In the end, the Berlin-Baghdad railway project helped turn Russia and Britain into allies.

The United States under Barack Obama has not given up the hegemonist’s habit of instigating crises at different spots around the world, even though the resources necessary to manage them are scarce, and the strategy is fundamentally faulty.  China’s ability to impose economic costs on the United States might deter Washington from undertaking credible action to which it now seems committed all along China’s inner perimeter, just as “Old Europe” remains loath to risk its $500 billion in annual trade with Russia.

A significantly flawed proposed strategy for dealing with the problem of allied reluctance is the newly repackaged notion that they really want to be led, firmly and from the front.  One school of thought recommends a NATO-led military follow-up to the sanctions, thus giving them a further edge (“U.S. Weighs Harder Line on Russia,” New York Times, April 27).  Rather than waiting for “an undivided front” to take form, “some inside and outside the administration argue that the United States should act unilaterally if necessary, on the assumption that the Europeans will ultimately follow.”  Not hawkish enough for David J. Kramer of Freedom House, who insists the United States should apply more decisive measures on the theory that Europe wants leadership from Washington and historically joins in eventually:

While imposing sanctions together with the E.U. would be nice, the U.S. simply has to lead and not waste more time trying to present a united approach.  It is easier to do so than it is for the Europeans, and they will follow, as long as we lead.

They will not.  Britain, Poland, and the Baltics will; Benelux and Sweden, maybe; but Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and a host of smaller nations (Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Cypriots) will not.  Take note of German Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s warning that “we have slid into the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War”; he did not say “Putin caused the worst crisis,” etc.

“That crisis will only get worse unless the West is prepared to unite behind serious economic sanctions that hurt Russia’s financial, energy and military sectors,” the New York Times opined on April 29.  It was wrong, as usual.  An overtly anti-U.S. alliance between Russia and China is becoming more likely with each passing month.  It would be a belated equivalent of the Franco-Russian alliance of 1893—the predictable result of an earlier great power basing its strategy on an hubristic overestimation of its capabilities.  India, South Africa, and Brazil also reject the idea of U.S. “leadership” and make a mockery of that once-fashionable unilateralists’ term, the International Community.

The crises everywhere will only get worse unless the U.S. government comes to terms with the fact that it is just one of several powers determining the destiny of today’s world, and that antagonizing several potential or actual rivals simultaneously is contrary to common sense and detrimental to the American interest.