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America Has Some New Dance Steps To Learn

America’s new Asia policy (pivot, rebalance, refocus, you name it) is, Via Meadia thinks, the right thing to do, but much of the country — including, alas, much of the MSM — doesn’t get how complicated and dangerous a place Asia is. For decades US press coverage and the public discourse of our national leadership has provided only the most superficial analysis of this part of the world.

Asia is a much tougher neighborhood than post World War Two Europe, and the kind of old fashioned nationalism that was mostly burned out of Europe by the world wars is alive and well in all three Asian regions that our new strategy points toward. In East, South and Southeast Asia, nationalism still burns with all the passion and, sometimes, rage that marked Europe’s history through 1945.

America’s new strategy puts us right in the middle of these rival nationalist passions, and our ability to work with and around them will well go a long way to determining just how peaceful the Pacific Century turns out to be. It isn’t going to be easy. Take this Chosunilbo column from Kim Dae-joong, one of South Korea’s best known pundits, as an indication of the forces and the passions in the region.

Why does Seoul continue to adhere to what looks like an increasingly outdated peace and denuclearization policy? The goal of denuclearization in Northeast Asia has become unattainable. North Korea is not going to abandon its nuclear weapons even at the cost of its own collapse, since the regime saw clearly what happened to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi when he gave them up.

Japan has turned the nuclear crisis into an opportunity. China’s military might is increasing every day, and the re-election of the hawkish Vladimir Putin as Russia’s new president has apparently prompted Japan to gear itself up for potential increases in military conflicts and diplomatic friction in Northeast Asia. This has resulted in Tokyo taking necessary steps so it could arm itself with nuclear weapons if the need arises. North Korea will undoubtedly use that development as an excuse to spur its own nuclear arms program.

The U.S. seems either to implicitly side with or even support Japan. When it was revealed that Japan had revised its nuclear law, South Korea and China expressed serious concern, but Washington did not appear too concerned.

Kim is a hardliner – this is not the first time he has called for the South to acquire nuclear weapons – and his views do not reflect the prevailing wisdom in Seoul. But Kim is one of the country’s most prominent columnists writing in the country’s most popular newspaper.

More broadly, managing our new Asia policy requires working with some of the testiest countries in the world. South Korea and Japan have a particularly prickly relationship. Their common concerns about the rise of China and the threat of North Korea give Tokyo and Seoul much to talk about, but relations between Japan and South Korea are still troubled by the bitter history of Japanese rule in Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. Recently, relations between the two countries have been getting worse.

Recently, nationalists have been gaining ground in both Korean and Japanese politics, partly in response to what is seen as provocative and dangerous behavior from both China and North Korea. But nationalism in South Korea is usually associated with anti-Japan feeling — and this is not helped by signs that Japan’s concerns over nuclear North Korea are causing it to edge cautiously and in a typically Japanese indirect and measured way toward a nuclear arsenal of its own.

The new emphasis on Asia in American grand strategy is going to require Americans to spend more time learning and thinking about the history of the region and the political cultures that shape the thinking of the people and politicians of this part of the world. This kind of knowledge used to be the preserve of a relatively small number of professional specialists who tracked Asia closely; these days, that specialist knowledge must enter the mainstream.

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  • Luke Lea

    Again I recommend Koonchung Chan’s The Fat Years. You won’t be disappointed:

  • Jim.

    Winston Churchill theorized (perhaps dreamed) that a strong union of the English-Speaking Peoples, including an internationally active America, could have provided an effective counterweight to the militaristic Second Reich that would have prevented both WWI and WWII.

    It looks like that thought (at least, the “internationally active America” part) might be put to the test here, as we unite with the more liberalized portions of the Western Pacific to provide a counterweight to the new rising industrial (though presumably not as militaristic) power, China.

  • thibaud

    Well done.

    This is the most schizoid blog on the web.

    It’s dizzying to move from Mead’s intelligent, dispassionate, fact-based analysis of Asian international relations to his over-the-top, tendentious, day-is-night posts on domestic issues.

    It’s like a ringside seat at a bout between the superego and the id. Entertaining, maybe, but also distracting, and not very helpful if the blog’s purpose is designed to be anything more than entertainment (or therapy).

    Re therapy, a clue as to whether a VM post is coming from the hyde-Mead id or the Jekyll-Mead superego is whether the post contains the word “blue” in the title or lead sentence.

    Blue seems to have the same significance for our schizoid patient as arsenic green had for Vincent.

    A modest proposal: to keep the readers’ heads from spinning, perhaps this blog’s backers could hive off the snarling, fact-poor domestic policy “id” posts from the balanced, mature, well-researched “superego” posts on international relations?

    In other words, an all-blue, all-the -time blog for the Jacksonian faithful, and a separate “orange” blog for the rest of us?


  • JM Hanes

    “[T]hese days, that specialist knowledge must enter the mainstream.”

    Your own continuing commentary is much appreciated in that regard. I read quite a bit about developments in Asia, but I rely heavily on others with a less superficial understanding of historical and contemporary currents to put everything into context for me. Reading your second paragraph above, for instance, with pre-war Europe as a more familiar reference point, was a real lightbulb moment.

    Those moments are not confined to the politics of Asia, either! I’d value your executive summary of almost anything.

  • Kris

    Jim@2: One can always hope. One does fear that “the kind of old fashioned nationalism that was mostly burned out of Europe” did indeed have to be burned out. And today’s US will do all it can to avoid such conflagrations. Interesting times.

  • Jim.

    @Kris –

    Considering that WWII in Korea and China (not to mention the destruction in the Japanese islands) was at least as horrible as WWII in Europe, the idea that they’re willing to go for Round 2 is enough to make your skin crawl.

    Imagine Russia and Germany eager for another go, with Poland and Ukraine eager to get their own hits in. Unbelievable.

  • Kris


    Then again, imagine an area with many Serbias and Croatias. Sigh. (I am not claiming that this is the case in Asia.) Back during the lead-up to the Iraq War, many were bemoaning what they saw as the Germans’ obnoxious pacifism. I sympathized, but considered the alternative.

    The crucial Asian question is: can the US give security guarantees to its current and potential Asian allies that will be sufficient to deter China but that will not encourage the allies to overplay their hands?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Given his foreign affairs background I think WRM often gives excessive importance to the utility of Diplomacy. I think American Diplomacy should be about making them dance to our tune, not we dancing to theirs (America is the Super Power not these pygmies). In my opinion the only thing needed for America to create a strong military and economic alliance in the Pacific is to point with alarm at the Chinese Boogie Man. All these nations are already rattled; all that’s needed is to point out how they would fare by themselves all alone against China, with sufficiently gory death tolls, predicted atrocities, and a final Tibetan subjugation. Then point out how much better things would be fighting in a band of brothers which included the only world superpower and access to all its military expertise and equipment. Also pointing out how the economic largess now flowing into Chinese pockets could as easily be flowing into their own pockets if they were only our blood brothers.

    Diplomacy which focuses on present threats and opportunities for profit and ignores the grudges of ancestors will be more successful, than lending a sympathetic ear to every petty grudge in the Pacific. The US should refuse to listen to any of it, American blood has been spilled all over the pacific and we are big enough to forgive and forget, and we don’t want any small hearted petty people standing at our backs, only brothers which can face the test of battle by our sides.

    We give them the choice to be big hearted successful lords of the universe with us, or small hearted petty people with a Chinese boot on their neck. What we don’t do is study their every petty grudge going back centuries, and then try to navigate the mine field of reconciliation. If they can’t bury the hatchet we don’t want them.

  • Kris

    JL@8: I’m sympathetic, but this seems to require that the US be willing to go to war against China over the Spratly Islands (eg). You might be willing, but I don’t know if successive administrations will be, and even less if other countries can be convinced of said willingness.

  • Kris

    [Oops, premature submission.]

    Furthermore, Realists notwithstanding, states don’t always act in ways which we would consider entirely rational. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones who suffer as a result. It seems worthwhile to keep Foggy Bottom employees in cocktails in order to do the (admittedly maddening) work of cajoling other countries into being rational.

  • J R Yankovic

    I know I’m coming to this thread ridiculously late. But the balanced, on-target, extremely clearheaded writing of the original post is hard to pass up. A recent illness delayed my comment; I can only hope it didn’t still more adversely affect its quality. (At least no more than usual?)

    Anyhow, good as the VM piece was, my concern is that it may fly in the face of nearly everything red-blooded Americans hold dear about foreign policy. And in particular about how and why NOT to take it seriously.

    Now of course by “Americans” I don’t mean the majority of Yanks who don’t even own a passport and so never travel abroad (in which event we’d likely be both amazed and pleased to find that foreigners are almost as human as we are). Rather, I mean those Americans who actually make a part of their living by traveling or residing outside the US, and who make a good deal of the rest of it by interpreting that Abroad for those of us staying behind (thereby furnishing us with newly disdainful reasons never to step outside our borders). The kinds of Yanks who understand America much less as a COUNTRY than as the world’s final and definitive civilization: a sort of Athens, Sparta, Rome, Imperial China and expansionist Prussia all rolled into one. Though, naturally, in the case of the American Prussia, the object of Total Mobilization is not total WAR-, but rather total BUSINESS-preparedness, for every man, woman, child, transgendered, etc.

    That last remark was meant only half-facetiously. Perhaps more deeply rooted than any of us realize, in our US foreign-affairs traditions (“isolationist” or otherwise), is this notion of Holy Commerce as the blessed tied that binds even the most disparate or even morally and culturally opposite people, be they individuals or countries, religions or civilizations. Sure, it’s a wildly optimistic dream, but then last time I looked that’s what Whigs were for. Think of the brutal, ignorant misunderstandings that may arise between individuals of different cultures even when they’re TRYING to understand each other. Now imagine all those same confusions – to say nothing of the toll of mutual cynicism, charades, hypocrisy and, worst of all, the contempt of elite transactors for their own commercially unsophisticated masses – being compounded by agents who have little or no object other than to MAKE MONEY off each other. That, the best I can determine, is the final upshot of 1970s-era Trilateralism, whatever its original goals may have been. Apparently nothing binds elites more trustworthily, both in the running of the globe and in their solidarity against the unwashed masses – yes, even elites that might otherwise hate or despise each other – than the expectation of mutual profit. Indeed one may even regard it as a kind of acme of modernity itself on a global scale: Flawlessly-designed, fail-safe institutional mechanisms and procedures that, with the proper tweaking, can minimize or eliminate the need not only for cultural sensitivity, but for moral character and discretion in even the most authoritative, “responsible” human actors.

    As I understand it, in essence this Dream – sorry, I’m not sure what else to call it – maintains that the universally human lust for money and trade is enough to bring out the dormant “inner American” (i.e., REAL, scientifically evidenced human nature, as distinct from the epiphenomemal accretions of culture and history) in everybody from the most sedate Wallonian to the most strident Wahhabi. Which commercial ties, properly cemented, and ruthlessly enough enforced through ever-widening parts of the globe, are supposed to remove the need for all those things Americans don’t like doing anyways when abroad. All those efforts that have always been beneath us pragmatic, self-made Yanks (though at times they may still be necessary for decadent Europeans, semi-savage Russians, and tradition-bound Asiatics): those graces and niceties that involve ATTENDING to, and waiting upon, and studying, and steeping oneself in the presence of wherever, whatever, whomever one has been called to serve, or observe, in another culture. As opposed to blithely assuming a Mandarin Chinese-style cultural superiority and irresistibility, in which lesser parts of the globe all duly await their eventual Tibetanization.

    For me, anyhow, quite possibly the biggest long-term challenge facing Americans today is whether we have the courage, the stamina and – yes, I’ll venture to say it – the humility to become a kind of empire, not in the continental Chinese, but in the maritime British tradition. Indeed I’m not at all sure that’s the right phrase for what I’m trying to say, but let it stand. An empire very different from that dreamed of by Lord North, or Cecil Rhodes, or Rudyard Kipling, or even Winston Churchill (though I think Jim.’s reminders about Churchill’s vision of a “union” of Britain, the Dominions and the US are both spot-on and never more relevant than now). But one much more like that wished and hoped and pleaded for in his own day by Burke with respect to Ireland – and partially realized by the 20th-century British Commonwealth (Iran and Ireland being the sad exceptions that almost prove the rule). A kind of empire graced with a sense of how discerningly it can listen as well as how decisively it should talk. One that would never presume to DICTATE to any genuine ally (no Saudis need apply) no matter how new or old, weak or strong, foreign or familiar. And that, when the inadvertent habit of dictating is brought to its attention, is grateful for the correction. It may all sound humbling to the point of self-abasement, but frankly I don’t see what else is going to work for South and East Asia. From what I gather, for instance, of the mutual history and perceptions of Japan and South Korea, no amount of even the most no-nonsense head-knocking-together is going to go very far with either of them. And “baggage” doesn’t even begin to describe the difficulties; indeed it’s hard for me to imagine most Western European colonial populations of that period being more brutalized than the Koreans were at the hands of those proud pan-Asians, the Imperial Japanese. In short – and as Via Meadia has driven home – we have a most highly unconventional work cut out for us. One which, however, I do think we have every chance of succeeding at, provided we remember that the “Pacific theater” is one school in which we are at least as much students as teachers.

    And speaking of learning, I think Jacksonian Libertarian may be on to something when it comes to emphasizing the common threat to smaller neighbors posed by Beijing. Certainly the Japanese were fiendishly oppressive of the Koreans (not to mention just about every other Asian nation they occupied). But as exploitative as they’ve been of “local” foreigners, at least the Japanese have, among themselves, some basic horse sense about how to be One Nation – i.e., how to treat EACH OTHER reasonably well. Which, from everything I’ve read, is a good deal more than one could ever say about their Middle Kingdom neighbors. And lest anyone should think lack of fraternity among one’s own means kindness to foreigners, I’m reminded of a Central Asian proverb I read somewhere recently, about the differences between Russian and Chinese domination. What was it again? Something about “bonds of leather” vs “bonds of iron”? . . .

  • J R Yankovic

    Lest there be any misunderstanding:

    “And speaking of learning, I think Jacksonian Libertarian may be on to something . . .”

    No sarcasm or condescension was meant re JL’s learning capacities. The “learner” in this context was me, not JL.

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