Letter from Singapore: Why it pays to be nice

I'm in Singapore today for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and I'm enjoying the chance to catch up with my colleagues there. I've been fortunate to be associated with this institution for over a decade, and my friends there have taught me a great deal about Asian politics in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is also interesting to see how other schools view the challenges of preparing students for careers in international affairs, and especially the need to adapt to a rapidly changing information environment. Jet lag aside, I'm having a fine time.

This trip is also an opportunity to gauge local reaction to the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. And by a fortuitous coincidence, today's email contained an advance copy of a new roundtable in the journal Asia Policy, on "Regional Perspectives on U.S. Rebalancing." The roundtable features contributions from experts from several regional countries (including RSIS Dean Barry Desker), and it's well worth reading.

Of course, I liked the symposium because there's a lot of realist thought embedded within it, and because it reinforced my belief that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to be a real challenge for the United States. Although balance of threat theory suggests that China's rise will encourage strong balancing impulses by most of its neighbors, that process will not necessarily be smooth or without significant bumps and disruptions. Most of the essays in this collection make it clear that local states welcome America's increased attention to the region, but they are also worried that this trend could disrupt the strong economic ties that now exist between these states and the PRC and generally enflame regional rivalries.

Managing these relations will require U.S. strategists and diplomats to have a deep and nuanced understanding of local conditions and the ability to act with a certain degree of subtlety (which is not always America's long suit). As Chaesung Chun of South Korea notes: 

"The most serious concern for South Korea regarding the United States' rebalancing strategy is how deeply U.S. policymakers understand the fundamentals of East Asian international relations. Populations in this region are living in different periods in a contracted time span: traditional, modern transitional, modern, and postmodern transitional. The sources of conflict among East Asian countries come from the traditional strategic culture, the legacy of imperialism, the persistent logic of balance of power, and the so-called post-Westphalian order emerging from global governance."

Or as India's C. Raja Mohan observes in his contribution to the roundtable: 

"Washington should attempt to bring a measure of sophistication to the articulation of the Asian pivot. Central to this is the proposition that the United States must not be seen as working "on" Asia, following a predetermined plan crafted in Washington, but rather as working "with" the Asian powers in devising a supple approach to balancing China's power. By adopting this strategy, the United States could profitably encourage a number of security initiatives among Asian powers without having to put itself in the political lead on every single initiative in the region. This adjustment will not be easy, however, given the political style of the United States, where a noisy internal debate complicates the pursuit of a more nuanced approach to the articulation and execution of rebalancing."

My own view is that the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington will hinge in good part on which of the two major powers does a better job of convincing other Asian states that it is the more reasonable. If China is seen by its neighbors as constantly seeking to gain advantages for itself and willing to throw its increasing weight around, then its neighbors' tendency to balance with the United States will only increase. By contrast, if it is the United States that is seen by the locals as excessively confrontational and insensitive to local concerns, then these states will be inclined to keep their distance and governments are likely to face popular opposition to any overt effort to "contain" China.  

The United States won the Cold War for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that our key allies in Europe and Asia thought we were less aggressive and more benevolent than the Soviet Union was. The USSR was much weaker, but it was close to many of these states, it had obviously revisionist intentions, and it seemed like a pretty nasty country by comparison. The United States and China are both going to be pretty powerful states in the decades ahead, and great power competition in Asia in the 21st century may be determined as much by perceptions of benevolence as by relative size of GDP or specific military balances (though those factors are not irrelevant).  

In short, Leo Durocher got it exactly wrong: in international politics, "nice guys (often) finish first."


National Security

What the Hagel fight does and doesn't mean

The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point. I'm standing by my earlier comments on the case, but here are a couple of additional thoughts on what it does and doesn't mean.

First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don't think Hagel's appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It's been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama's national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home. To the extent that he used the sword overseas, it was through limited, surgical means like special forces and drones and not big U.S. deployments. (The Afghan surge is the exception, of course, but I think Obama learned his lesson on that one). 

That's the general approach he wanted Gates and Panetta to pursue, and that's the same strategy that he's chosen Hagel to continue. Given Hagel's basic world-view, experience, and savvy, he's an excellent choice. There won't be war with Iran, there will be defense cuts, and there will be an earnest effort to get allies in key areas to do more for the collective defense. There won't be a big push for Israel-Palestinian peace (too many obstacles, too many other things to do). Bottom line: the appointment of Hagel (and Kerry and Brennan) signals no big change in policy direction.

Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the "special relationship" with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn't even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn't even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel's best interest, let alone America's, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.

By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn't just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle -- including many staunch defenders of Israel -- who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren't willing to quail before them anymore.

Furthemore, as Peter Beinart noted yesterday, Hagel's appointment might also dilute the perceived need for policy wonks to seem hawkish and bellicose even when skepticism about the use of force is called for. While no dove, Hagel has been intelligently critical of sending young men and women into harm's way without a clear strategy and compelling national interest. His appointment might open up foreign policy debate to a much wider range of views, instead of the narrow-minded bellicosity that has prevailed since 9/11 (if not before).

It's too soon to tell how far-reaching this shift might be. No doubt Hagel's opponents will try to make him express his undying fidelity to Israel during his hearings, in an effort to restore the previous political orthodoxy. But it's a losing cause, especially when Israel itself is about to elect the most right-wing government in its history and when Americans of many political stripes are beginning to understand that the "special relationship" may in fact have become a form of assisted suicide. For the record, I hope that's not the case. Avoiding it will require the United States to be able to speak more honestly on this entire subject, and I hope the Hagel affair opens the door to a far more open, fact-based, and smear-free debate on the entire subject of U.S. foreign and defense policy, including our perenially hamstrung approach to the greater Middle East.

Unrelated note:  I will be traveling in Asia for the next eight days, and blogging will be hit-or-miss while I'm away. Next stop: Singapore.

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