The Pentagon’s Durable Asian Fairy Tale

The Pentagon’s fairy tale history of U.S. involvement in eastern Asia appears alive and well. So at least statements made by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent visits in Singapore and Vietnam suggest. Following the lines of the mythology that seems to exercise strong appeal in official U.S. circles, Carter claimed that the United States by playing a pivotal military role in the region over the past seven decades has “helped maintain peace and stability.” (See the transcript of his address in Singapore on 30 May and his interview in Vietnam with the BBC dated 1 June.)

The notion of the U.S. military as a force for peace and stability doesn’t hold historical water now any more than when Carter’s predecessor invoked it. (See my earlier post on this topic.)

From the late 1940s Washington extended the Cold War struggle from Europe to Asia and in the process spawned regional disorder. U.S. policymakers recruited clients, created dependencies, and resisted calls for revolutionary change wherever they were heard throughout the region. In defense of the status quo, U.S. forces fought in Korea and Vietnam, helped defeat insurgents in the Philippines, and devastated Cambodia from the air. These efforts twice resulted in costly military collisions with China, first in Korea and then in Vietnam. To the surprise and dismay of the U.S. political class and military leaders, neither confrontation with Beijing went well — and this at a time when Mao Zedong’s China was just getting on its feet. (Readers interested in the details are invited to consult Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, which I coauthored with Steven I. Levine.)

An important shift in the early 1970s has no place in Carter’s simple generalization about America in Asia. President Richard Nixon recognized the quixotic nature of this effort to maintain the status quo in what was even then a dynamic Asia. The U.S. might be dominant but, Nixon reasoned, China could no longer be marginalized. In 1972 he accepted China as a regional power in a world in which he saw regional powers more and more defining the international system. What Nixon left to his successors was how to adjust policy as China’s power waxed and U.S. power waned at least in relative terms. This has been no easy task for U.S. policymakers who recognize the strong impetus behind China’s rise but who also cling to a dream of global dominance and regard regional powers as threats to that dominance. Carter’s simple history conceals the fundamental contradiction facing U.S. policy not just in Asia but also in the Middle East, South America, and Eurasia.

Carter and others in the Obama administration who fancy themselves realists should not think in a historical haze however comforting they might find the official mythology. They would do well to base their grand strategy for Asia on real, not imagined, history.