The ‘Pivot to Asia’ Continued

On the threshold of trouble in Asia, have a look around the Western Pacific and especially back at US history there.  It’s several thresholds actually, and different risks of trouble: Rewriting trade and banking rules is one thing, compared to policing empty islands in the South China Sea, a far cry from the clear and present chance of nuclear missiles flying out of a desperate regime in North Korea that has no good relations with anybody.

When anxiety about Asia rises, it can be our memory that gets knocked out first.  Barack Obama as president four years ago announced a ‘pivot to Asia,’ barely noting that we’d been there before, in Vietnam, in his lifetime. But even principals in the Vietnam War had a way of forgetting not just the facts but what they’d said about them.

Illustrations by Susan Coyne

The Swedish-born American historian Fredrik Logevall reminds us of past escapades in Southeast Asia. His Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnamtraces forty years of folly—from the 1919 peace conference in Versailles up to the first American casualties in Saigon, 1959—that served as the French prequel to our own devastating war.

Graham Allison, veteran foreign policy analyst at Harvard’s Kennedy School, warns us about the dangers of new power players caught in an old game. The so-called “Thucydides Trap,” Allison explains, is a predictable pattern of conflict that crops up when rising and declining powers meet on the staircase of international hierarchy. Whether it’s Athens and Sparta in Thucydides’s day, or the U.S. and China today, the conflicts in these scenarios seem almost inevitable.

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman diagnoses the origins of Western anxieties about China. Rachman locates our present fears somewhere in the Obama years — when the president announced his original “pivot to Asia.” It may have marked a desperate flight from the intractable troubles in the Middle East. It promised confrontation with China rather than any real process of reconciliation and compromise. In Rachman’s story, there’s also a play of instinct as much as policy in our foreign affairs.

Guest List
Fredrik Logevall
Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University and author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam
Graham Allison
Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
Gideon Rachman
Chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times and author of Easternization: Asia's Rise and America's Decline From Obama to Trump and Beyond

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  • Potter Too bad we don’t study Chinese history as a matter of course. A little humility at least is in order. China is a truly great nation; goes back thousands of years. China can teach us. China has contributed immensely to the story of mankind. So often we act like a puffed up bird in heat.. and it’s ignorant.

    We can start here at the Metropolitan Museum.. see online: Age of Empires

    (Susan Coyne’s watercolors are wonderful.)

  • Pete Crangle

    When an Empire looks forward, we should look at it sideways and listen to it Slant

    “Actually, the situation is hopeless, but not serious.” — Otto Ludwig Piffl, “One, Two, Three” (1961), Directed by Billy Wilder

    Here we are, again. Groundhog Day, Redux. It would seem empires can fail into prosperity, but perhaps, only a finite amount of times. Like every sucker who stays at a gambling table too long, eventually fortune and credit run out. Apparently, we are doomed to repeat the dictum’s of history and progress espoused by George Santayana and Edmond Burke. Perhaps discussions such as these here at ROS will improve our chances to avoid yet another imperial project failure. I am cautiously pessimistic.

    Had Americans, and the French, taken time to cultivate and understand even a modest history of this region, we might have avoided unnecessary bloodshed and suffering brought about by the Asian proxy wars of the cold war era. The same can be said about the current Middle East wars. I tend not to subscribe to theories wrapped in manifest destiny or The Fates. That said, the geopolitical power vacuum of World Wars One and Two, and the outcome of the Chinese Civil War/Revolution, locked in certain trajectories for an almost grim inevitability. The appetites of power guarantee a near certainty for mischief in some regions of the collective psyche.

    The “Who lost China?” question still looms over US policy options, even in its selective amnesia. It is just under the surface of much hawkish rhetoric. It’s not just Hitler and appeasement that are used as rhetorical cudgels. Policy malice thrives upon such icebergs that lurk under the surface. Malice, has a long memory, even if its people do not.

    It seems unproductive, and perhaps even gratuitous, to saddle George Kennan, Robert McNamara, General Westmoreland, or President’s Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon with the shared or sole ownership of blame for America’s flagrant cold war blunders, particularly in regards to Korea and Vietnam. They are all culpable to greater and lesser degrees, of course, along with a large, anonymous group of specialists and experts who animated our imperial projects. But at some point, the citizenry must assume responsibility for its violent, tribal ignorance served up at the spear end of its security state. A people not only get the government it tethers itself to, it gets the media and educational propaganda complex that it can screw into its comfort zone. If it wants better, it must demand better.

    The United States had within the grasp of its people, and its geographic abundance, the means to become a civilization of historical note, and hence, a civilizing influence upon humanity. But, a country bootstrapped on genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, homophobia, and economic and gender inequality has much truth and reconciliation to visit upon itself. When private, plantation slavery was ended, the prison complex began to pick up the slack. Without any T & R, the U.S. is essentially a criminal enterprise that passes this legacy ever onward, into the abyss of the great downstream. Now, the U.S. finds itself stumbling through the physical and psychological ruins of its meager cultural shadow, striking out at the shadows of its own primitive, superstitious psyche. It flogs itself with another round of Jim Crow, and sends missile strikes and carrier groups into far away places to make itself feel secure, and boost ratings and poll numbers. It uses trade agreements as a means to protect and organize the arena of Empire: Markets. Which is why trade agreements are military tactical artifacts. The U.S. has been tilting towards lock down mode, stuck in a permanent crises management exercise. It has become a National Security and Surveillance State. Not a civilization, nor a culture of merit.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. instructed us that budgets are moral document. I am skeptical and suspicious about such claims, but budgets certainly express one’s priorities, and in this case, it is wrapped in anxiety and loathing. You won’t find much of Jesus, Darwin, Enlightenment, or Charity in that budget. I am skeptical about the morality of the budgetary configuration of the state and the tax code shenanigans of neoliberalism, because IMO, neither nation states nor corporations are moral entities, per say. They are not even particularly ethical. Nation states are expressions of the tribal power, and the use and expansion of this power is the means to justify its ends. Morals and ethics must come from the citizenry, and that is where its compass is to be found. Once a nation state has turned off its capacity to listen to its citizenry, and take direction with regards to a system of ethics and morality, then it has gone rogue, and is only working in its self-interest and for the subjugation of those exist outside the arena of relevance. All others are deemed to be externalities and essentially irrelevant. This is what drove the Cold War era. And this is what drives policy today, whether in Asia or the Middle East or throw a dart at a map, and rest assured, your dart has landed near a U.S. garrison.

    Morality and ethics come from an enlightened and engaged citizenry, not from governments or corporations. Footage: The Catonsville Nine, ‘The Burning of Draft Cards in Catonsville, Maryland”

    Another great discussion Chris. The guests were excellent. Thanks to you all for it…

  • Gordon Adams

    What’s missing from this discussion is China is weaker than Japan, militarily. The Japanese economy remains larger than China’s. China’s wealth is concentrated along it’s coast and the people inland have not benefited. The Chinese banking system is very much the old Japanese keiretsu system. Loans depend on who you know, not the quality of your ideas, making the entire system shaky. Chinese discontent is more wide spread among it’s people than this discussion admits.

    India, despite many internal problems, remains a challenge to Chin, and is more a military threat to Chinese dominance. My opinion is Chinese incursion may do more to unite India than British occupation did. Further, fairly recently, (maybe 2014) the Philippine navy chased Chinese naval vessels out of disputed territorial water. That does not connote a strong Chinese navy.

    • Gordon Adams

      Tangential is North Korea. We look at it as a wild card nation. But I have to wonder about this. It’s interesting North Korea was relatively quiet; until President-elect Trump called the President of Taiwan and not the President of China. North Korea became suddenly more vocal and President Trump ended up turning to China for help in controlling North Korea.

      All of this points to China as an important regional power but is it really that much of a threat to U.S. dominance in the region. Especially as China has to also be concerned about Japan, India and even the Phillipines. And we haven’t even considered the other large nation in this area, Indonesia.

      • Potter

        Maybe we are a wild card nation too. Or maybe not maybe. I wonder how much taming McMaster can accomplish and to what effect since it was said here that he believes in American hegemony. McMaster, I hope, will keep his priorities in good order for the well being of this country. Trump and Kim Jong-un want to preserve their positions, but Trump is the more vulnerable (already thinking of re-election!). McMaster hopefully will use that to help steer us out of foreign waters that grow turbulent with unthinking ( or hotheaded) action and reaction.

  • We’re Sparta?
    How much Spartan debt were the Athenians holding? ICBM count?
    If I remember my Greek history, the Athenians had the entire Aegean tied up in a very loose confederation – so they were a real economic threat to the Spartans. Plus, those confederation allegiances were weak.
    China has built a couple of islands…lol
    If the Chinese ask for their money back, you could see Trump panicking and launching a few cruise missiles at the Chinese finance ministry – he doesn’t want his Presidential legacy to be another bankruptcy.

    Thucydides is telling us the world would be better run in hindsight. We are being told to heed Santayana and at the same time, told it doesn’t make any difference how many historians it takes to screw in a light bulb?
    In the 1990’s, what were the historians saying about neoliberalism?
    Awareness is good thing, but practically speaking it isn’t enough. We all know war is bad and wasteful, be we keep doing it.

    • Gordon Adams

      The interesting thing about the Chinese holding U.S. debt is if they were really happy with how their own economy is doing relative to ours, they would be less inclined to invest in the U.S. and instead investing in the Chinese economy. We are an island of economic stability after the recession. Most, of the world’s economy’s are in much worse condition than our own. And that includes China.