A future for values diplomacy?

Daniel Twining, currently a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and formerly an Asia policy staffer at the State Department’s policy planning staff and an adviser to John McCain, offers his recommendations to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Shadow Government, a new blog at Foreign Policy featuring the writing of conservative and Republican foreign policy analysts.

Twining is a dedicated believer in the idea of “values diplomacy,” that catch phrase of the Abe government — with Aso Taro as foreign minister — that placed “universal values,” at the center of Japan’s foreign policy, at least rhetorically.

The US, Japan, and other democracies of East Asia, according to this view (common in neoconservative circles in Washington, see this post for example), must cooperate to promote the spread of democracy in the region. Accordingly, for Twining the first two goals for US strategy in Asia must be “Accelerate the rise of democratic great powers in Asia that are increasingly willing to help police the region” and “Encourage strategic cooperation among Asia-Pacific democracies.” Democracy reappears in point eight, “Promote democracy.” The contrast with Secretary Clinton’s vision of US East Asia strategy could not be more pronounced. Recall that in her first statement on Asia policy, Mrs. Clinton barely mentioned cooperation among democracies and democracy promotion as important US goals in the region.

And yet Twining thinks that no goal is more important than binding the region’s democracies closer together. Twining celebrates what he sees as a “trend” of “Asian nations…leading the effort to form democratic security concerts, a trend Washington should enthusiastically nurture.”

There are several problems with Twining’s proposal.

First, it is not clear that the trend he sees is actually a trend. He cites the “quad,” the strategic partnership among the US, Australia, Japan, and India, as a leading example of this trend. Except that it appears that the quad barely survived the Abe government that spearheaded its creation. Similarly, while the Australia-Japan and India-Japan security agreements are unprecedented in Japanese foreign policy, it is still unclear what substance lies behind the agreements. The democracies may be talking to each other more, but it is too early to declare that Asian democracies have deepened their strategic cooperation in any substantial way to the point of promoting “regional peace and prosperity.”

However, if we grant that Twining’s assessment of the state of cooperation among Asian democracies is correct, he still makes what I think is an overly optimistic assessment of the gains from said cooperation. Twining concludes that strong, democratic states on the Asian littoral — the same democratic states who he believes are deepening cooperation amongst themselves — “could deter Chinese adventurism and help ensure its peaceful rise.”

Does Twining really believe that, that China will somehow be so impressed by the strength of its neighbors that it will simply accept what is tantamount to encirclement, cease enhancing its military power, and trust the US and the other democracies on its periphery to keep the sea lines carrying vital resources to China open at all times? If China is, in Twining’s words, “a prickly, insecure giant,” why would it feel any less insecure in these circumstances? It does not take a considerable leap of imagination to wonder whether this view might be a bit fanciful. Why is Twining so sure that deepening security ties among democracies (and non- or semi-democracies, in the case of Vietnam and Singapore) arrayed around China’s borders while trigger such a benign response from China? This isn’t simply a matter of Chinese paranoia. Is there a country in the world that would respond benignly to the formation of ever closer security ties among surrounding countries that also stress the illegitimacy of the surrounded country’s government?

In short, the policy proposed by Twining here and by US and Japanese officials at various points in time would amount to encirclement, whether intentionally or not. As Joseph Nye has said, “If we treat China as an enemy now, we’re guaranteeing an enemy for the future.”

But it is unlikely that this scenario will come to pass, for another reason ignored by Twining. Even if the Asian democracies are talking more with each other, they are also talking more with China, because, much like the US, none of them can afford to let relations with China deteriorate. South Korea, a strong Asian democracy that barely figures in the flurry of strategic cooperation mentioned by Twining except in regard to NATO-South Korea ties, is often written off as destined for the Chinese sphere of influence if and when reunification occurs. Australia has worked to avoid giving the impression that new security talks with Japan are aimed at China. India certainly looks warily across the Himalayas and now out into the Indian Ocean at China, but that does not make India a reliable junior partner for the US in a league of Asian democracies.

As I’ve argued before, to understand the future of East Asia it is essential to look at the role of middle powers, the powers forced to maneuver between China and the US, working to minimize antagonism while preventing the two from reaching agreements prejudicial to their interests. The firm ties rooted in shared values envisioned by Twining make it more difficult to pursue the flexible diplomacy required by life as a middle power, and I do not expect we’ll see substantial progress in security cooperation among the democracies qua democracies. Twining comes close to recognizing this: “They are less likely to fall under the sway of their giant neighbors when they have options for partnership with a benign, distant partner. America’s staying power at a time of dramatic strategic change gives smaller Asian countries geopolitical options they would not otherwise have.” But while small (and not-so-small) Asian countries are in no hurry to see the US leave Asia, they also do not want the kind of universal relationships envisioned by Twining. They want the US as an option: a hedge against Chinese expansionism, a market for their goods, and perhaps as a source for investment. But that does not mean that they support active containment of China or making democracy a top priority for the region. The desire of middle powers for an active US presence in the region is an asset for the US only insofar as the US doesn’t overreach in its zeal to promote democracy and bend regional institutions to its ends.

Twining further calls for fostering a “pluralistic regional order” in East Asia but the reality is that East Asia is already pluralistic, checkered with a growing array of bilateral, mini-lateral, regional, and trans-Pacific organizations, in addition to the network of US bilateral alliances. These organizations are based not on shared values, as they feature ties between democracies and non-democracies, but shared interests, and one interest in particular: stability in East Asia. The US should be engaged as much as possible in these organizations, but it should also be willing to accept that there is not a seat for the US at every table, at least not if the US wants to dominate the discussion and, as Mrs. Clinton said Friday referring to past US governments, act “reflexively before considering available facts and evidence, or hearing the perspectives of others.” While he recognizes the importance of “talking economics,” it seems for the most part US engagement in the region would involve more talking — about democracy and security — than listening.

Meanwhile, given the existence of a pluralistic regional order, the US should not fear the creation of what Michael Green calls institutions based on “preserving Asian exceptionalism.” Asian exceptionalism sounds like another way of saying, Asian countries working together to solve Asian problems without the US at the table. Is that such a terrible thing? If there are, as Twining says, so many burgeoning and established democracies in the region, why should the US fear organizations from which it is absent?

Finally, on the very question of democracy promotion, Twining includes it as a goal but does nothing to explain how to go about it except to say that democracy is on the march in the region and China is on the wrong side of history. (Sounds awfully Marxist, doesn’t it?) How does Twining propose to make China (or Vietnam or Burma or North Korea) democratic? How does Twining propose for the US and other regional democracies to keep existing democracies from lapsing, as in the case of Thailand?

Meanwhile, there is also a bit of irony in Twining’s enthusiasm for democracy promotion, in that the more developed the democracy, the greater the popular ambivalence regarding the country’s ties with the US. For example, while Japan’s leaders talk of the strength of the alliance — perhaps for want of anything else to say — the Japanese public is increasingly doubtful about the alliance after years of an approach to the alliance that dovetailed with Twining’s vision. Skepticism regarding ties with the US in countries like Japan and Australia does not necessarily mean that the Japanese and Australian peoples are more trusting of China, it means they are moving in the direction of a middle-power foreign policy that looks at both regional powers with a certain degree of distrust, wary of Chinese intentions while concerned about US overzealousness that would entrap their countries in wars not of their choosing.

In sum, the emphasis on democracy is misguided, not just because there is little the US can do — and little US allies want to do — to promote democracy in the region, but because it assumes that the region can be neatly divided into democracies and non-democracies, which in turn risks alienating China and sending it down a more assertive and unilateralist path, the very future Twining says he wants to prevent.

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