By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783
Columbia University Press, 2017, 762 pp., $45
Standing in front of the Australian Parliament in November 2011, President Obama announced his signature foreign policy initiative, the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. There he stated that “our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
While President Obama invoked America’s history in the region to justify this position, it is highly unlikely that he—or anyone else for that matter—had Chester A. Arthur in mind. But it was the 21st President who declared in his 1881 Address to Congress that the United States would be the “chief Pacific power.”
Similarly, when President Trump recently climbed aboard the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, he promised that the Navy was “going to soon be the largest it’s been.” He too invoked history to make his point, claiming that “our Navy is the smallest it’s been since World War I.” While Trump’s thinking was rooted in history, there is no evidence to support—or even suspect—that he was thinking about Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward. But Trump’s calls for an expanded navy that can potentially be used to check aggressive Chinese actions in the South and East China Seas has the same motivation as Seward’s 1853 demand that the U.S. Navy must “multiply your ships and send them forth to the East.”
From the earliest days of the republic to its current travails, America has had an abiding fascination with, deep commercial ties to, and grave security concerns about Asia. And in the long sweep of our historical ties to this important region, a persistent underlying logic has sustained U.S. engagement. That logic has demanded access to the East for American commerce and ideas, and the prevention of threats flowing from the west to American shores. In so doing, that logic has set the course of American grand strategy toward the region, as Michael Green argues in his authoritative, incisive, and instructive new book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783.
In the preface to his substantial tome that sweeps across the entirety of American history, weighing in at 548 dense pages of text and another 138 pages of notes, Green describes why he undertook such a daunting task.1 After spending more than five years at the highest level of American statecraft, serving as George W. Bush’s Senior Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, he became convinced about just how much history informs policy, and how greater historical understanding can produce better American strategy. But Green could find no comprehensive study detailing American statecraft toward Asia.
To his surprise, Green found that “this same gap in knowledge” existed among his colleagues in government. They were certainly enormously practical and knowledgeable about many issues, ranging from the current state of North Korea’s ballistic missile development to the state of ethnic tensions in Burma’s Rakhine state to the always-evolving leadership dynamics in Beijing. But when he pressed them about why we define American interests in the region as we do, or what accounts for the various successes and failures of past policies, he often received blank stares. This is hardly surprising, for the interagency process prioritizes actionable recommendations and brevity for policymakers, whose most precious commodities are time and attention. In practice, this means that at the highest levels there is an abundance of practical knowledge but little time or attention given to how policies and ideas have played out through the years. As Green puts it, for all the extraordinary work it does, even “the intelligence community does not analyze the roots of American strategy or policy.” Yet he knew from experience that the best work produced by he and his staff not only analyzed the prospective choices facing the President but also set them in broad context, defined the evolution of the policy issue and the national interest at stake, and discussed the trade-offs any particular option would incur. Such analysis demanded an understanding that only informed historical knowledge could offer.
Returning to academia from the White House—the commute wasn’t far for Green, who teaches at Georgetown University and holds the Japan chair at Washington DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies—he decided to teach a course covering the history of American strategy in Asia. However, his initial impressions when working on the NSC were confirmed: Nothing in the academic literature adequately and comprehensively addressed the subject. So Green decided to fill the gap himself.
In so doing, Green has helped explain America’s remarkable, and remarkably perplexing, grand strategy in Asia. To baffled observers of America’s inconsistent, dramatic, and continuously surprising engagement with the world, the best explanation can be found in Otto von Bismarck pithy, and perhaps apocryphal, remark that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” The American Interest’s own Walter Russell Mead, of course, played on that sentiment in his landmark 2001 work, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, arguing that American foreign policy success can best be understood as the creative synthesis of the clash between several distinct and competing schools of thought. In By More Than Providence, Green engages both Mead’s analysis and Bismarck’s observation by characterizing America’s emergence “as the preeminent power in the Pacific not by providence alone, but through effective (if not always efficient) application of military, diplomatic, economic, and ideational tools of national power to the problems of Asia.”
As an early American diplomat to China noted with excitement, Asia was “a theatre for the exercise of the most ambitious intellect.”2 Green’s work demonstrates that what was true in the mid-19th century is equally true today. And while the book is long, the prose clips along, and the comprehensiveness of the approach makes the read well worth the time invested. Moreover, the work is not simply a survey of America’s encounters with and reactions to the Asia-Pacific region. It is Green’s argument that this engagement demands a higher level of analysis.
Starting with the launching of the China trade in 1783 and concluding with President Obama’s “pivot,” Green identifies enduring tensions that have shaped America’s approach from the outset. In his analysis, those challenges have remained remarkably persistent across American history. For even as the relentless pace of technological change “replaced sail with steam, steam with internal combustion, and then internal combustion with jets, ballistic missiles, and eventually cyberspace,” he writes, Asia still lies separated by some 7,000 miles from the America’s West Coast. It is a region historically defined by hierarchy, subject to the fluctuations in Chinese power, uneven economic growth, and contending sources of political legitimacy. These same circumstances have formed the basis of choice for American policymakers from Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to Richard Nixon and Barack Obama in the 20th and 21st.
In response to those challenges, Green identifies one enduring theme in “American strategic culture as it has applied to the Far East over time.” The purpose of American power in the Far East, Green writes, “is that the United States will not tolerate any other power establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.” This singular theme, however, has two policy implications that move in different directions. One is negative and aimed at preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon that can threaten the American homeland from the west. The other is positive, intended to retain access for American goods and ideas to the west.
But if these are the persistent twin objectives of American grand strategy in the Far East, Green argues that there are five enduing tensions that cut across the centuries to shape America’s grand strategy at any particular moment. These include: the struggle between Europe and Asia as a strategic priority for American policymakers; the debate over whether U.S. policy should pursue a continental or a maritime approach to Asia, and subsequently whether American strategy should give China or Japan pride of place; the challenge of drawing redlines and deciding how far forward America ought to place its defensive perimeter in Asia; the difficult question of how best to expand democratic space in Asia while balancing self-determination with the promotion of universal values; and, the perennial fight, now back with a vengeance, between protectionism and free trade.
In case after case, Green makes the point that American policymakers have often struggled to find the right balance between these impulses. But just because there is a tension between opposites, Green asserts, does not mean that some approaches are not better than others. In particular, his admiration for John Quincy Adams, William Seward, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan reflects a bias for strategists whose vision harnessed American values to American power in the search for a stable Asian strategic equilibrium.
To understand the evolution of American strategy in Asia, Green organizes the book around successive European, Japanese, Soviet, and Chinese systemic challenges to the maintenance of a free and open trans-Pacific order. The story begins with the rise of European competition amid the collapse of a traditionally Sinocentric Asian world, and the problems that European imperialism presented for the spread of American trade, values, and projection of military power. The narrative continues with the spread of Western values and technology eastward, and the diminution of European strength in the World War; it then chronicles the challenges that a rising and modernizing Japan presented the United States. Following Japan’s surrender in September 1945, the threat of an acquisitive Soviet empire and an expansionist communist ideology focused U.S. efforts throughout the Cold War. Part of America’s Cold War strategy eventually came to involve engaging Beijing, which the United States promoted as a balance to Moscow. The extraordinary rise of China began in the 1970s as America opened and then normalized relations with China, and it accelerated after Deng Xiaoping instituted a series of market-based reforms in 1978. The final section of the book examines the implications of China’s rise, resulting in an increasingly aggressive clash between China, championing a hierarchical Sinocentric order, and America, leading and undergirding a rules-based order.
From this expansive sweep through history Green draws some suggestions about how best to balance the enduring tensions inherent in America’s Asian project. The conclusion is that the modern and timeless imperatives of American strategy in Asia are as straightforward in theory as they are challenging in practice. These imperatives include: making sure that Asia receives the highest of priorities in terms of U.S. resources and policymakers’ time and attention; demanding that China (or any other state for that matter) remain embedded within a larger Asian policy, and not vice versa; understanding the geopolitical importance of the first island chain and undertaking a credible if flexible commitment to America’s forward defensive line; committing to the promotion of both free trade and a realistic and consistent position on human rights and democracy; and, above all else, insisting that American strategists work to shape a balance of power in the region favoring openness and remaining free from coercion.
Green’s background as both a professor and a policymaker informs his analysis throughout, making By More Than Providence a uniquely valuable guide to the past, present, and future of American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. His thesis is that, organically and relentlessly (despite some setbacks and occasional inconsistencies), American military, commercial, and missionary activity has expanded across the region. Political scientists explain this expansion as deriving from international relations theory, debating whether offensive realism (the ability to expand) or defensive realism (the perceived need to expand to preempt others’ expansion) best accounts for America’s actions. Meanwhile, historians of this period gravitate toward the Wisconsin school of interpretation that argues that America’s expansion primarily stemmed from the relentless search for new markets. Green points out that to American strategists in the late 19th century these competing interpretive frames “would probably have been a difference without a distinction. Threats, commerce, and capacity all went into the soup that became the American strategy for expansion into the Pacific.” While this is an oversimplification of the literature, Green’s point here and throughout the book is that both theory and history can only serve as partial frameworks through which to understand strategy.
In this he sounds remarkably like Clausewitz, who wrote that
it would indeed be rash . . . to deduce universal laws governing every single case, regardless of all haphazard influences. Those people, however, who “never rise above anecdote” . . . and would construct all history of individual cases—starting always with the most striking feature, the high point of the event, and digging only as deep as suits them, never get down to the general factors that govern the most. Consequently their findings will never be valid for more than a single case; indeed they will consider a philosophy that encompasses the general run of cases as a mere dream.3
In other words, theory—offensive, defensive, or otherwise—divorced from context, circumstances, and particular details will produce little of value for the strategist. Similarly, history—economic, intellectual, political, or otherwise—isolated from comparison reveals nothing of utility to the policymaker struggling to respond to his unique set of circumstances. This narrative might not be as theoretically coherent or as historically deep as some other academic works, but what it lacks in that regard is more than made up for by its many strategic insights born of combining theory, history, and experience. For even as he explores American grand strategy toward Asia in a given historical context, Green thoughtfully links that history to contemporary challenges.
His chapter on Teddy Roosevelt, aptly titled “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific,” is a case in point. Green describes the intellectual, political, and geopolitical context in which Roosevelt was operating. He points to the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued for a sustained forward presence in the Pacific as necessary for both access to the region and as defense of the homeland. Forward presence would help prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon as it aided in promoting American commerce and spreading American values. But it was events—in this case the 1898 Spanish-American War—that propelled these ideas into meaningful policies as the United States acquired various island territories, or “stepping stones” across the Pacific, promoted the territorial integrity of China and ensured its own commercial access, and calculated the right mix of diplomacy and military deterrence to maintain a favorable balance of power in the region that would preclude the emergence of any major rivals. Roosevelt, in Green’s telling, shaped events in the region by promoting the Open Door policy, mediating the Russo-Japanese War, initiating the largest peacetime buildup of naval forces in American history, and restraining American expansion after its 1898 victory. These deft moves greatly enhanced America’s prestige and power, despite the error—which Roosevelt came soon to recognize—of annexing the Philippines. Green makes a compelling case for the success of Roosevelt’s grand strategy at the turn of the 20th century.
What emerges from this, however, is of more than historical interest. For here, with careful attention to context and circumstance, Green makes a compelling case for the requirements of a successful and sustainable American ability to shape events in the region while promoting its values and protecting its interest. Articulated in this chapter but weaving in and out of the entire narrative are several interrelated propositions: that America’s interests require a deft balance between self-restraint and assertion to maintain an accessible, open, and liberal economic and political order; that America’s values are best protected by the promotion of friendly and self-governing republics; that American power is augmented through the emergence of other strong, like-minded states that can constrain aspiring regional hegemons; that America’s credibility is advanced through the maintenance of a strong naval presence and military deterrent; that America’s economic dynamism depends on lowering barriers to trade and that such trade liberalization is most likely to extend American influence in the region; that American values are furthered through Washington’s advocacy of rules, norms, and institutions; and, finally, that America’s ability to shape the region is proportional to Asia’s perception of Washington’s level of engagement and sense of legitimacy.
Of course, Asian history is riddled with the inconsistencies of America’s approach. It is to Green’s credit that he examines the failures alongside the successes of American statecraft. In so doing, he offers something far deeper and practical than a mere history. Giving equal weight to historical context, general principles, and political judgment, Green provides a comprehensive framework for how American policymakers and students of history ought to evaluate America’s grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific. It is one of those rare works that should be required reading for all those who seek to shape and understand American statecraft. In the Trump era, when it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the signal and the noise of American statecraft, Green has provided a guide to understanding the past, making sense of the present, and charting a course into the future for American grand strategy in Asia.
1When Green was researching this book, we corresponded about my own work on John Quincy Adams.
2U.S. commissioner to China Humphrey Marshall, quoted in Green.
3Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976, 1984 indexed edition), Book VI, Ch. VI, p. 374.