The US in Asia and the world

Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry has a long guest post at the Washington Note addressing Kishore Mahbubani’s arguments in The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. Not having read Mr. Mahbubani’s book yet, I can’t speak directly to his argument, but I do want to address the points raised by Professor Ikenberry.

The crux of Professor Ikenberry’s argument is that the rise of Asia does not necessarily mean the decline of the West, or, more specifically, the decline of the US. He does not deny Asia’s growing influence, but he suggests that while power is flowing Asia’s way, the Asian powers have not proposed new organizing principles for world order. He suggests that what might happen — and what will probably be the best possible outcome — is a modified version of the American-led postwar system, a postwar system with an Asian flavor in which China and the other Asian powers recognize that maintaining the system is in their interests. As Professor Ikenberry writes:

China may well be tomorrow’s greatest supporter of the American-led postwar system. That system provides rules and institutions for openness and nondiscrimination. These are features of order that China will want going forward as its growing economic weight will be greeted by efforts by others (including some governments in the West) to close and discriminate. Rule-based international order is not a Western fixation. It is a system of governance that all states – East and West – have some interest in maintaining, China not least.

There is considerable value in this argument. Given that China most likely will not have the opportunity to remake the international order anew in the manner that the US and its allies did in the aftermath of the World War II, China, India, and the other rising powers will have little choice but to jury-rig preexisting institutions to reflect their power and their interests.

It’s also possible to overstate US decline, both in Asia and globally. As an “Asian” power — the US unmistakably is a great power in Asia — the US will have a stake in shaping the “Asian” world order. Washington will have to reconsider how it exercises its power regionally and globally, of course, becoming less reliant on its military power and more willing to listen to others, but the US has not begun its Recessional yet.

The emphasis needs to change, however. Since the US expanded its role in Asia at the end of the war, its Asia policy has been schizophrenic, divided between a crusading, transformational tendency and a stabilizing tendency. This schizophrenia persists up to today, with the crusaders keen to paint China as the next great threat to the US. But the time for US crusades in Asia is past. For the first time in nearly two centuries, Asian powers are in a position to manage the region’s affairs themselves. That doesn’t mean there is no role for the US; in fact, it means the US role as stabilizer and pacifier is more important than ever. I think, for example, that the presence of the US military, especially the US Navy, has ensured that political tensions have risen inexorably despite the ongoing Asian arms race. In short, US power should be used less for dictating terms and more for underwriting the efforts of others to create international order. The US should participate in the latter process, but only as one country among many. Its alliances in the region should shift accordingly, measured more in terms of how the support this US role. Transformational ideas, like Abe Shinzo’s and Aso Taro’s “arc of freedom and democracy” have little place in this order. Asian countries are in no hurry to see the US evacuate Asia; if anything, they want the US to be more involved, to be less obsessed with terrorism and more willing to listen to their concerns. It is imperative that the US start thinking seriously about how it will play this stabilizing role in Asia over the long term.

The US role globally will be more central than in Asia, but the question will be the same: as Professor Ikenberry writes, “…the United States should be asking itself: what sort of international order do we want to have in place in 2040 or 2050 when we are relatively less powerful?” Extending US influence, if not predominance, will depend on developing foreign policy tools other than military power (and with it, a shift in attitude that acknowledges that the US is less able to dictate terms to other countries).

Meanwhile, it is a mistake to refer casually to “Asia” in this discussion. Whose Asia? Is Asia a codeword for China? For India? For ASEAN? Each of these players has a different vision for the region, which redounds to the advantage of the US. Just as the Asian regional future is unknown, so to is the future of an Asia-centered world order unknown. The US is still in a position to shape the Asian and global orders.

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