“Obama’s Foreign Policy and Its Influence on East Asia”


The following is my response to a paper by this title at the Northeast Asian security and cooperation conference discussed in my previous post.

“Before my theoretical comments, let me say as a citizen that I am both alarmed and embarrassed by the content of the paper. Alarmed because if the author is correct, then the US and China will be at war soon. Embarrassed, because if this is how Chinese or Asians or non-Americans generally see the US, than the Bush administration was even more disastrous than I thought. I am ashamed that serious people would believe the US seeks “world domination,” wants to invade NK, or unleash a militarized Japan on an unsuspecting East Asia. I certainly don’t want that, nor do I believe that most Americans see their foreign policy this way. Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ public opinion surveys of US popular foreign policy attitudes hardly substantiate these claims either. Chalk this up as more fallout from the disastrous Bush administration.

My comments will focus on IR theory, but the paper’s real focus is normative public policy, not political science.

1. This paper presents the US in a mix of offensive realism and power transition theory. The US is expansionist and a declining, angry hegemon using a neo-imperial grand strategy in Asia to prop up declining prestige and influence. Specifically, the United States is pursuing “world domination,” and the language used is pretty strong. The US is “arrogant,” “selfish,” engaged in a “conspiracy,” “infiltrating East Asia," and “besieging China.” The US is not just a unipole but a revisionist hegemon deploying tools of overt dominance. The US is remilitarizing Japan and purposefully preventing a Korean settlement as an “excuse” to stay in the region.

I doubt most Americans would accept this image or support such an aggressive line. I also challenge anyone to find policy statements (not just policy papers from think-tanks or something), leaks, or State Department foreign relations papers that support this. Also, someone needs to write a dissertation on the idea of a revisionist hegemon; this is new in IR theory, but a good insight based on Bush administration behavior.

2. The author misuses the notion of the security dilemma by asserting that the US is primarily responsible for tension in East Asia. A security dilemma is a common problem in regions and does not require outside intervention to ignite. The SD explains the unhappy logic of states arming and counter-arming, all while claiming this only for defense. The regional security literature shows how much this process accelerates among proximate states, and lateral pressure explains why it can lead to genuinely explosive arms races. A far simpler, less conspiratorial approach would see that North East Asia is a tightly packed geographic region and consequently has a built-in likelihood of a tough SD. Local grievances over history, territory, and ideology all worsen it, as does the lateral pressure of so much regional growth occurring so rapidly. In short, closely proximate, wealthy, and growing states with lots of disagreements will certainly have a nasty SD.

History suggests this too. Long before US power seriously arrived in East Asia in the 1940s, East Asian societies were warring with one another. Indeed, most Korean, Japanese, and American IR tags the US as a stabilizer or offshore balancer over the horizon, not an instigator. And it seems far more likely that a US abandonment of Korea and Japan would spur much more serious arms racing spirals. Without US extended deterrence, it is likely Japan and SK would feel strong pressure even to go nuclear. Finally the USFK and USFJ are here with popular assent. If these states voted the US military out, the US would leave. It left France in the 60s and the Philippines in the 80s. Like NATO, American ‘empire’ in East Asia is one of invitation, not imposition.  The problems between East Asian states exist despite the US presence and would persist should it leave. The US has little impact on the historical conflict over Japanese imperialism and textbooks, the border disputes over Dokdo, Taiwan, or the South China Sea, or the ideological splits between communism and democracy.

3. The author seems to argue for a security community in East Asia, but ultimately suggests that a concert, dominated by the US and PRC, is necessary. The problem is the US presence. Yet the security community literature is quite skeptical about its possibility here. The grievances listed above are deep.  Without agreed norms and borders, it is hard to see NE Asia building a multilateral system. It took Europe centuries of war to agree on borders and that war is an illegitimate tool of diplomacy. Asia is simply not there yet. The level of trust and ‘we-ness’ necessary is lacking, and the US is not the cause of this, unless one argues that the US presence freezes grievances that could otherwise be worked out in a confrontation. Again, the disputes over memory, territory, and ideology are massive impediments hardly related to the US. The existing evidence on successful and failed security communities indentifies no major role for a US presence. In Western Europe and Latin America, successful security communities were established with and without a US presence. In NE Asia and South Asia, security communities have failed with and without a US presence.

4. Regarding US ‘neocontainment’ of China, the author slides to fantasy quite honestly.  The author asserts that the US is aligning with India to create a great power check on China; is aligning with Australia and SE Asia to contain China in the South China Sea; wants to either “invade NK” (!) or foment chaos there to suck in China and “drag China down;” and most fantastically, remilitarize Japan “to give it a free hand to create trouble in East Asia.” I do not know of evidence to support any of this. Certainly nothing in NSC National Security Strategies has ever spoken this way, and much of this can easily be explained away.

The US is engaging India, because, 1. Democracies naturally feel a comradery that the CW strangely damaged between India and the US. 2. The US is desperate to avoid a nuclear arms race in South Asia, as well as the possibility of proliferation. 3. The US desperately wants a reduction in Indo-Pakistani tension so that Pakistan can redeploy its best forces from its eastern border to the northwestern frontier to battle the Taliban-Pashtun insurgency. None of this has anything to do with China; indeed stability in Pakistan is clearly in China’s interest. No one wants a talibanized nuclear Pakistan.

The US is similarly engaged in SE Asia. It is all-driven by the GWoT. The US does not want Indonesia to slide toward radical Islam, and the US assistance program there has focused on police and counterinsurgency training, not naval strategy or large-scale warfighting. Nor is it even clear if the Indonesians want to be roped into a US-led neo-containment ring. In the Philippines, the US is doing the same. It wants to help Manila control its island fringe. I know of no US naval or large-scale assistance, nor of a return to the large bases of the past.

In NE Asia, it is just maoist fantasy that the US wants to invade NK. There is no evidence of that. Nor does the US want to bring China down. As Secretary Clinton herself said a few months ago, the US is grateful to the Chinese for buying its debt. I have seen nothing suggesting there is a US plot to reduce China. And remilitarizing Japan so it can bully East Asia? Where is the proof of such an outlandish claim? If anything, the US would like to see Japan normalize so that its history fights recede; this would lower the temperature in East Asia. As with Germany after WWII, the US would like Japan to be an integrated, well-behaved democracy tied to the West. A resurgent Japanese militarism would create huge headaches for the US and likely pull it into a war again if one occurred.

5. The author’s disappointing conclusion is that Obama will not change his obviously Bush-inspired vision of US foreign policy. Both are exponents of American exceptionalism and therefore will pursue adventurism. This is probably inaccurate.

a . This suggests to me a lack of understanding of elections in democracies. Obama has in fact changed US foreign policy. His charm offensive of the last few months has explicitly focused on undoing the Bush legacy of the US as revisionist hegemon. He is reaching out to Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. Bush would never have done this.

b. It underrates the importance of US pubic opinion and its powerful rejection of the Bush administration. Bush left office with the lowest approval rating since President Truman. US elections are usually focused on domestic politics, but Bush made such a foreign policy mess, that Obama was able to build an issue out of it. Further, only a huge rejection of Bushism made it possible for a Democrat as liberal as Obama to achieve the White House. The last 3 Democratic presidents were all moderate southerners. Obama is a genuine liberal, and there is no way he would have been viable without a major rejection of Bush’s legacy, which includes his belligerent foreign policy.

6. Finally, a few large comments on US foreign policy are required. It is true that the US has an exceptionalist vision of itself – the last best hope for mankind (Lincoln), the end of history (Fukuyama), God has a special mission for the United States (Bush 2). But it is important to see that this exceptionalism leads to isolationism, not imperialism. In US foreign policy mythology, Eurasia is the old world of nobility, land and class conflict, world-breaking fanaticisms, dynastic wars, etc. By contrast the US is the new world – where all men are equal, with no history of radicalism and ideology. The US is starting history anew. And so US foreign policy should avoid the corruption of the old world. The US should be a beacon as a “city on the hill” to the world. Hence President Washington counseled the US to avoid “entangling alliances.” John Quincy Adams said the US should “not go forth in search of monsters to destroy.” In short, yes, the US is arrogant about itself, but that arrogance leads to overseas avoidance out of contempt, not to imperialism based on a civilizing mission. I know foreigners loathe it when Americans celebrate themselves this way, but what’s important here is that American exceptionalism does NOT counsel “world domination,” but isolationism.

And in fact, US foreign policy followed this generally, and even after major wars, the first US inclination has been to leave, not stay and dominate, much less colonize. So the US joined WWI very late, fought a few battles in the spring of 1918, and then went home. If anything, the conventional wisdom today is that the US was not ‘imperialist’ enough in the interwar period. By not joining the League of Nations and world affairs more generally, the US made no contribution to slowing fascism in the 20s and 30s.

Again in WWII the US joined relatively late, only after it was forced in by Pearl Harbor. Even after Pearl Harbor, FDR did not believe he could get a war declaration against Germany. Hitler declared war first. When the war ended, the US population called ‘to bring the boys back home’ – a constant postwar rallying cry hardly consonant with imperialism. Indeed the US was pulling out of both Europe and Asia, until the Europeans invited US presence in NATO, and NK invaded SK, convincing the US it had to stay.

And after the Cold War, isolationism again returned. The Republican party retreated to tradition realpolitik on issues like Haiti and Bosnia. After Iraq 1, the US pulled out most of ‘the boys.’ NATO was questioned. US forces in Asia and Europe shrank. Only another surprise attack, 9/11, convinced the US to once more ramp up in Eurasia. And even this was short-lived. US public opinion support for Iraq 2 slid below 50% in 2004 and never returned. The US has been looking for a way to leave Iraq and Afghanistan ever since.

Maybe the US is an imperialist. Certainly Chalmers Johnson and Noam Chomsky think so, but there is a lot of counter-evidence that questions the “world domination” argument. This is not not considered in this paper.”

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6 thoughts on ““Obama’s Foreign Policy and Its Influence on East Asia”

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  3. I agree ‘world domination’ has a rather ‘Team America’ flavour, but I’ll take the challenge ” to find policy statements (not just policy papers from think-tanks or something), leaks, or State Department foreign relations papers” that support this take on US foreign policy.

    Look at how Dick Cheney describes the Defence Planning Guidance (DPG) document he oversaw at the end of the Cold War, to ‘describe the challenges America faced and the strategic position we should adopt to meet them through the 1990s and beyond’ (p. 235 of the hardback of his memoir ‘In my time’). The DPG noted that – and here Cheney quotes – ‘that we would work to “preclude hostile, nondemocratic domination of a region critical to our interests” as well as work to preclude the emergence of any hostile powers that could present a global security threat’. On the next page he says “As I left office in January 1993 we published the “regional Defense Strategy”, an unclassified strategic plan that incorporated much of the thinking in the Defence Planning guidance’.

    That close enough?

    • Wow, this was a long time ago. I had to remember the event.

      Do you think the US desire to maintain unipolarity and deter a peer competitor justifies ‘world domination’ rhetoric? Maybe; I know a lot of foreigners think the US is an empire, and I sorta do too. But I think the Chinese colleague was reaching beyond that.

      Thanks for reading this old post :)

  4. I think I caught this on your list of ‘best posts’.

    There are also some informed Americans that use the term ‘empire’ about their own nation, with approval or not (Chalmers Johnson).

    Empire and global hegemony are not the same though, are they? More to the point, I think the DPG that has guided the US for most of the post Cold-War era goes beyond deterring the (actions of a) peer competitor. It is actually more ambitious in seeking to prevent even the emergence (existence) of a peer competitor. I agree that this is not actually stated so baldly in the text, but I find it hard to see how to interpret its motives in any other way.

    Britain was the same before WW I when it came to Germany. The very fact of having a rival was deemed unacceptable.

    The US foreign and defence policy establishment (and Cheney is one of the finest examples of this) have an element of the early Cold War mentality coded into their DNA. The imperative to have the USA remain number one is a core part of this. When we recall the fears of the 1950s and 1960s this is not surprising because the threat of the thermonuclear rival was existential. With the end of the Cold War, the views of this establishment in the US was vindicated – their system had won, so now it had a kind of global mandate of heaven. This gave the old imperative of staying number one an altruistic gloss (new world order) which had cross-party appeal.

    By the end of the first post Cold War decade, the world had changed with the 9/11 attacks and the rise of other powers like China. I think the worry some have of the old US Cold War DNA re-asserting itself with regard to the rise of China is justified in this context. We will see what difference a generational change makes in the next couple of administrations, because I really think this kind of thing goes that deep. The SecDef of 2020 could have been educated in a completely post-Cold War world.

  5. I forgot to add, I think this DPG line is also a reason we should not put all the ‘world domination’ reputation onto the shoulders of GW Bush. Cheney did his work on this for Bush snr. and it was not fundamentally re-thought under Clinton’s 2 terms.

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