Power Pivot or Duffer’s Divot? Obama’s Asia Policy (co-author Steven I. Levine)

As a founding father of the realist approach to international relations, Hans Morgenthau understood that a realist policy, while grounded in the play of power, should be tempered by prudence and historical experience. By this standard the Obama administration’s “pivot toward Asia” (announced in a string of statements, most notably the January 2012 strategic review) fails egregiously.

It is hardly prudent. Forget the American rhetoric welcoming China’s rise. Washington is more preoccupied with limiting that rise—as China’s leaders are well aware. And they are not intimidated to judge from the analysis by the well-connected policy intellectual Wang Jisi (featured in the New York Times this week). They see the United States as a declining power suffering from domestic disarray. Prudence would prompt searching questions about the exact ends of U.S. policy relative to China and the adequacy of the means to back up any eventuality.

Perhaps even more serious, the architects of the Asia pivot are historically obtuse. Washington may want to check China’s influence within its own neighborhood. Yet as Morgenthau indicated in a 1965 warning against war in Vietnam, challenging China on its own doorstep is a fool’s errand. “China is, even in her present underdeveloped state, the dominant power in Asia. She is this by virtue of the quality and quantity of her population, her geographic position, her civilization, her past power remembered and her future power anticipated.”

Our reading of the historical record, reflected in Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, more than supports this judgment From 1899, when Washington went to war to conquer the Philippines, to 1975 when it finally admitted defeat in Vietnam, Americans cultivated the dreams of dominance in Asia that still flicker in the imagination of the Obama administration. Earlier generations learned the hard way the cost that pursuing those dreams could impose. By thinking historically about relations with China, contemporaries might spare themselves needless trouble in a quixotic crusade.

China’s weakness helped inspire those dreams beginning in the late nineteenth century. McKinley took the Philippines proclaiming a benign American version of empire while defending the U.S. stake in a weak, vulnerable China. Skeptical Chinese observers rightly concluded that seizing other people’s land and suppressing Filipino nationalist resistance was anything but “benign.”

Four decades later the defeat of Japan in the Pacific War achieved the bipartisan dream of dominant influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington removed Japan as a Pacific rival and in Chiang Kai-shek’s China gained an ally dependent on U.S. support. U.S. dominance was bolstered by client regimes in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. By early 1950 embattled French Indochina was also moving into the U.S. orbit.

This U.S.-dominated Asian order was short lived. It began disintegrating in 1950 with the Korean War, and fell apart in Vietnam. A resurgent China under Mao Zedong envisioned an Asian order defined in terms of Chinese security and reflecting Chinese pride. When war broke out in Korea in 1950, Mao intervened, contrary to American expectations, and fought U.S.-led UN forces to a stalemate.

Korea dented American confidence; Vietnam shattered it. China’s military and material support of Hanoi was an essential element in the U.S. defeat. That long, expensive, divisive, and ultimately unpopular war brought a long cycle of American Pacific ambition to an end. McKinley spoke of duty and destiny in taking the Philippines. Nixon worried about weakness and sought accommodation. By 1971 he was articulating a conception of China’s regional dominance that echoed Morgenthau.

Some historical reflection on the rise and fall of U.S. ambitions in Asia, what we have called “the arc of empire,” might help U.S. leaders grapple with two fundamental questions:

1. “What part of regional dominance don’t you understand?”

Presidential aspirants have repeatedly challenged Nixon’s accommodation with Beijing. While conceding that China is a major power, they insist that it should defer to Washington not only on matters of domestic economic and political development but also regional security arrangements. Precisely because China cannot be trusted with regional dominance, so long-time China critics and proponents of the pivot argue, the United States must maintain a large armed presence in the western Pacific and cultivate ties with countries living in China’s shadow. Do they really believe that a wealthy, powerful, and self-confident Beijing will accept merely the shadow but not the substance of regional dominance?

2. “Been there, done that, why try again?”

Proponents of the pivot argue that China, a global power, cannot be trusted with regional dominance. U.S. ambitions in an earlier era ultimately failed because China resolved to resist, and it succeeded even though the power differential between Beijing and Washington was considerably greater than it is today. How do U.S. policymakers suppose the pivot will work now under far less auspicious circumstances? What do they hope to achieve and what costs are they willing to incur? Only someone oblivious to the history of the last half century—and devoid of realism—would ignore this question.

American leaders still crave international leadership. But the time for sweet dreams of a U.S. era in Asia is over. The United States will remain a significant Pacific power, of course, but in a region where others will not snap to attention simply because Washington barks orders. By repairing the problems on its own turf the United States will be in a better position to take part in an emerging new order in Asia that it cannot realistically hope to dominate.

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