Foreign Policy: Are East Asian states really hedging between the US and China?

January 31, 2016

Are East Asian states really hedging between the US and China?

by Darren J. Lim, ANU and Zack Cooper, CSIS

The term ‘hedging’, one of the most widely used in contemporary discussions on East Asian security, is intended to capture the fact that most states in the region face conflicting economic and security interests. States wish to maximise trade and investment ties with Beijing and welcome China into the region’s political order, but also feel the need to maintain a close security relationship with Washington.President Barack Obama pauses during a joint news conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (Photo: AAP)

Engaging China economically and politically while enhancing security ties with the United States is usually referred to as a hedging strategy. Hedging is cast as an alternative to the traditional security strategies of ‘balancing’ against or ‘bandwagoning’ with a rising power as it begins to challenge the status quo.In a recent article, we argue that this traditional definition of hedging offers little insight into the security dynamics of East Asia.

It should be no surprise that every state is looking to engage with China economically and politically, since doing so offers obvious benefits at minimal cost. But this says virtually nothing about today’s central security questions, such as the durability of alliance commitments, the stability of the regional order, or whom a state would support if the unthinkable occurred — war between the United States and China. Answering these questions requires recognising that states positioned between competing great powers face an inherent trade-off between the advantages of alignment and autonomy.

Alignment with Washington offers the backing of the world’s largest military, but also places a state in opposition to Beijing and exposes it to the risk of abandonment. Alignment comes at the cost of a state’s autonomy to pursue an independent and flexible security strategy, since it requires calibrating defense policies to those of the United States. Signals of alignment vary in strength from public statements in support of US positions, to arms sales and joint exercises, to supporting permanent military bases and mutual defense treaties.

Importantly,economic and political engagement policies are excluded from this spectrum of alignment behaviours. This is because in most cases they do not affect the trade-off between alignment and autonomy.

Therefore, when a state hedges, it seeks to preserve autonomy by sending mixed signals regarding its alignment choice. Under this definition, hedging is costly, since ambiguity precludes the protection offered by clear alignment with either the United States or China.

When seen in this light, it seems that most states in the region are not hedging, but aligning with the United States. US alliance partners — including Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines — are not hedging. These states cannot generate alignment ambiguity without jeopardising the integrity of their alliances.

Although it is possible for treaty allies to opt to increase their autonomy, as Thailand may be considering, the significant security benefits alliances offer tend to render them target over time. This leads to path dependency — that is, structural constraints to altering security strategies. States that have committed to fight alongside one great power in a conflict are not hedging.

Another group of states that are often miscategorised as hedging are those engaged in major territorial disputes with Beijing. By indicating their resolve to defend territorial claims, states like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are defying China and forsaking the possibility of autonomy.

Opposing China this way naturally leads them on a path of closer alignment with the United States. As the extent and severity of China’s territorial disputes grow, it should not be surprising that even a former US adversary — Vietnam — is now looking to build closer security ties

Few Asian states are truly hedging. If a state is a treaty ally of the United States or disputing territorial claims with China (or both), its security strategy is one of balancing against Beijing. The remaining Asian nations — a small group that notably includes Singapore and Indonesia — are the only states even capable of maintaining autonomy. They can be properly characterised as hedging.

This suggests the United States is in a stronger position than is sometimes claimed. Although some East Asian states are hedging by avoiding security alignment with either the United States or China, most have made their alignment decisions and these decisions are likely to endure.

US alliances and partnerships in East Asia are likely to grow deeper even as China’s relative power grows, particularly if perceptions of China’s assertiveness grow. Opportunistic and coercive actions by China, especially those that appear to threaten the territorial status quo, such as constructing military outposts on disputed features in the South China Sea, are likely to intensify alignment toward the United States.

Scholars and policymakers need to assess accurately the alignment of East Asian states if they are to understand changes in the regional security environment. Hedging may  be ambiguous, but its definition shouldn’t be.

Darren J. Lim is a Lecturer in International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University.

Zack Cooper is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University and a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This article is based on a previous paper ‘Reassessing Hedging: The Logic of Alignment in East Asia’ first published in volume 24, issue 4 of Security Studies.  The paper below is intended for doctoral candidates at The Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.–Din Merican

Reassessing Hedging: The Logic of Alignment in East Asia

by Darren J. Lim and Zack Cooper


It is widely claimed that secondary states across East Asia are not purely balancing or bandwagoning, but rather hedging between the United States and China by combining policies of economic and political engagement with risk management. We argue that hedging behavior should not include costless activities that do not require states to face trade-offs in their security choices. We redefine hedging as signaling that generates ambiguity over the extent of a secondary state’s shared security interests with great powers. This definition returns the focus to security relationships and better accounts for the trade-off between autonomy and alignment. Based on this definition, we argue that hedging occurs in far narrower (but arguably more interesting) circumstances than is widely believed. Many Asian states have existing treaty alliances with the United States or major territorial conflicts with China, creating path dependencies that reinforce balancing behavior rather than hedging. We therefore clarify cross-national variation in state behavior and contribute to the larger research project on regional responses to China’s rise.

The term hedging is pervasive in contemporary security literature, and has been used by scholars and policymakers to describe the strategic behavior of a variety of states in a variety of situations.

The United States is described as hedging against China; China as hedging against the United States; Brazil, Russia, and France are hedging in their own ways, too.

The term is particularly attractive to scholars grappling with China’s rise who observe that its Asian neighbors are not conforming to traditional security theories’ prediction that secondary states should either balance against or bandwagon with China as it grows more powerful.

Instead, they argue that East Asian states are hedging by engaging with China on both economic and political levels while strengthening security links with the United States.These descriptions are accurate, but for a term used almost on a daily basis in discourses on Asian security, there has been little inquiry as to whether the hedging concept as commonly understood offers meaningful analytic value.

In this paper we investigate the concept of hedging and find it wanting. We argue that hedging as currently constructed inappropriately incorporates policies of economic and political engagement as components of security strategies and indicators of states’ alignment choices. As a result, the frequent use of the term sheds little light on the security behavior of East Asian secondary states and obscures the fact that balancing has actually been the dominant response to China’s rise.

As currently defined, all states in East Asia (with the exception of North Korea) are hedging. And yet, there are real and meaningful differences in the security strategies of Asian secondary states that the hedging concept cannot distinguish. To do so, economic and political engagement must be excised as evidence of security alignment. We propose that alignment should be seen as signaling by a state that it shares common security interests with one side in a great power rivalry.

We therefore propose a redefinition of hedging as an alignment choice involving the signaling of ambiguity over the extent of shared security interests with great powers. Using this definition, we argue that many regional states are engaging in various forms of balancing, rather than hedging. We believe that this is an important and policy-relevant revision to a widely used theoretical concept in the literature on regional responses to China’s rise.

The Logic of Hedging

Most scholars appear to agree with three propositions about China’s rise. First, China’s rapid economic growth is providing lucrative economic opportunities for every state in the region in the form of bilateral trade and investment, generating complex and deep economic interdependence. Second, China’s rapid military growth is creating a growing security deficit with neighboring secondary states.

An individual state’s perception of the threat from China depends primarily on the state’s geographic location and the tone of bilateral relations. Particularly important are the state’s perceptions of whether an active territorial dispute exists and how its interests in regional order are affected by China’s rise.

Third, the United States, as the established great power, retains a preference for the status quo and has maintained (to date) the capabilities to offset the security deficit otherwise faced by secondary states.

Turning specifically to the responses of East Asian secondary states to the above dynamics, scholars tend to agree that most are not pursuing the traditional dichotomous strategies of balancing or bandwagoning.

Instead, East Asian states are adopting strategies that fall in between the balancing and bandwagoning poles. These policies tend to share three common elements. First, economic engagement capitalizes on China’s rapid economic development through mutually beneficial trade and investment links. Second, political engagement seeks to reduce China’s level of dissatisfaction with the status quo without compromising the integrity of the system.

States pursue this through building diplomatic and institutional links to socialize China to the rules and norms of the existing order and offering (low-cost) concessions to accommodate China’s expanding interests, acknowledge its prestige, and reward positive behavior.

Third, risk management mitigates the threat posed by uncertainty over China’s future capabilities and intentions. Risk management techniques may include augmenting national capabilities and force posture; building bilateral security relations with the United States or otherwise fostering a favorable balance of power by encouraging U.S. involvement in the region; or using non-military means to check the more threatening aspects of China’s expansion without being overly provocative—the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum being an example.

Scholars researching secondary states’ responses offer many labels to describe this combination of behaviors. Hedging is the most common and is essentially an umbrella term used to capture various strategies that seek to locate an equilibrium that embodies two (somewhat) contradictory policy responses.

Japanese scholar Yasuhiro Matsuda, for example, writes that Japan’s “perception of China as a threat has led the Japanese to incorporate a ‘hedging’ strategy into its policy of engagement with China.”12

 According to Matsuda, “this ‘hedging’ strategy has included strengthening Japan’s alliance with the United States, and building a multi-layered security framework that gives China incentives to conform its external behavior to ‘international standards.’ ”13

Hedging therefore incorporates two different concepts. The first is fostering positive economic, political, diplomatic, and institutional relations with China through policies variously labeled as engagement, accommodation, enmeshment, and binding. The second policy response focuses on the need to maintain a favorable balance of power and deter destabilizing behavior amid an uncertain environment. These policies include complex balancing, soft balancing, and low-intensity balancing.14

The challenge for governments is to prevent one set of policy responses from undermining the other. Hedging is intended to capture this delicate exercise and is said to fall on a spectrum between the two ideal-type strategies of balancing and bandwagoning.15

Yet once hedging is disaggregated into its security and non security components, one observes that the risk management policies closely resemble traditional balancing behavior.16 

This prompts the following question: to what extent (if any) should policies of economic and political engagement modify this conclusion? In other words, does the incorporation of non security elements into the hedging concept offer useful analytical traction on fundamental security questions? We argue it does not. Economic engagement is not motivated exclusively, or even predominantly, by security concerns, but rather by the lucrative gains from economic links with China. Political engagement is similarly low cost and does not undermine security alignment strategies.

As a result, the umbrella concept of hedging cannot distinguish between states’ alignment choices. To say a state is hedging offers little insight into critical alignment questions. For example, if a war broke out between the United States and China, which side would each secondary state support? Equally problematic is the fact that empirically every state in East Asia (with the exception of North Korea) is said to be hedging. The absence of variation in the dependent variable further erodes the analytical value of the concept. As presently constructed, the concept of hedging says little regarding variation in great power alignment choices among those states that are said to be hedging.

The emergence of hedging as a theoretical concept is a function of the fact that mainstream theories of international security do not offer determinate predictions regarding how secondary states should respond to a rising power beyond the balancing-bandwagoning dichotomy.17

To resolve this shortcoming scholars have employed the term hedging to describe phenomena occurring at different levels of analysis. One branch of theories focuses on domestic politics and how relations with China factor into the domestic legitimacy of governments.18 Another branch focuses on the uniquely Asian features of the regional order and the strategies used to welcome China into that order.19

A third employs a traditional focus on capabilities and the coercive power and influence in both military and economic spheres that has accompanied China’s rapid rise.20

Surveying this literature, Steve Chan criticizes efforts to accommodate the new evidence—by modifying or adapting theories of balancing—as adopting “the terminology of balancing without… adhering to its essential meaning.”21

He dismisses such attempts as linguistic devices that help “salvage these theories from empirical challenge without adding any new theoretical content.”22

Chan identifies “stable and distinctive categories, shared meaning and an adherence to conventional usage” as key to advancing the research program.23

Our aim is to develop a simple model that admits variation in the security behavior of states that are routinely described as hedgers. We redefine hedging and argue that it occurs in far narrower (but arguably more interesting) circumstances than is widely believed. We re-establish meaningful distinctions between secondary states’ security behaviors and identify important cross-national variation in state behavior, thereby contributing to the larger research project on regional responses to China’s rise.

<The Importance of trade-offs in Alignment Decisions

War is costly and rational states prefer to avoid the costs of conflict whenever possible. As Stephen Walt recognizes, even the most diametrically opposed strategies—balancing and bandwagoning—need not be mutually exclusive.24

The optimal security strategy for most states facing two great powers is to forge an alliance with the least-threatening great power while maintaining reasonably good relations with the more-threatening great power. Accordingly, most states should be expected to follow this optimal security strategy whenever circumstances allow, and under such conditions one would observe little variation in state behavior.

Our major criticism of the theoretical basis of hedging—defined by the literature as a combination of engagement and risk management—is that it is precisely the type of optimal strategy Walt envisaged.

When a secondary state can engage with a threatening great power economically and politically, while simultaneously managing risk by maintaining security links with a more friendly great power, it should always do so. Scholars describe hedging as a security strategy involving the non security components of economic and political engagement. Yet, if there is no trade-off between a strategy’s security and non security components, rational states should do both. In other words, when states can hedge, they will, and there is no theoretical basis within this definition of hedging for any other response, nor any cross-national variation.25

This flaw does not render hedging an inaccurate description. We accept that empirical evidence from East Asia confirms the descriptive predictions of the hedging literature. Our complaint is that with all states doing the same thing, hedging is reduced to a label rather than a substantive analytical concept with theoretical variation, falsifiable predictions, and concrete conceptualization and measurement.26

This shortcoming begs the question: how can the concept of hedging be improved to admit theoretically interesting and analytically useful variation in state behavior?

We submit that a better definition of hedging is one that more explicitly recognizes it as a costly strategy. Balancing and bandwagoning admit clear trade-offs—aligning with one great power places the state in opposition to the other. Studying how states evaluate the cost-benefit trade-offs of balancing and bandwagoning yields important insights on bigger questions of deterrence, the security dilemma, power transitions, crisis bargaining, and war outcomes.27

As currently conceived, however, hedging’s defining characteristic is the avoidance of trade-offs, which says little about these critical questions.28

The crux of the problem is hedging’s theoretical incorporation of economic and political engagement policies as components of states’ security strategies. These policies’ low costs make them poor signals.29 Accordingly, we focus our redefinition of hedging exclusively on state behavior within the security realm.

In the following section, we propose a simple model of alignment prior to the outbreak of war. Hedging, using our definition, is a class of behaviors which signal ambiguity regarding great power alignment, therefore requiring the state to make a trade-off between the fundamental (but conflicting) interests of autonomy and alignment. In this model, the conditions under which hedging can be pursued are much narrower, but hedging is conceived as offering a concrete mix of costs and benefits which a state must evaluate against alternative strategic choices.

Alignment as signalling: A SIMPLE MODEL

Consider a region dominated by the presence of two great powers—a rising power with expanding interests that are inexorably coming into conflict with the interests of an established power that prefers the status quo.30

The region is otherwise populated by secondary states that perceive each great power to be threatening or friendly. We describe our model from the perspective of a secondary state that lacks the capabilities to prevail alone in a conflict against either great power, but can offset its weakness by aggregating capabilities with one of the great powers.31

We define alignment in this context as signaling by a secondary state that it shares common security interests with a certain great power. We cast alignment in terms of signals because the ultimate security decision does not arise until a crisis (possibly a war) breaks out. At that point, secondary states must decide whether to intervene in a dispute and on which side. Secondary states should only intervene when it is in their interests to do so, thus alignment is a signal of shared interests sent prior to a crisis materializing.32

How does the act of alignment incentivize the established power to signal its willingness to intervene should the secondary state itself be attacked? To align itself with a great power, a secondary state must to do two things. First, it must coordinate its policies with and potentially make policy concessions to the great power. Second, it must signal its own willingness to support the great power in the event of external conflict.33

Reciprocal signals indicate that the great power shares common security interests with the secondary state, raising the possibility that it will intervene if the secondary state is attacked.

What form do signals of alignment take? Table 1 lists a spectrum of alignment behaviors.34

Moving from left to right in the table increases the strength of signals of shared interests between the secondary state and the great power. Public statements of support for security policies are the weakest alignment signal; criticism of a rival state’s security policies (consistent with the interests of the aligned state) is also included in this category. Arms sales signal support by the great power for arming the secondary state and willingness by the secondary state to acquire capabilities about which the great power has detailed knowledge and control.

A stronger signal is sent by joint training, exercises, or combat operations, which require some agreement over shared threats as well as combined operational planning and inter-operability between military forces. Rotational deployments and military access agreements send a stronger signal because they require robust planning and cooperation between two countries and indicate capability for deeper cooperation during contingencies.

Permanent military basing is an even stronger signal, demonstrating a high degree of cooperation and agreement on shared long-term security interests. Finally, the strongest signal of alignment is a mutual defense treaty, which requires a public commitment to fight on the other state’s behalf, detailed planning for potential contingencies, and close cooperation between the great power and the secondary state.35

None of these behaviors is a binary proposition. Selling small arms is a weaker signal than selling large ships and aircraft. Joint combat operations can deepen inter-operability or highlight areas of disagreement. A basing agreement or alliance can look robust on paper but in reality be an ongoing source of friction.

Therefore, these categories offer an indication of the baseline strength of the alignment signal, but the form and degree of cooperation within each category matters. Accordingly, dynamic evidence of new or cancelled cooperative agreements, joint statements, and public opinion expressing support, criticism, or ambivalence toward the alignment are all important indicators of a signal’s strength.

For the secondary state, signaling alignment with a great power has both benefits and costs, creating a broad trade-off between alignment and autonomy.36

Alignment enhances the state’s security through two mechanisms. The first is strengthened defense through capability aggregation: if the secondary state is attacked and the great power intervenes, the great power’s capabilities increase prospects for victory.37

The second benefit is deterrence: by signaling shared security interests, security alignments deter would-be aggressors by indicating that a great power is likely to offer assistance if the secondary state is attacked.38

Signaling alignment comes, however, at the cost of the secondary state’s autonomy, which is its capacity to pursue independent and flexible security policies. Alignment requires the coordination of policies with the great power, and sometimes the making of policy concessions. Failure to do so reduces the strength of the alignment signal, limiting the potential for the state’s security to be enhanced. This loss of autonomy generates a risk of abandonment, which occurs when the great power patron does not provide security assistance when the secondary state is threatened.39

In this situation, the secondary state has paid the costs of losing policy autonomy and flexibility but has not received security through capability aggregation in return. Another danger is that alignment itself can cause a loss of security, if the secondary state is perceived to be acting provocatively and becomes a target of the opposing great power. Note that as the strength of the signal increases, both the benefits and costs of aligning also increase.

The great power must also be willing to signal its acceptance of the secondary state’s alignment and thus its willingness to provide security assistance in the event of conflict. It faces a complementary trade-off between autonomy and alignment.40

The great power gains influence over the secondary state’s policy choices, but assumes the risk of entrapment in conflicts to which, but for its alignment, it would be unwilling to contribute.41 The great power would accordingly face either the cost of fighting or of reneging on its alignment signals.

The costs of reneging may include the loss of future policy influence over the secondary state, damage to the great power’s reputation, and increased perceptions of its declining capabilities. The failure to uphold an alliance agreement (the strongest alignment signal), for example, may undermine the capacity of the great power to create and sustain future alliances, or affect how states perceive the regional balance of power.42

Table 2 describes these logics, outlining the benefits and costs of security alignment for secondary states and great powers.

Table 2 Security Benefits and Costs of Secondary State-Great Power

Alignment CSVPDF Display Table

As explained above, signals can also be sent with respect to existing alignments. When either the secondary state or great power perceives the cost of alignment to be too high, it can signal a scaling back of the relationship. As the strength of the alignment signal is reduced, the costs and the benefits of the alignment decrease. This in turn increases the uncertainty about the ultimate question of whether the two would fight together in the event of a conflict.43

Accordingly, if a secondary state in an alliance with a friendly great power (the strongest form of alignment) wanted to improve its relations with the rival great power, its government could announce its intention to scale back alliance cooperation. Such a signal would have three effects. First, it would decrease the costs of alignment by enhancing the secondary state’s autonomy.

Second, it would decrease the benefits of the alignment by reducing the likelihood of security assistance from the friendly great power if the secondary state is attacked.

Third, such a signal would increase uncertainty about which side, if any, the secondary state would support in a great power conflict.44

Equally important is what is excluded from our spectrum of alignment behaviors: policies of economic and political engagement. We argue these are poor signals of security alignment because they involve minimal trade-offs. Scholars have previously argued that economic relations involve security externalities and allies are therefore more likely to trade with each other.45

While this may have been true during the Cold War, amid the deep economic interdependence of the twenty-first century economic engagement in the form of trade and investment is commercially profitable and strategically costless (actually yielding strategic benefits). Only in vary narrow circumstances will international economic relations yield relative-gains concerns (such as where sanctions are imposed against a pariah state, or where strategic industries such as weapons technology are involved).46

In a similar vein, political engagement—diplomacy and socialization into institutions—also involves very few costly trade-offs. Engagement of this sort opens up new avenues of cooperation and reduces information asymmetries.47 Rarely is such engagement a costly signal of shared security interests.

Our decision to exclude economic and political engagement from our hedging model necessarily comes at the expense of excluding certain behaviors that could impinge on security competition.48 For example, China’s moves in 2014 to create and lead an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) were seen as constituting a direct challenge to the U.S.-led regional order and its institutional framework (led by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank).49 The media similarly characterized the decision of secondary states to join as a trade-off between satisfying Chinese or American interests.50

Nevertheless, we feel on balance that the exclusion is justified because even in a salient case like the AIIB, the trade-off for secondary states remained low and, importantly, joining did not observably affect signals of security alignment.51

Our very motivation in excluding engagement policies was to introduce meaningful variation in the alignment choices of secondary states. As membership of the AIIB had no meaningful implications for states’ alignment choices, joining offered little insight into the security dynamics motivating our reassessment of the hedging concept.

Hedging as a costly choice: The Alignment Choices of East Asia States

We now return to the motivation behind this paper, which is to re-characterize hedging behavior in East Asia.

Based on the logic of our model, we posit the following definition of hedging: secondary states hedge by sending signals which generate ambiguity over the extent of their shared security interests with great powers, in effect eschewing clear-cut alignment with any great power, and in turn creating greater uncertainty regarding which side the secondary state would take in the event of a great power conflict.

This definition of hedging is an improvement on the existing literature because it accounts for the trade-off between autonomy and alignment, therefore permitting cross-national variation in observed state behavior. If a state sends ambiguous signals regarding its alignment choice, it is opting to forego the security benefits of strong alignment in return for increased policy autonomy, including the flexibility to align more closely in the future should it face increased security threats. Accordingly, in the context of East Asia, hedging occurs when a status quo-preferring secondary state refuses the security benefits of aligning with the United States and instead preserves policy autonomy in the great power competition between the United States and China.

Our redefinition of hedging also draws attention to the path dependency inherent in the alignment choices faced by two types of states for whom hedging involves higher costs or reduced benefits.

The first category comprises states that already maintain an alliance with a great power. Alliances are the strongest possible signal of alignment and create a default signal of shared security interests.52

Should great power interests come into conflict, the secondary state must support its great power ally to preserve the signal. Alliance partners are not incapable of making the decision to hedge by sending signals at odds with the alliance relationship, but the cost of doing so is relatively higher than for non-allies. Signals of ambiguity undermine the strength and credibility of the alliance, raising doubts about whether the secondary state or the great power would intervene to assist the other. Moreover, alliances are typically buttressed by costly investments in shared security architecture, systems integration, and policy coordination, which would be lost if the alliance ceased functioning.

A second category encompasses secondary states facing major and active security disputes with a great power. If the state seeks to lower the risk of conflict, it must accommodate the disputant great power over the security issues in dispute, at the cost of its own interests. If the secondary state chooses to signal its willingness to defend its interests against the disputant great power, the shadow of conflict threatens its security. Both the benefits of hedging and the costs of aligning with the friendly great power are reduced in this latter scenario because the secondary state has already placed itself in opposition to the disputant great power. Accordingly, while a security dispute does not preclude a hedging strategy, the cost-benefit trade-off of alignment improves once the state elects to defend its security interests.

For those states without alliance commitments or major security disputes with a great power, hedging becomes a more feasible alignment choice. Indeed, we expect such states to hedge because this allows the state to minimize trade-offs by deferring its alignment choice until uncertainties surrounding intentions, potential threats, and the balance of power become clearer.

Table 3 classifies a number of East Asian states along these two dimensions of path dependency: (1) whether they have a major security dispute with the rising great power (China); (2) whether they are treaty allies with the established great power (the United States). According to this categorization, many states in East Asia that are commonly described as hedging are actually sending signals more consistent with balancing behavior because path dependency limits their strategic options.

Table 3 Path Dependency in Alignment Choices.


CSV PDF Display Table
Based on this model, we predict the following alignment behaviors.

Resolute Allies. States with strong and increasing signals of U.S. alignment. These states face both forms of path dependency: security disputes with China and extant U.S. alliances. Once these states elect to defend their security interests and signal defiance towards China, their rational security strategy will be to strengthen the already strong alignment signals sent by the alliance. We predict these states will seek to deepen their alliance relationship to maximize the security commitment from the United States. Strengthening the already strong signals is pursued to offset a perceived increase in threat posed by China’s rapid military modernization and increasingly assertive behavior.

Emerging Partners. States with weak but increasing signals of U.S. alignment. These states lack an alliance relationship with the United States but face a real security threat from territorial disputes with China. The threat of conflict increases the security benefits of strengthening signals of alignment with the United States and decreases the value of maintaining policy autonomy. Accordingly, we predict that these states will respond to the heightened threat by looking to build upon weak baseline signals of U.S. alignment as a means of aggregating capabilities and increasing their projected deterrent, thereby trading off some autonomy in return for increased alignment.

Reserved Allies. States with stable signals of U.S. alignment. These states enjoy existing security treaties with the United States but do not have a serious security dispute with China. The prohibitive cost of departing the alliance creates path dependency, but unlike alliance partners with security disputes, these states have less urgency in the need to strengthen their alignment signals, not least because of the benefits of maintaining positive relations with China, which can be achieved without substantially altering the status quo. There is no need for them to demonstrate significantly strengthened U.S. alignment, leading to a prediction of maintaining rather than maximizing their U.S. commitments.

Hedging States. States with ambiguous alignment signals. These states are unburdened by path dependency because they have no major territorial dispute, nor treaty alliances, with a great power. For these states hedging is optimal—maximizing policy autonomy and minimizing provocation of either great power while reserving the flexibility to align in the future should either great power come to constitute direct threat. We accordingly predict that these states will send ambiguous alignment signals and refuse to align strongly with either the United States or China. Ambiguity does not prevent any signaling of shared security interests; rather, the state shares security interests with both great powers and avoids conduct which would clearly situate it with one power against the other.


As Figure 1 shows, such alignment signals do not simply fall between balancing and bandwagoning, but represent another dimension in East Asian security choices based on their intentional ambiguity.

Figure 1 Conceptualizing East Asian Security Options.

This redefinition shrinks the number of states that can be said to be hedging to include Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, and Brunei. These states are not affected by either form of path dependency and have real alignment options. They can effectively cultivate positive non security relations with both great powers while simultaneously sending ambiguous signals regarding their security interests and future alignment choices. Such hedging behavior reflects a choice to maximize autonomy at the expense of strong alignment. These states retain the freedom to align with either great power should their future cost-benefit evaluation change.

The Evidence: Which states are actually hedging?

Given the preceding argument about the infrequency of hedging behavior, we now consider whether empirical evidence supports our model’s predictions. We examine this question by analyzing the behavior of one state in each of the four categories described above: Japan (a U.S. ally with a territorial dispute), Australia (a U.S. ally without a territorial dispute), Vietnam (a non-U.S. ally with a territorial dispute), and Singapore (a non-U.S. ally without a territorial dispute).56 Whereas each of these states has been described as hedging in the existing literature, our model predicts variation in their alignment signals, with only Singapore predicted to engage in hedging as we redefine it.

We consider the actions of these four states in response to the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Announced by President Barack Obama in November 2011, the rebalance was a strategic policy response to China’s rise that reflected the United States’ desire to preserve the existing order in East Asia, which it largely designed and underwrote.57 The rebalance thus represents a clash of interests between the United States and China, and provides the ideal opportunity to test our theory by evaluating the responses of regional actors to this singular region-wide dynamic.58

The rebalance presented East Asian secondary states with three broad choices: signal U.S. alignment by endorsing and enabling the rebalance, signal Chinese alignment by criticizing and opposing the rebalance, or avoid alignment by maintaining ambiguity in signaling. We test our theory’s predictions by identifying and analyzing the responses of each chosen state to the rebalance from its 2011 announcement through 2014. From this analysis we draw inferences regarding each state’s alignment choice.


Japan is a longtime ally of the United States and also party to a significant dispute with China over islands and territory in the East China Sea that re-emerged as an ongoing source of tension in 2010, before the rebalance was announced. Our model predicts that both path dependent factors will push Japan to strengthen its alignment with the United States in response to the increased perceived threat from China. The evidence is largely consistent with this expectation.

Japan warmly embraced the U.S. rebalance and sought to deepen alliance cooperation while simultaneously enhancing its own security capabilities in ways consistent with U.S. interests. In the months following President Obama’s announcement, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda relaxed restrictions on arms exports and enhanced the law enforcement powers of its coast guard to continue a trend, which arguably began in 2010 with the release of National Defense Program Guidelines, of adopting a robust security posture against China.59

While tensions with China undoubtedly strengthened the impetus for the normalization of Japanese security policy, these efforts began to fulfill long-standing U.S. calls for Japan to increase the operability of its military, which provided new opportunities to enhance cooperation with U.S. forces.60

Following his ascension to the premiership in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continued this trend. The Japanese Ministry of Defense released new National Defense Program Guidelines in 2013 that stated, “it has become more important than ever for Japan’s security to strengthen the Japan-US Alliance.”61

Statements from Japanese officials suggested that Tokyo expected its initiatives to complement the U.S. rebalance, particularly efforts to permit the exercise of collective self-defense.62

Policymakers in Tokyo expressed hope this would permit Japan to contribute more to its partnership with the United States by allowing Japan to take actions to protect U.S. forward bases and forward-deployed forces.63

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called this, “an important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security.”64

In addition, Japan has pushed forward a long-stalled plan to realign U.S. basing on the island of Okinawa, addressing a major impediment in alliance relations. A joint statement by the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee in October 2013 outlined the centrality of the alliance to both Japan and the United States, noting that “as the United States continues to implement its rebalance to the Asia Pacific region it intends to strengthen military capabilities that allow our Alliance to respond to future global and regional security challenges.”65 To that end, in 2015 Washington and Tokyo approved new bilateral defense guidelines to increase alliance cooperation, particularly in maritime crises and conflicts.66 These statements and actions clearly indicate that embracing the rebalance was part of a conscious strategy by Tokyo to strengthen its alignment with Washington.

Japan’s efforts to enhance its own capabilities, including increasing its planned defense spending by issuing a new Mid-Term Defense Plan, enabled closer cooperation with the United States.67

Japan has also been an active participant in bilateral development efforts with the United States, such as the SM-3 Block IIA missile, the Joint Strike Fighter, and recently the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, among other joint procurement programs. Along with Japan’s inaugural National Security Strategy, which called for a “proactive contribution to peace,” Japan created a new National Security Council to improve coordination of its security policies. Prime Minister Abe’s decision to advocate a constitutional reinterpretation allowing Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense indicates his commitment to altering Japan’s security posture to allow for greater internal balancing behavior and cooperation with external allies.68

In addition, Japan passed a controversial state secrets law in December 2013, designed in large part to address U.S. concerns about intelligence threats.69

On passage of the secrecy law, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy noted with approval that “we support the evolution of Japan’s security policies, as they create a new national security strategy, establish a National Security Council, and take steps to protect national security secrets.”70

Finally, the relaxation of restrictions on arms exports has created a platform for Japan to cooperate more closely not only with the United States, but also with states with shared regional security interests, most prominently Vietnam and the Philippines, who in 2014 were in the process of receiving patrol vessels from Japan.

As our framework predicts, Japan has chosen a strategy of balancing both externally (through the United States) and internally (via domestic strengthening) after it perceived China as posing a substantial and growing threat. Tokyo’s response to the U.S. rebalance provided the opportunity to enhance both these strategies by strengthening its alignment signals while augmenting its own capabilities. Therefore, we argue that Japan’s signals are not those of a hedging state, but rather those of a resolute ally of the United States.


Australia’s alliance with the United States has formed the core of its security strategy since the 1950s. Simultaneously, Australia’s bilateral relationship with China has remained largely positive and productive, avoiding the serious disputes over territory that have marred several of China’s bilateral relationships with other East Asian states. Our model therefore predicts that Australia’s security signaling will be strongly shaped by its U.S. alliance, but remain stable in light of a desire to maximize cooperation with China.

The empirical record partially confirms these predictions; if anything, Australia’s support of the rebalance has been stronger than our model would have predicted. It was in Canberra, Australia’s capital, where U.S. President Barack Obama announced the rebalance. The fact that the president made the announcement from Australia proved beyond doubt the strength of Australia’s support, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard stating: “Our alliance has been a bedrock of stability in our region. So building on our alliance through this new initiative is about stability.”71

Australia offered more than the platform for the announcement, also agreeing to host a new contingent of 2,500 U.S. marines on a rotating basis, who would train with local troops. While falling short of permanent basing, this enhanced military-to-military cooperation was a stronger manifestation of efforts to increase inter-operability with the United States military, and an unambiguous signal of Australia’s support of the rebalance.

Canberra’s decision should not be surprising because of the significant benefits it draws from the alliance. Aside from the increased likelihood of American assistance if Australia were attacked, the alliance provides access to U.S. military technology, opportunities for joint training, integration with U.S. intelligence networks, and political influence in Washington.72

Casting doubt on the continued strength of the alliance would reduce these benefits at significant cost.73

There have been some critics, such as Hugh White, who argue that Australia (and the United States) should take a more conciliatory tone in relations with China.74

But polls show high public support for the U.S.-Australia alliance, with 74 percent of Australians supporting the U.S. rotational deployment in 2012 and 78 percent describing the overall alliance as either very important or fairly important in 2014.75

Nevertheless, there have been some areas of tension in the U.S.-Australia relationship, the most notable being Australia’s limited defense spending and difficulties in cost sharing arrangements for new U.S. basing access.

Canberra has also been willing to oppose Beijing’s interests over security matters in ways that support the goals of the rebalance even when Australia’s direct security was not threatened. In late 2013, the newly elected government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott was publicly critical of Beijing’s unilateral decision to declare an expanded Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed maritime areas in the East China Sea.76

This move was surprising to many since it enhanced the perception within China that Australia was siding with Japan on the sensitive East China Sea territorial disputes, an issue on which Australia had previously taken no position. Under criticism for damaging relations with China, both Prime Minister Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop refused to back down.77

In 2014, Abbott ignored Chinese protests and signalled an intention to cooperate more closely with U.S. ally Japan, including on regional security challenges.78

Canberra’s enthusiastic support for the U.S. rebalance leaves little doubt about Australia’s alignment choices, and dispels any notion that the country is pursuing a hedging strategy. Not only has Australia served as announcement platform and host to U.S. troops, it has also been willing to criticize Chinese actions that have threatened the interests of its ally. In 2015, Secretary of the Department of Defence Dennis Richardson expressed concern about “the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea over the last couple of years.”79

While it is clear Australia has not hedged, one might question whether Canberra’s behavior has been noticeably different than that of a state like Japan with more directly conflicting security interests. It would not be unreasonable to interpret the U.S. Marines’ deployment as a decisive increase in Australia’s alignment signals. Yet, we view the deployment of U.S. Marines as an incremental increase in military cooperation within a stable alliance relationship—Australia has fought alongside the United States in every major war since World War I, and U.S. forces make regular appearances on Australian soil. Recall that our model predicts that Japan will strengthen its alignment signals while Australia will seek stability in its alliance signals.

In our view, Australia’s response to the rebalance has tended towards incremental improvements in cooperation rather than wholesale upgrading of its security capabilities, as is the case with the Japan. Australia has strengthened its alliance with the United States but it has not substantially increased defense spending nor has it engaged in the types of domestic strengthening that Prime Minister Abe has sought.

Despite much talk about Australia’s efforts to avoid choosing between the United States and China, the choice has already been made. Australia’s alliance with the United States predetermined its security approach toward the rebalance.


Neighboring China has been the central strategic challenge for Vietnam for almost all of its history, with the primary fault line in recent years being overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Yet while the United States is the obvious partner to counter China’s superior size, both the bloody legacy of the Vietnam War and sharp differences in political values have long prevented Vietnam and the United States from forging any kind of substantive security relations. This led Evelyn Goh in 2005 to describe Vietnam’s China strategy as “weak hedging,” marked by “deep pragmatism and the dark shadow of very asymmetrical power.”80

Since that year China’s capabilities have continued to grow rapidly and, in combination with renewed frictions in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese government has come to perceive China in an increasingly threatening light.81

Our model classifies Vietnam as an Emerging Partner and predicts that Hanoi would respond to the China threat in part by seeking to strengthen (from a weak baseline) signals of shared security interests with Washington.

The evidence offers cautious support for this prediction. At the time of the announcement of the U.S. rebalance, U.S.-Vietnam security relations were already undergoing a gradual but consistent period of improvement. In 2010 several U.S. Navy vessels visited Vietnam to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations and the two sides held their first ever meeting at the level of deputy defense minister. This trend continued in 2011, signified in particular by the conducting of a joint noncombat naval exercise in July and visits in August by the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington and the high-speed cargo ship USNS Richard E. Byrd.

These incremental improvements coincided with heightened Sino-Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea. In June 2011, Vietnam had accused China of a “premeditated and carefully calculated” attack after its oil exploration cables were cut in the western Spratly Islands, one of a series of incidents that year.82

Even these modest activities raised Chinese suspicions, and throughout Hanoi took great pains to emphasize that its enhanced cooperation with Washington was not directed at Beijing.83

Each action with the United States was matched with parallel efforts to build goodwill with China. For example, Deputy Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh publicly downplayed the 2010 collaborations with the United States as purely a product of the diplomatic anniversary celebrations. He described claims that Vietnam was strengthening ties with the United States in response to South China Sea developments as groundless and lacking understanding of Vietnamese defense policy.84

Despite the 2011 escalation in tensions and heightened U.S. cooperation, that same year the Chinese and Vietnamese navies conducted joint naval patrols, Vietnamese ships made port visits to China and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Beijing in October for talks in which defense cooperation and the resolution of maritime issues featured prominently.85

The care taken by Vietnam during this period to sustain positive and stable ties with China inevitably curtailed the signals it could send of shared security interests with the United States. The announcement of the rebalance did not appear to alter this pattern. Hanoi refrained from giving public endorsement of the policy, and throughout 2012 and 2013 the gradual trajectory of increased security cooperation continued in tandem with efforts to avoid antagonizing Beijing.86

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Cam Ranh Bay in June 2012, and, in July 2013, Washington and Hanoi entered into a “comprehensive partnership” that specifically included enhanced military-to-military cooperation. Meanwhile, U.S. ships, including the USS John S. McCain, continued port visits. However, Vietnam still retained a “strategic partnership” with China, despite the ongoing maritime dispute.

Vietnam’s clear resolve to defend its territorial interests aside, this combination of behaviors has more in common with our redefined hedging concept than the model predicts. However, as tensions with China escalated further in May 2014 following the deployment of a Chinese state-owned oilrig in waters claimed by Vietnam, Hanoi responded by further increasing the strength of its alignment signals.87

One observer notes that shortly thereafter Vietnamese leaders held “an unprecedented public forum on the topic of ‘Thoat Trung’ (escaping from China’s orbit),” and the next month “sixty-one party members signed an open letter addressed to the party and its Central Committee in particular warning of the danger of Vietnam becoming a ‘new-type of China’s vassal,’ and calling for drastic reforms to reduce the country’s dependence on China.”88

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung also stated publicly that Vietnam attached great importance to its relationship with the United States and requested Washington continue to support cooperation between the two countries.89

Vietnam joined the Proliferation Security Initiative, giving it the opportunity to work with the United States on maritime surveillance. Agreements with the Philippines created the scope for U.S. Navy maritime surveillance aircraft based in the Philippines to be temporarily deployed to Vietnam.90

Following a three-day visit to Hanoi, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey commented “we should have a steady improvement in our relationship with the Vietnamese military.”91

While these moves should not be interpreted as robust alignment, they nevertheless constituted a clear strengthening of the signal that Hanoi shared security interests with the United States.

The evidence therefore suggests that as the threat from China grows, Vietnam is becoming increasingly willing to trade off policy autonomy in return for the security benefits of closer alignment with the United States. Le Hong Hiep writes, “it is clear that one of the major drivers behind Hanoi’s efforts to forge closer ties with the United States is related to its growing rivalry with Beijing in the South China Sea.”92 He goes on to note that U.S.-Vietnam ties “have developed at a pace that has surprised many observers.”93

Such actions are costly—the alignment signals attract concern in Beijing and are sharply criticized in Chinese media, which explains why, in a relative sense, this security cooperation continues to remain limited in comparison to regional parties that are in existing alliance relationships. Although Hiep and others continue to describe efforts by Vietnam to strengthen engagement with China economically and politically as part of a hedging strategy, this does not fully capture the choices and trade-offs inherent in Vietnam’s strategic circumstances.94 Hanoi has consistently sent clear signals of resolve to defend its security interests and faces a trade-off between autonomy and alignment as it, albeit incrementally, strengthens ties with the United States.


As one of a limited number of states in East Asia without a military alliance or serious security dispute with either China or the United States, Singapore is an obvious case for our narrowly redefined group of hedging states. Our model predicts that Singapore’s leaders will seek to avoid choosing between the two great powers by maintaining ambiguity in their alignment signals in order to protect the autonomy—independence and flexibility—of Singapore’s security policies.

Independence and flexibility are indeed hallmarks of Singapore’s grand strategy as regularly outlined in public statements by the city-state’s leaders. Above all, according to former President S. R. Nathan, Singapore is motivated by its “inherent vulnerability” stemming in significant part from its small size and lack of natural resources which limit the state’s development potential. This vulnerability motivates the three pillars of Singapore’s core national interests—survival, independence, and growth.95

The logic of Singapore’s preference for autonomy is powerful. The city-state is located in a critical geo-strategic location but could never hope to defend itself alone. As a supposedly impregnable British colony it fell to Japanese forces in World War II, demonstrating that the protection of a powerful patron is no guarantee of security.

Singapore seeks to maximize its security by cultivating positive relations with all great powers while preventing itself from becoming too close to (or dependent on) any single power. Singapore thereby preserves its flexibility to adapt its security policies to changing dynamics, which explains why its leadership has avoided entering into security alliances and has instead signed lower-level security cooperation agreements with both China and the United States.96

To maintain its autonomy from both great powers, Singapore has pursued a delicate balance in its alignment signaling, sending both supportive and critical signals to both great powers and never allowing itself to be too closely associated with either. This is reflected both in the statements of Singapore’s leaders and its policy choices in response to the U.S. rebalance. During a visit to the United States in February 2012, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam warned the United States not to try to contain China. He was also critical of antagonistic rhetoric toward China in certain sections of the American security community and media, warning that it could give rise to unintended problems in the region.97

In the next few months, however, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen made his own trip to Washington, during which he welcomed the US commitment to the region and described the United States as Singapore’s “closest security partner.”98 A few months hence, an agreement was finalized for Singapore to host four U.S. littoral combat ships on a rotating basis.

While the scope and depth of Singapore’s defense cooperation with the United States far exceeds that with China, Singapore has been careful to cultivate positive security relations with Beijing as well. Less than three weeks after announcement of the littoral combat ship agreement, Defense Minister Ng travelled to Beijing to laud Singapore’s “special relationship” with China and its desire to deepen military cooperation.99 In September 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a successful visit to China where he had the rare honor of meeting five members of the Politburo Standing Committee.100

Yet he also delivered a thought-provoking speech to the Central Party School arguing that the Chinese should not view the United States as a declining power.101

On balance, Singapore has been supportive of the U.S. rebalance for its contribution to regional stability, but the country’s leaders have refrained from over-emphasizing this fact in public.102 For example, the littoral combat ship agreement received little attention in Singapore’s local press, thereby demonstrating respect for its relationship with China. Efforts to improve relations with Beijing followed quickly.103 Singapore has sought to keep a balanced ledger in its cooperative programs, never allowing its praise (or criticism) to become too one-sided. Singapore is following the predictions of our revised concept of hedging: by never allowing itself to become too close to either great power, Singapore creates ambiguity about the degree of its shared interests and with whom it would side in the event of great power conflict.

So what explains Singapore’s relatively stronger security ties with the United States? See Seng Tan argues that “Singapore’s hedging approach towards China—deep engagement with Beijing certainly, but also with other powers as well—arises partly from wariness of Chinese intentions.”104

He also contends that “Singapore has long advocated the need for a stable balance of power in the region, in the belief that it and other small states can survive and possibly thrive only when the region is not threatened by great power conflict and upheaval.”105

Accordingly, even while vigorously guarding its autonomy, Singapore longs for great power cooperation. In the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “We want the U.S. to have constructive and stable relations with China. That makes it much easier for us. Then we don’t have to choose sides.”106

Conclusion and Policy Implications

The security literature uses the term hedging to describe the responses of East Asian secondary states to China’s rise. Typically hedging refers to engaging heavily with China on both economic and political levels while retaining or building security links with the United States to encourage its continued presence as a regional stabilizer. We argue that hedging, as presently constructed, is a purely descriptive term with marginal analytical value. The current usage of hedging as an umbrella concept cannot yield insight into fundamental security questions because it does not differentiate between different types of alignment nor recognize the trade-offs inherent in competing strategic choices.

Our aim in this paper is to put forward a simple model that incorporates meaningful variation in the behavior of states that are routinely described as hedging. To do so, we redefine hedging behavior as a costly security strategy involving a trade-off between alignment and autonomy. States hedge by sending signals that generate ambiguity over the extent of their shared security interests with great powers. This ambiguity results in the avoidance of clear-cut alignment with any great power and, in turn, creates uncertainty regarding which side the secondary state would take in the event of a great power conflict. Our redefinition of hedging highlights the path dependency of many alignment choices, the effect of which is to reduce the benefits of sending ambiguous alignment signals. For states engaged in active security disputes against, or enjoying an alliance with, a great power, a clear trade-off already exists between their autonomy and alignment. Our redefinition of hedging and recognition of the effect of path dependence together allow us to identify important cross-national variation in states’ behavior and contribute to the larger research program on how states are responding to China’s rise.

A brief review of the available evidence confirms that trade-offs between alternative alignment choices are a core element of any analysis of secondary states’ security policy responses to China’s rise. Once trade-offs are accounted for, we observe that fewer states are truly hedging (see Table 4 for an illustration of security alignment behaviors of our four cases). For many states, their great power alignment choices have been decided for them, either by ongoing territorial disputes with China or by a pre-existing alliance with the United States. Secondary states unencumbered by such path dependency face lower costs to hedge, but we expect they will do so only as long as the threat posed to their security by either great power is relatively low. Although states can attempt to defer alignment decisions, all security policies eventually involve trade-offs and the advantages of hedging are limited to a small number of states in East Asia.

Table 4 Summary of Illustrative Security Alignment Behaviors Since 2011.

CSVPDF Display Table

This research suggests that the United States is in a somewhat stronger geopolitical position than is sometimes claimed. Although some states are hedging by avoiding strong security alignments with either the United States or China, path dependency suggests that most have made their alignment decisions and that these decisions are likely to be relatively sticky. Thus, U.S. alliances and partnerships in East Asia are likely to grow deeper even as China’s relative power grows, particularly if the United States is able to use Chinese opportunism to strengthen these commitments. Increasingly assertive actions by China that appear to threaten the status quo, such as constructing military outposts on disputed features in the South China Sea, are likely to intensify this re-alignment toward the United States.

On the other hand, this research suggests that Chinese policymakers should emphasize more cooperative elements of Chinese policy in order to avoid alienating East Asian neighbors. This finding provides an additional rationale for President Xi Jinping’s call in May 2014 for a new Asian security framework via the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which excludes the United States.107

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also called 2015 the year of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation, seeking to defuse the rising tensions over South China Sea claims.108 Although these cooperative, positive-sum efforts are likely to continue, our research indicates that such initiatives will be unlikely to change strategic calculations among countries that maintain an alliance relationship with the United States or a have a significant territorial dispute with China.

Finally, this research suggests that the competition for nonaligned East Asian states—such as Singapore and Indonesia—may intensify due to the limited number of states that we would describe as hedging. With fewer states truly non-aligned, the United States and China have increased incentive to compete for influence, raising the leverage that these states may have to win concessions from the major powers. Although Sino-American competition for influence over already aligned secondary states will likely continue (as evidenced most recently by Chinese outreach to Thailand and U.S. approaches to Burma), the remaining nonaligned secondary states are likely to have outsized regional influence.

As East Asian power dynamics continue to shift, the responses of regional secondary states are likely to be a critical area of study and debate. Over the last decade, hedging has been a central element of the literature on regional responses to China’s rise. For leaders in both Washington and Beijing, this more refined conceptualization of hedging is critical to a proper understanding of and response to the evolving security environment in East Asia.


The authors wish to thank those who reviewed and provided feedback on previous drafts, including the anonymous reviewers, Omar Bashir, Victor Cha, Michael Green, G. John Ikenberry, Van Jackson, and attendees at the workshop on “Managing International Conflict in East Asia” held by the University of Tokyo’s Security Studies Unit in January 2014, the 2014 International Studies Association Annual Convention, the 2014 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, and the 6th Oceanic Conference on International Studies.



See Van Jackson, “Power, Trust, and Network Complexity: Three Logics of Hedging in Asian Security,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 14, no. 3 (2014): 331–56.


Recent descriptions of hedging include: the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy, which noted, “our strategy seeks to encourage China to make the right strategic choices for its people, while we hedge against other possibilities.” “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (Washington, DC, The White House, 2006), 32; Evan S. Medeiros, “Strategic Hedging and the Future of Asia-Pacific Stability,” Washington Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Winter 2005–2006): 145–67; Rosemary Foot, “Chinese Strategies in a US-Hegemonic Global Order: Accommodating and Hedging,” International Affairs 82, no. 1 (January 2006): 77–94; Wojtek M. Wolfe, “China’s Strategic Hedging,” Orbis 57, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 300–13; Brock F. Tessman, “System Structure and State Strategy: Adding Hedging to the Menu,” Security Studies 21, no. 2 (April 2012): 192–231.


David Kang, “Getting Asia Wrong: The Need for New Analytical Frameworks,” International Security 27, no. 4 (Spring 2003): 57–85; Evelyn Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analyzing Regional Security Strategies,” International Security 32, no. 3 (Winter 2007/2008): 113–57; Steve Chan, Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).


Yuen Foong Khong, “Coping with Strategic Uncertainty: The Role of Institutions and Soft Balancing in Southeast Asia’s Post-Cold War Strategy,” in Rethinking Security in East Asia: Identity, Power, and Efficiency, ed. Jae-Jung Suh, Peter J. Katzenstein, and Allen Carlson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 172–208; Denny Roy, “Southeast Asia and China: Balancing or Bandwagoning?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, no. 2 (August 2005): 305–22; Evelyn Goh, “Understanding ‘Hedging’ in Asia-Pacific Security,” PacNet 43, 31 August 2006; Cheng-Chwee Kuik, “The Essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore’s Response to a Rising China,”Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 30, no. 2 (August 2008): 159–85.


Alastair Iain Johnston addresses whether Chinese assertiveness, in addition to military capabilities, has increased over time. Alastair Iain Johnston, “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37, no. 4 (Spring 2013): 7–48.


At times China has sought to de-emphasize conflicts of interest, employing charm offensives with certain countries. See Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).


Balancing is typically described as large and sustained increases in defense spending and/or the pursuit of countervailing alliances in order to bridge the security deficit. See Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979). Bandwagoning is typically defined as aligning with the source of the danger through offering asymmetric concessions and accepting the illegitimate actions of the dominant ally. See Stephen M. Walt, “Testing Theories of Alliance Formation: The Case of Southwest Asia,” International Organization 42, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 275–316.


Randall L. Schweller, “Managing the Rise of Great Powers: History and Theory,” in Engaging China: the Management of an Emerging Power, ed. Alastair Iain Johnston and Robert S. Ross (New York: Routledge, 1999), 1–32.


David Kang, China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia,” 113–57; Robert Zoellick, “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility,” Remarks to the National Committee on US-China Relations, 21 September 2005.


Roy, “Southeast Asia and China: Balancing or Bandwagoning?” 305–22; Khong, “Coping with Strategic Uncertainty,” 172–208; Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia,” 113–57. For an alternative approach to hedging as a risk management strategy, see: Tessman, “System Structure and State Strategy,” 192–231.


Øystein Tunsjø makes a similar observation in the context of Chinese energy security. Tunsjø describes hedging as “a strategy aiming to reconcile conciliation and confrontation in order to remain reasonably well positioned regardless of future developments.” Øystein Tunsjø, Security and Profit in China’s Energy Policy: Hedging Against Risk (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 2–3.


Yasuhiro Matsuda, “Engagement and Hedging: Japan’s Strategy toward China,” SAIS Review of International Affairs 32, no. 2 (Summer–Fall 2012): 109.




For simplicity, we use the term engagement to apply to fostering positive relations, and the term risk management to cover various forms of balancing behavior. These labels appear in the studies cited above as well as studies of individual countries such as Björn Jerdén and Linus Hagström, “Rethinking Japan’s China Policy: Japan as an Accommodator in the Rise of China, 1978–2011,” Journal of East Asian Studies 12, no. 2 (May­–August 2012): 215–50; Bjorn Elias Mikalsen Grønning, “Japan’s Shifting Military Priorities: Counterbalancing China’s Rise,” Asian Security 10, no. 1 (2014): 1–21; Kuik, “The Essence of Hedging,” 159–85; Andrew Tan, “The U.S. and China in the Malay Archipelago,” Asia-Pacific Review 17, no. 2 (2010): 26–55; See Seng Tan, “Faced with the Dragon: Perils and Prospects in Singapore’s Ambivalent Relationship with China,”Chinese Journal of International Politics 5, no. 3 (Autumn 2012): 245–65; James Manicom and Andrew O’Neil, “China’s Rise and Middle Power Democracies: Canada and Australia Compared,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 12, no. 2 (May 2012): 199–228; James Reilly, “Counting On China?: Australia’s Strategic Response to Economic Interdependence,” Chinese Journal of International Politics 5, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 369–94; Robert S. Ross, “Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China: Accommodation and Balancing in East Asia,” Security Studies 15, no. 3 (July 2006): 355–95; David C. Kang, “Between Balancing and Bandwagoning: South Korea’s response to China,” Journal of East Asian Studies 9, no. 1 (January–April 2009): 1–28; Renato Cruz De Castro, “The Aquino Administration’s Balancing Policy against an Emergent China: Its Domestic and External Dimensions,” Pacific Affairs 87, no. 1 (March 2014): 5–27; Ann Marie Murphy, “Beyond Balancing and Bandwagoning: Thailand’s Response to China’s Rise,” Asian Security 6, no. 1 (2010): 1–27.


To be clear, not every scholar describes every state as hedging, but almost all recognize the dualism in East Asian states’ policy responses embodied by the welcoming of the benefits from positive relations with China, combined with a need to address future risks.


Adam P. Liff, “Whither the Balancers?” Security Studies (forthcoming).


The balancing-bandwagoning concept was fashioned for larger states and is most useful for analyzing alignment decisions during wartime. It is accordingly less helpful when conflict is not immediately apprehended. Glenn H. Snyder writes that the “balancing-bandwagoning dichotomy is… unfortunate… [and] obscures the full range of choices within the alliance realm and inhibits more discriminating analysis.” Glenn H. Snyder, “Alliances, Balance, and Stability,” International Organization 45, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 121–42. Ann Marie Murphy argues that we need to move beyond the dichotomy in “Beyond Balancing and Bandwagoning,” 1–27.


Kuik, “The Essence of Hedging,” 159–85; Chan, Looking for Balance.


Kang, “Getting Asia Wrong,” 57–85; Kang, China Rising; Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia,” 113–57.


Ross, “Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China,” 355–95.


Chan, Looking for Balance, 51.




Ibid. See also Daniel H. Nexon, “The Balance of Power in the Balance,” World Politics 61, no. 2 (April 2009): 330–59.


Walt, “Testing Theories of Alliance Formation,” 275–316.


Compare this to balancing and bandwagoning, which are legitimate alternatives. Hedging is not an alternative to balancing and bandwagoning, since it is optimal for a state to avoid balancing and bandwagoning and instead hedge wherever possible. Note that we do not argue that fostering positive political and economic relations can never further security interests. The strategies of engagement and binding described by Schweller are designed to reduce the risk that a dissatisfied power will resort to war. Our argument is that including these strategies as part of the hedging concept offers little analytical traction because they do not involve costly trade-offs, admitting no variation in state behaviour and offering little insight into a state’s alignment choice: Schweller, “Managing the Rise of Great Powers,” 1–31.


Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994). Kuik makes a deft attempt to distinguish variation within hedging strategies, but even his identification of different behaviors admits to only minor variation and relies on policy differences between Malaysian and Thailand on one hand, and Singapore and Indonesia on the other, which in our view are marginal at best. Kuik, “Essence of Hedging,” 166.


Nexon, “Balance of Power in the Balance,” 330–59.


Goh explicitly defines hedging as the avoidance of trade-offs: Evelyn Goh, Meeting the China Challenge: The U.S. in Southeast Asian Regional Security Strategies (Washington, DC: East-West Center, 2005), 22–23.


On the need for signals to be costly to be credible, see Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence: With a New Preface and Afterword (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); James D. Fearon, “Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands versus Sinking Costs,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 41, no. 1 (February 1997): 68–90.


In this construction, the potential for competition does not nullify bases for cooperation, but the potential for cooperation does not remove the risk of competition.


James D. Morrow, “Alliances, Credibility, and Peacetime Costs,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 38, no. 2 (June 1994): 270–97; James D. Morrow, “Alliances: Why Write Them Down?”Annual Review of Political Science 3, no. 1 (June 2000): 63–83.


This definition of alignment is simply a weak form of alliance, which Alastair Smith defines as a voluntary agreement between two states representing a nonbinding commitment to help each other in the event of a conflict. Alastair Smith, “Alliance Formation and War,” International Studies Quarterly 39, no. 4 (December 1995): 405–25. See also Morrow, “Alliances, Credibility, and Peacetime Costs,” 270–97. Alignments include alliances, but unlike alliances do not require an explicit commitment. However, because anything that an alliance accomplishes during wartime can also be accomplished without a prewar alliance, alliances are still just a signal and thus can be thought of as a subset of the broader alignment phenomenon. See Morrow, “Alliances: Why Write Them Down?” 63–83.


Our setup derives from the discussion of alliances by James D. Morrow. States have preferred ideal points over international issues, and their security is defined as their ability to maintain the status quo on issues currently in a favorable equilibrium. See James D. Morrow, “Alliances and Asymmetry: An Alternative to the Capability Aggregation Model of Alliances,” American Journal of Political Science 35, no. 4 (November 1991): 904–33.


The spectrum is informed by: John D. Ciorciari, The Limits of Alignment: Southeast Asia and the Great Powers since 1975 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010); Zachary Selden, “Balancing Against or Balancing With?: The Spectrum of Alignment and the Endurance of American Hegemony,” Security Studies 22, no. 2 (April 2013): 330–64.

Table 1 Spectrum of Security Alignment Behaviors.

CSVPDFDisplay Table


Formal alliances are normally accompanied by the building of alliance bureaucracies that provide a specific instrument to coordinate behavior thereby strengthening the signal of shared interests.


Brett Ashley Leeds and Burcu Savun discuss the cost-benefit trade-off in the context of alliances. Brett Ashley Leeds and Burcu Savun, “Terminating Alliances: Why do States Abrogate Agreements?” Journal of Politics 69, no. 4 (November 2007): 1118–32.


Prewar planning or coordination improves the expected outcome from fighting. Alignment may also bring positive (nonsecurity) externalities, economically if it fosters trade or investment relationships, diplomatically if alignment increases the state’s influence in international affairs, and domestically if the alignment generates prestige for government leaders. Morrow, “Alliances, Credibility, and Peacetime Costs,” 270–97.


Morrow, “Alliances: Why Write Them Down?” 63–83.


Victor D. Cha, “Abandonment, Entrapment, and Neoclassical Realism in Asia: The United States, Japan, and Korea,” International Studies Quarterly 44, no. 2 (June 2000): 261–91.


In the alliance literature this is referred to as an “asymmetric alliance.” Morrow, “Alliances and Asymmetry,” 904–33.


On the trade-off between the fear of entrapment and the fear of abandonment inherent in all alliances, see Glenn H. Snyder, “Theory: Alliance Management” in Snyder, Alliance Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).


The theoretical and empirical debate surrounding whether reputation inferences are drawn in international relations is vigorous. Do an opponent’s past actions affect policymakers’ expectations of how it will behave in the present? Some empirical studies question whether reputation matters: Ted Hopf, Peripheral Visions: Deterrence Theory and American Foreign Policy in the Third World, 1965–1990 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994); Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). However, more recent efforts offer both theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence re-establishing reputation’s importance: Allan Dafoe, Jonathan Renshon, and Paul Huth, “Reputation and Status as Motives for War,” Annual Review of Political Science 17 (2014): 371–93; Keren Yarhi-Milo and Alex Weisiger, “Revisiting Reputation: How do Past Actions Matter in International Politics,” International Organization (forthcoming). We do not seek to decide this debate here, but observe that it matters what the great power’s reputation is for—the circumstances in which resolve is at stake. See Dafoe, Renshon, and Huth, “Reputation and Status as Motives for War,” 380; Douglas M. Gibler, “The Cost of Reneging: Reputation and Alliance Formation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52, no. 3 (June 2008): 425–54; Marc J. C. Crescenzi, Jacob D. Kathman, Katja B. Kleinburg, and Reed M. Wood, “Reliability, Reputation, and Alliance Formation,” International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 2 (June 2012): 259–74; Gregory D. Miller, The Shadow of the Past: Reputation and Military Alliances before the First World War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).


Morrow, “Alliances: Why Write Them Down?,” 63–83.


Secondary states can still engage in policy disputes with great power alignment partners that have no bearing on alignment posture. The question is whether signals are being sent which undermine the scale of and commitment to security cooperation.


Joanne Gowa, Allies, Adversaries, and International Trade (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).


Jean-Marc F. Blanchard and Norrin M. Ripsman, “Measuring Economic Interdependence: A Geopolitical Perspective,” Geopolitics and International Boundaries 1, no. 3 (1996): 225–46.


Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).


We thank an anonymous reviewer for cogently arguing this point.


Ely Ratner, “Making Bank,” Foreign Policy, 23 October 2014,


Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott reportedly received a personal request from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry not to join the AIIB: “John Kerry to Tony Abbott: Steer Clear of China Bank,” Australian Financial Review, 23 October 2014,


Two founding members included the Philippines and Vietnam who, at the time, were engaged in serious and ongoing territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.


Morrow, “Alliances, Credibility, and Peacetime Costs,” 270–97.


South Korea does have an overlapping claim with China over Socotra Rock (known as Ieodo in South Korea and Suyan Rock in China). We classify this claim is minor, however, due to statements by both sides downplaying the dispute and because the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea classifies the rock as a submerged reef that cannot be claimed as territory. Thailand’s recent history of political upheaval and its increasing skepticism of the United States raise questions at the time of writing (early 2015) about whether Thailand will alter its alignment in the future. Nevertheless, this domestic political instability makes it difficult for us to examine its alignment decisions in this treatment.


On Malaysia’s perception of the security dispute with China, see Stuart Grudgings, “Insight— China’s Assertiveness Hardens Malaysian Stance in Sea Dispute,” Reuters, 26 February 2014,


Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone does overlap with China’s nine-dash line, but Indonesia has thus far maintained that it is not a claimant to disputes in the South China Sea. See Prashanth Parameswaran, “Indonesia Avoids Open Territorial Dispute, Despite Concerns,” China Brief 14, no. 13, 3 July 2014,[tt_news]=42584&no_cache=1#.U_IChWMd3Sg. Brunei has claimed the southern Spratly Islands as part of its continental shelf, but Brunei does not occupy any land features in the region and has not attempted to enforce its claims. See Tessa Jamandre, “Brunei Snubs Phl, Others on United Stand vs. China,” Philippine Star, 3 March 2014,


On its face, South Korea would seem an even better case study of a reserved ally than Australia, given that its economic interdependence with China is arguably even deeper than Australia’s and its proximity to the mainland increases its exposure to destabilizing activity in the region. However, we do not consider South Korea to be an appropriate case because its dominant security challenge arises not from managing great power relationships, but from a third party: Seoul remains focused on the danger of North Korean provocation, its nuclear and missile programs, and the potential for a political and humanitarian crisis if the regime in Pyongyang collapses. South Korea’s arguable strengthening of security ties with the United States in recent years may accordingly have less to do with how it evaluated the trade-offs of closer alignment with the United States or China, and more with the possibility of an increased threat from Pyongyang. The North Korea situation thus represents a potentially confounding variable that may bias any inference. The impact of third party security threats on hedging behavior thus lies outside the scope of our model. This is regrettable given the central policy importance of Seoul’s efforts to balance its relationships with Washington and Beijing, and we hope future research can extend our framework to incorporate this security dynamic.


Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “Far Eastern Promises: Why Washington Should Focus on Asia,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 3 (May 2014): 106–16.


Ely Ratner, “Rebalancing to Asia with an Insecure China,” Washington Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 21–38.


David Fouse, “Japan’s New Defense Policy for 2010: Hardening the Hedge,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 23, no. 3 (2011): 489–501; Axel Berkofsky, “Japan’s December 2010 ‘National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG)’: The ‘Big Bang’ of Japanese Security and Defense Policies?” Korean Review of International Studies 14, no. 1 (2011): 33–52.


For prior calls for a more robust U.S.-Japan alliance, see Michael J. Green and Patrick M. Cronin, ed., The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Past, Present, and Future (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1999).


“National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2014 and Beyond,” Japanese Ministry of Defense, 17 December 2013,


“Joint Statement of Security Consultative Committee: Toward a More Robust Alliance and Greater Shared Responsibilities,” United States Department of State, 3 October 2013,


Echoing the importance of Japan’s ability to defend U.S. forces, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey noted that, “The Japanese Self Defense Forces’ ability and willingness to not only protect themselves, but their closest partners… is an important step for the region,” quoted in Jim Garamone, “Chairman Stresses Value of Military Partnerships,” DoD News, 2 July 2014,


“Hagel Welcomes Japan’s New Collective Self-defense Policy,” DoD News, 1 July 2014,


“Joint Statement of Security Consultative Committee,” 3 October 2013.


“The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation,” Japanese Ministry of Defense, 27 April 2015,


Koji Sonoda, “A Lot of New Equipment Purchases in Latest 5-year Defense Plan,” Asahi Shimbun, 14 December 2013,


See Michael J. Green and Nicholas Szechenyi, “Japan Takes a Step Forward on Defense Policy Reform,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 July 2014,


For Prime Minister Abe, the Secrets Law was important because its perceived value in advancing Japan’s commitment to information security, as outlined in the October 2013 2+2 Agreement between the United States and Japan. The Secrets Law also indicates in Article 3 that such activities as “mutual defense support between Japan and the United States” would be designated as “special secrets.” Also see “Tokutei Himitsu no Hogo ni kansuru Hōritsu (Act on Protection of Specified Secrets),” Japanese Diet, 6 December 2013,


Lucy Craft, “Japan’s State Secrets Law: Hailed By U.S., Denounced By Japanese,” National Public Radio, 31 December 2013,


Julia Gillard and Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, 16 November 2011,


Nick Bisley, “‘An Ally for All the Years to Come’: Why Australia is not a Conflicted US Ally,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 4 (August 2013): 403–18.


Ross Babbage describes a possible defense policy option which would reduce dependence on the United States through heavy investments in military capabilities, but which would be highly costly, possibly requiring a 25–50 percent increase in defense spending over ten years. Ross Babbage, “Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030,” Kokoda Paper, no. 15, February 2011.


Hugh White, ”Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing,” Quarterly Essay 39 (2010): 1–74; Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Sydney: Black, 2012).


Fergus Hanson, “The Lowy Institute Poll 2012: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy,” Lowy Institute for International Policy, 5 June 2012,; Alex Oliver, “The Lowy Institute Poll 2014,” Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2 June 2014,


The ADIZ announcement was described as “unhelpful” by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. John Kerin, “Bishop Queries China over Air Rights Claim,” Australian Financial Review, 27 November 2013, 6.


Ross Fitzgerald, “No Time to be Meekly Standing By, Placating Other Lands,” Australian, 4 January 2014, 12.


“PM’s High Wire Act,” Australian Financial Review, 3 July 2013, 52.


Brendan Nicholson, “‘China Land Grab a Danger for All’: Dennis Richardson,” Australian, 28 May 2015,


Goh, “Meeting the China Challenge,” 22–23.


John D. Ciorciari and Jessica Chen Weiss, “The Sino-Vietnamese Standoff in the South China Sea,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 13, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 61–69; Tomotaka Shoji, “Vietnam, ASEAN, and the South China Sea: Unity or Diverseness?” NIDS Journal of Defense and Security, 14, no. 1 (December 2011): 3–21.


Ciorciari and Weiss describe these moves as “the most significant defense opening in decades.” Ciorciari and Weiss, “The Sino-Vietnamese Standoff in the South China Sea,” 64.


Shoji, “Vietnam, ASEAN, and the South China Sea,” 14.


Ibid., 15.


Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea Two-Step,” Wall Street Journal, 25 November 2011, 12.


Some examples are increases in high-level diplomatic and military visits between the two nations and expanded security collaboration on issues like the use of Cam Ranh Bay. See Carl Thayer, “Vietnam Gradually Warms up to US Military,” Diplomat, 6 November 2013,; Greg Torode, “Hanoi Plays Up Beijing Ties Ahead of Panetta Visit,” South China Morning Post, 3 June 2012, 1.


The extent to which May 2014 was a turning point is evidenced by the fact that just a few months prior, Vietnamese media had been instructed to downplay grievances with China on the 35th anniversary of the Sino-Vietnamese border war in effort to sustain positive relations. Trung Nguyen, “Vietnam Muted Ahead of Border War Anniversary,” Voice of America, 12 February 2014,


Nguyen Manh Hung, “Chinese Oil Rig and Vietnamese Politics: Business as Usual?” cogitASIA, 25 August 2014,


Kristine Kwok and Julian Ryall, “Vietnam Edges Closer to Old US Foe as Maritime Dispute with China Heats Up,” South China Morning Post, 29 May 2014, In an interview with Bloomberg, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that Vietnam “hoped that the United States will make stronger, more practical and more effective contributions to peace and stability in the region.” “PM Nguyen Tan Dung grants interview to Bloomberg,” Vietnam News, 31 May 2014,


Carl Thayer, “Vietnam Mulling New Strategies to Deter China,” The Diplomat, 28 May 2014,


Jane Perlez, “In China’s Shadow, U.S. Courts Old Foe Vietnam,” New York Times, 16 Aug-ust 2014,


Le Hong Hiep, “Vietnam’s Hedging Strategy against China since Normalization,” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 35, no. 3 (December 2013): 360.


Ibid., 359.


See, for example, Greg Torode, “Keeping Ghosts at Bay,” South China Morning Post, 10 June 2012, Moreover, the oilrig incident sparked a populist backlash, with violent protests across Vietnam during which Chinese and other foreign-owned businesses were attacked, damaging Vietnam’s economic reputation. Chris Buckley and Edward Wong, “Unrest Poses a Risky Choice for Vietnam,” New York Times, 17 May 2014,


S. R. Nathan, “Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Beginnings and Future” (speech at the MFA Diplomatic Academy’s Inaugural S. Rajaratnam Lecture, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, 10 March 2008).


Singapore signed a Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States in 2005, and an Agreement on Defense Exchanges and Security Cooperation with China in 2008. “S’pore, US Deepen Security Partnership,” Straits Times, 13 July 2005; “Sino-Singaporean Joint Exercise Boosts Military Ties: Defense Ministry,” Xinhua News Agency, 24 June 2009, See also “Stealth Bomber Diplomacy,” Straits Times, 3 July 2011.


Fred Hiatt, “Singapore on China Policy: Don’t Call it ‘Containment,’ ” Washington Post, 7 February 2012; “S’pore, China Agree to Draw Closer,” Straits Times, 11 February 2012,


“US Expected to Keep Up Asian Military Presence,” Straits Times, 7 April 2012; “US Closest Defense Partner of S’pore,” Straits Times, 7 April 2012.


“Sino-S’pore Bond is Special, Says Ng Eng Hen,” Straits Times, 22 June 2012.


“Leaders Hail Close Ties, High Points,” Straits Times, 5 September 2013.


Lee Hsien Loong, “China and the World: Prospering and Progressing Together” (speech at Central Party School, Beijing, 6 September 2012).


“Reply by Minister for Defence Dr. Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question on the US Pivot Towards Asia,” Singapore Ministry of Defence, 16 October 2012.


The decision was mentioned in passing by the Straits Times in a story about broader US force posture in the region. Jermyn Chow and Ben Nadarajan, “US Navy to Move 60% of Warships to Asia,” Straits Times, 3 June 2012. However, it had been discussed for some time. See “U.S. Plans to Deploy Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore,” Singapore Government News, 4 June 2011.


Seng Tan, “Faced with the Dragon,” 254.


Ibid., 246.


Lally Weymouth, “An Interview with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,” Washington Post, 15 March 2013,


“China’s Xi Calls for Asia Security Framework at Summit,” Bloomberg News, 21 May 2014,


“China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Enter a New State of Development: Chinese FM,” Xinhuanet, 9 August 2014,

TPPA: Trade and Geo-Politics

January 25, 2016

TPPA: Trade and Geo-Politics

by Dr. BA Hamzah


THOSE familiar with the literature on international trade will appreciate the symbiotic relationship between trade and geo-politics. Take the case of US-led economic sanctions against Iran and Cuba. They were not imposed for solely economic reasons. On the contrary, it is normal for major powers to use economic sanctions as a tool in making foreign policy. The tool can manifest in the form of trade barriers and restrictions on financial transactions to punish a state for “misbehaving”.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is no exception. World renowned Professor Noam Chomsky (pic above) of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2015) believes the TPPA is designed to carry forward the neo-liberal project to maximise profit and ensure America’s domination of the world. So does Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz who views the TPPA as a managed-trade agreement of “unequal partnerships with the US dictating the terms”.

In Stiglitz’s view, partnership agreements like the TPPA “go beyond trade, governing investment, intellectual property as well, imposing fundamental changes to countries’ legal, judicial and regulatory frameworks without input or accountability through democratic institutions.”

IMF Photograph

Professor Joseph Stiglitz

Under the TPP, the status of the MNCs has been elevated to that of a nation state. MNCs have used and intend to use the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism as an instrument in public international law to sue sovereign states for non-compliance with the agreement. In the opinion of many, the ISDS has elevated trade to a new geo-political height.

Should Malaysia not be concerned with the above observations as it hurries to ratify the TPPA before President Obama leave office in 2017? Obama minces no words on the geo-politics surrounding the TPPA as much as it is about international trade. He proclaimed to the world on October 5, 2015 that “this partnership (TPPA) levels the playing field for our farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers by eliminating more than 18,000 taxes that various countries put on our products.

The US President adds, “[I]t includes the strongest commitments on labour and the environment of any trade agreement in history, and those commitments are enforceable, unlike in past agreements.It promotes a free and open Internet. It strengthens our strategic relationships with our partners and allies in a region that will be vital to the 21st century. It’s an agreement that puts American workers first and will help middle-class families get ahead.”

America needs the TPPA to compliment Obama’s foreign policy of pivoting or rebalancing its military deployment (2011) to prevent its rival (read China) from dominating the Asia-Pacific region.

In a statement on the TPPA, President Obama asserted that “we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules, opening new markets to American products while setting high standards for protecting workers and preserving our environment.”

In endorsing the TPPA, Secretary of State John Kerry told students at Indian State University (October 14, 2015) that the TPPA “matters for reasons beyond trade”. His remark that the Asia-Pacific region “will have a big say in shaping international rules of the road on the Internet, financial regulation, maritime security, the environment and many other areas of direct concern to the United States” clearly defines the US geopolitical agenda in the TPPA.

Secretary of State  John Kerry

I really don’t understand why some continue to deny the geo-political genesis and content of the TPPA. It is okay for Malaysia to adopt a pro-US policy to balance the rise of China but we should not plunge head on without reconsidering the consequences of becoming a party to the US strategic foreign policy of using the TPPA to contain China, our largest trading partner in South-East Asia. It may be perilous to our long-term geo-political interests to undermine China.

Like the US proposal for the Transatlantic Partnership in Investment and Trade for Europe, the TPPA is a tool of US foreign policy to retain its pre-eminence by writing the rules of the global trade and international security.

There is nothing sinister about the TPPA if Malaysia is prepared to embrace a trade deal that helps promote US foreign policy.Acknowledging the geo-political ramifications of the TPPA on Malaysia will result in greater policy transparency and reduce the trust deficit between the rakyat and the Government.

Foreign Policy: The Irony of American Power

January 15, 2016

Foreign Policy: The Irony of American Power


Framers of US Foreign Policy of recent vintage- Bush Sr., Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter

by Andrew J. Bacevich

The overarching theme of twentieth-century geopolitics has been America’s success in prevailing over its competitors for global power. A century ago, the United States was a continental power exercising only a peripheral influence on international politics. Today, having outlasted, exhausted, or crushed its rivals, the United States dominates world affairs. The millennium ends with the world’s foremost democracy holding sway as Great Power without peer.

America’s rivals, to be sure, contributed mightily to their own demise. Besotted with ambition, empires in our age have betrayed an astonishing propensity for self-inflicted wounds. Choosing war in 1914, Wilhelm II wrecked German aspirations to Weltpolitik. Ransacking Africa in search of easy conquest, Mussolini laid bare the fraudulence of his new Roman empire. Plunging into the morass of endless war with China, Japan doomed its vision of East Asian hegemony. Craving Lebensraum to the East, Hitler bled his armies to death and destroyed his Thousand-Year Reich. Ordering their legions into Afghanistan, the sclerotic lords of the Kremlin exposed the flimsiness of Soviet authority and the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism. Thus the history of the past hundred years offers a moral lesson to complement the geopolitical theme of America’s rise to preeminence. Of the dangers that threaten a Great Power, the most insidious come from within.

This great moral lesson of imperial hubris sounds a warning that Americans today should heed. To sustain the favored position to which the United States has risen, they must succeed where others have failed-devising a grand strategy that permits the responsible exercise of power while steering clear of the shoals of arrogance and vainglory. This is a tall order. Filling that order requires first a proper understanding of the situation in which the United States now finds itself.


That situation is replete with irony. A nation born of the first great anti-imperial revolution, the United States finds itself today wielding authority and influence in every corner of the globe. A state that once spurned interference by outsiders has acquired a well-documented reputation for instructing others on how to conduct themselves on matters ranging from human rights to environmental regulation. A people once profoundly suspicious of militarism tacitly embrace military power as a central element of national identity. How are we to account for the paradoxes to which America’s emergence as the world’s foremost power has given rise?

The traditional narrative of American history dodges that question, suggesting that the outcome was not of our doing: greatness was thrust upon us. This orthodox view of history asserts that the United States did not advance purposefully to center stage in world affairs; it was drawn there reluctantly, contrary to its traditions and the preferences of its people. According to this interpretation, America’s transformation from unassuming republic to global superpower was unforeseen and unintended. The United States assumed a paramount role in world affairs only under duress, prodded by malevolent forces that became in the end too monstrous to ignore.


Thus, evil has provided warrant for action. The all-but-forgotten war with Spain now a hundred years past set the pattern. For years, Americans had watched as Cubans suffered abuse at the hands of a decadent and incompetent imperial regime. Finally, in 1898, further Spanish control of Cuba became intolerable. When the smoke of the ensuing conflict cleared, the United States had indeed ejected Spain from Cuba, but had acquired in the process an insular empire of its own, stretching from the Caribbean across the Pacific. In the decades to follow, the recurrence of wickedness in various guises-the militarism of Imperial Germany and Japan, the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler and Stalin, more lately the tinhorn depredations of Saddam Hussein-would offer impetus and justification for the further expansion of American power.

This interpretation of the nation’s rise to globalism-the United States reacting to peace disrupted, rights defiled, and freedom jeopardized-is one that most Americans have found persuasive. It is reassuringly familiar and morally satisfying. For the average citizen, the standard historical narrative has provided a convenient map for navigating through the perilous and deceptive terrain of twentieth-century politics. But a map only approximates reality. Sketched in response to the press of events, the historical map charting the progress of the Reluctant Superpower has never been completely accurate. Of late, it has become increasingly misleading. Most of all, with the end of the Cold War, it is no longer useful. Indeed, to cling to that map is to misapprehend the hazards that lie just ahead.

If Americans have vigorously defended their way of life against external threat, it is also true that they have sought to imprint that way of life on others. No people on earth have been more eager to see the world remade in their own image. The whole trajectory of Western history, pointing toward an expansion of freedom, equality, and opportunity, only served to validate this belief in American mission, even fostering the notion that the United States possessed a providential mandate to spread the blessings of liberty. Thus, even before leading the nation into war to make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson could declare with certainty that “God [had] planted in us the vision of liberty” and that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”


Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition. Nor did that proposition die with Wilson. Once revived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the spirit and grandeur of the Wilsonian project animated the policies and the rhetoric of subsequent administrations as dissimilar as those of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “If we judge events by their consequences,” John Lukacs has observed, “the great world revolutionary was Wilson rather than Lenin.” Indeed, if we judge the age of revolutions by its outcome, the United States has been the most successful revolutionary power of them all.

To posit the United States as an ascendant revolutionary power is to pose uncomfortable questions that the narrative of the Reluctant Superpower has heretofore allowed Americans to evade. What is the motive force underlying the growth of American revolutionary power? What will it cost the United States to maintain the order in which the American revolution has culminated? What are the moral dilemmas to which the triumph of this revolution is likely to give rise?


The American foreign policy establishment would prefer, for the most part, that citizens remain oblivious to these questions. Indeed, foreign policy professionals in general have a strong preference for citizens who don’t ask questions, believing that in a democracy the conduct of foreign policy is most effective when the people are compliant-as was the case in the United States through most of the postwar era.

To be sure, the collapse of communism threatened momentarily to remove the basis for that compliance. Scrambling to check the erosion of popular support for American globalism-an erosion made painfully evident by the humiliating electoral defeat of a “foreign policy President” in 1992-the foreign policy establishment threw itself into the task of devising a new formula to justify America’s role in the world. Much as the promulgation of an “official” interpretation of the Cold War’s origins in the late 1940s had helped forge a broad anti-Communist consensus, so an authoritative interpretation of the Cold War’s “lessons” might lay the foundation for a post-Cold War consensus. By limiting the boundaries of permissible discourse, foreign policy professionals hoped to minimize any discontinuity of American policy caused by the disappearance of the Evil Empire that had provided the primary rationale for that policy.

The exhilarating-and rightly celebrated-culmination of the Soviet-American rivalry provided an ideal point of departure for this undertaking. Thus, the premise of the new orthodoxy was simplicity itself: We Won. As applied to future policy, the implications of winning were twofold. First, the outcome of the Cold War affirmed the wisdom, capacity, and continuing imperative of “American leadership” exercised on a global scale. Second, the fresh circumstance to which that success had given way presented the United States with a “strategic opportunity” to create a peaceful and prosperous international order enduring far into the future.

As a result, throughout the 1990s the national “conversation” about foreign policy has focused obsessively on a single issue: will the United States grasp the opportunity that beckons? Or, as it has on earlier occasions, will the Reluctant Superpower give in to irresponsibility and backsliding, with all the dire results that will ensue as a consequence?


Thus, to judge by the atmospherics surrounding the foreign policy crises of the past several years, the world’s “indispensable nation” (a phrase favored by President Clinton) teeters on the brink of headlong retreat. Americans, we are led to believe, may at any moment turn their backs on the world. Such ostensibly precarious circumstances have encouraged advocates and interest groups to advertise their favorite issue as the crucial test of America’s willingness to stay the course. In this way, the Bosnian civil war, awful enough on its own terms, gets inflated into Sarajevo 1914; reluctance to ratify NAFTA points directly to the reimposition of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff; and NATO enlargement becomes the all-or-nothing equivalent of the Versailles Treaty.

Thus refurbished and renewed, the narrative of the Reluctant Superpower retains its potency: hand wringing over the supposed American penchant for fecklessness retains undeniable tactical utility. Yet in a larger sense this mythic version of U.S. diplomacy is counterproductive and even dangerous. The proposition that on any given issue the United States faces a stark choice between Engagement or Abandonment is simply spurious. Whether intended or not, the real effect of portraying U.S. foreign relations as a succession of crises, each posing a critical test of national resolve, is to divert attention from the actual dilemmas awaiting the United States as a triumphant sponsor of revolution.

We have entered radically different terrain. We need a new map. We need a new narrative.


The new narrative would incorporate material heretofore deemed extraneous or distracting. It would set aside notions that the United States is innocent and the world corrupt. It would not pretend that America’s abiding aspiration has been simply to live in peace that others obdurately deny to us. Rather than purporting to disdain power, it would allow instead that power in all of its dimensions-political, military, economic, and cultural-has been central to America’s revolutionary purposes. It would emphasize the positive as distinguished from the defensive or reactive role of power. It would accept as fact that the United States acquires and exercises power in order to enable American society to flourish and to extend the sway of American values. It would acknowledge that those twin objectives are inextricably linked.

In short, the new narrative would both recognize and ratify the grand enterprise in which the United States has been engaged, off and on, for a century. That enterprise spans administrations, transcends party and ideology, and persists-as has become apparent since the demise of the Soviet Union-independent of any immediate threat to American security. The historian John Lewis Gaddis has characterized the result as “an empire by invitation.” If so, the invitation is one to which those presiding over U.S. foreign policy have long since given collective assent. As a direct result of that enterprise, the United States has ascended to the status of global hegemon, with far-flung interests and responsibilities and without a challenger worthy of the name. The implicit, if officially unacknowledged, grand strategy of the United States today is to consolidate and preserve its world supremacy, with the clear understanding that doing so may well require the further extension of American influence.


Both the neoliberals and the neoconservatives who together preside over the contemporary political scene endorse that enterprise. Both camps happily credit American leadership with whatever good has emerged from an otherwise disastrous century, from the democratization of Germany and Japan to the final collapse of communism. Both agree that military power undergirds the effectiveness of that leadership. Both, therefore, are committed to maintaining world-dominant military capabilities, a sharp departure from traditional American practice when the passing of crisis meant reverting to a minimalist establishment. They are united in opposing critics, coming from the right or the left, who express reservations about a strategy of global preeminence, whether on practical or moral grounds. They denounce such critics as timid, fretful, pessimistic, defeatist-and, predictably, tag them as Isolationists. In other important respects, however, the neoliberals and neoconservatives differ in their vision of American hegemony. Those opposing visions-and the peculiar contradictions that each entails-define the real fault lines in the glacis of present-day U.S. foreign policy.

The administration of President Bill Clinton embodies contemporary neoliberalism. Yet the prefix “neo” is misleading. Apart from promoting a trendy Global Agenda that purports to incorporate environmental issues, population control, and women’s rights into the foreign policy mainstream, little about the neoliberal perspective deserves the appellation “new.” In public pronouncements, neoliberals affirm their commitment to human rights. They recite clichés about the United States leading a “community of nations” engaged in “multilateral” efforts to alleviate the world’s problems. But the essence of neoliberal thinking derives from old-fashioned liberal economics. In President Clinton’s succinct formulation, “trade, investment, and commerce” will produce “a structure of opportunity and peace.” For neoliberals, cutting trade deals, reducing tariffs, protecting property rights, and running interference for American private enterprise-the entire package gilded with the idiom of globalization and earnest professions of America’s abiding concern for democracy and human rights-constitute the heart of foreign policy.

Clinton Administration officials tout this emphasis on the economic dimension of foreign policy as a remarkable innovation. Thanks to Bill Clinton, then Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor bragged in 1996, “trade and international economics have joined the foreign policy table.” In fact, such claims to originality-if standard fare for this uniquely self-absorbed administration-are without merit. The Clinton White House has simply revived themes already much in evidence a century or more ago and never entirely absent from U.S. foreign policy since. The expectation that securing a world open to trade and investment will enable America to do good even as it does well fits squarely in the hoary tradition of Herbert Hoover and Cordell Hull.

If the prospect of creating structures of peace provides the ostensible inspiration for the neoliberal preoccupation with trade and investment, anxiety reinforces that hope. American well-being, neoliberals believe, depends upon continuous economic growth. Economic expansion, in turn, depends on increasing the American share of the global economy, especially in rapidly developing regions such as Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Thus, according to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher speaking in 1996, “We’ve passed the point where we can sustain prosperity on sales within the United States.” Current Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agrees: “Our own prosperity depends on having partners that are open to our exports, investment, and ideas.” Without sustained expansion of trade and investment in these “emerging markets,” the American economy is likely to falter, with potentially disastrous consequences. To President Clinton himself, the issue is axiomatic: “Without growth abroad, our own economy cannot thrive.”

For neoliberals, there is literally no alternative to growth. Abundance mutes tensions and papers over contradictions, in many cases the byproducts of past liberal experiments. Thus, behind the Clinton Administration’s acknowledgment of economic interdependence lies the fear that any substantial lapse in economic expansion could well ignite a crisis for which modern liberalism, bereft of fresh ideas, will be without response. Failure to secure expansion abroad invites calamity at home.

When it comes to military affairs, neoliberals strike appropriately progressive attitudes, professing to look forward to the day when economic forces will render military power obsolete. In the meantime, the imperative of maintaining the order required of a highly interdependent world economy prods them to use force with notable frequency. The emphasis is on using military forces not to win wars but as an international constabulary. Yet a fully effective implementation of this approach would anticipate and forestall rather than merely react. Thus, for neoliberals, the lure of using American military power not simply to quell disorder but to prevent it in the first place can become irresistible. In this regard, although hardly noticed by the American public, a recent military exercise provides the best illustration to date of the evolving neoliberal paradigm for the role of U.S. forces after the Cold War.

In September 1997, when a contingent of American troops, after twenty exhausting hours in Air Force transports, parachuted into Kazakhstan, one of five new Central Asian republics, they went where no U.S. forces had gone before. American soldiers did not venture into this remote corner of the former Soviet Union to support and defend the Constitution or to protect the United States against enemies foreign and domestic. Instead, according to the general in command, they deployed to demonstrate America’s “global capability” and, by participating in exercises with local armies, to signal that the United States has important interests in this desolate, but energy rich, region. State Department officials and Pentagon planners look to a periodic American military presence in Central Asia to create a climate of stability, putting in place political rules of behavior and giving potential rule-breakers pause. Henceforth, he who threatens the stability of Central Asia invites confrontation with the world’s only superpower. Thus, even in an era of no overt enemies, does neoliberalism’s preoccupation with order give rise to new security commitments in distant places about which the average American knows little and cares less.

Neoliberals pursue American hegemony by indirection. Neoconservatives make no effort to conceal their intentions. Leading neoconservative writers have no problem acknowledging the paramount status of the United States as the world’s only superpower. Indeed, they revel in it. Thus, for example, when William Kristol and Robert Kagan write unblushingly about an American “responsibility to lead the world,” the style of leadership they have in mind bears little resemblance to pussy-footing multilateralism. Kristol and Kagan want the United States to place itself unambiguously in charge, exercising a “benevolent global hegemony” based on “moral supremacy and moral confidence.”

Nor do neoconservatives flinch at the prospect of America therefore assuming the role of global policeman. Indeed, writes Joshua Muravchik, “it must be more than that.” A policeman enforces laws set by others; he gets orders from higher authority. In today’s world, however, “there is no higher authority than America.” Hence the need, according to Muravchik, for the United States to serve not only as policeman but also as global mediator, teacher, and benefactor-and, by implication, magistrate, disciplinarian, nanny, and crusader.

Acutely conscious of the disarray into which American culture has fallen, neoconservatives remain intensely nationalistic. (Indeed, neoconservative writers sometimes hint that a glorious crusade in a noble cause might be just the thing to reinvigorate the flagging sense of American identity.) They admit to no limits on what the forceful exercise of American leadership can accomplish. For writers like Michael Ledeen, the United States has a “historic mission” to animate “a worldwide mass movement against all forms of tyranny.” Does China persist in opposing the rising tide of democratization? The solution, according to the columnist George Will, is simple: the policy of the United States “should be to inoculate China with the American spirit,” thereby “melting . . . the Chinese regime’s apparatus of social control.”

To back up their faith in the American spirit, neoconservatives look to armed force. “The bedrock of America’s global leadership,” writes Muravchik, “is military might.” Although Pentagon spending currently exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next several largest powers (most of them longstanding U.S. allies), neocons are not content. Kristol and Kagan, for example, want to increase military spending by $60-80 billion per year, essentially restoring the American defense budget to Cold War levels.

Neoconservatives justify the need for a robust military establishment not to support the sort of ventures that neoliberals pursue under the guise of peacemaking, but to deter or preempt the rise of a peer competitor. In the neoconservative view, “chaos” in the underdeveloped world, “rogue states,” the spread of ethnic violence and religious fundamentalism-candidates in the competition to devise a new paradigm for international security-are matters of no more than secondary importance. They do not directly threaten American security. If the United States cannot altogether ignore, say, violence in the Balkans or anarchy in a failed sub-Saharan state, neither should Americans allow such matters to mask far more serious if less immediate dangers. One danger in particular gives neoconservatives pause: the prospect of a resurgent Russia or an affluent and technologically sophisticated China-or both-ten or twenty years hence mounting a serious challenge to American dominance.

Neoconservatives do not relish the prospect of a future showdown between competing superpowers. Although more hawkish in their rhetoric than neoliberals, they tend to be considerably more circumspect when it comes to the actual use of force. To avert military confrontation, neoconservatives look ultimately to a process of transformation, converting prospective adversaries to democratic capitalism, whether by example, cajolery, or coercion.

Preserving the leading position of the United States, therefore, demands ideological rather than economic expansionism. This linkage of American interests with the spread of American ideals underlies sharp differences between neoconservatives and neoliberals when it comes to trade policy and human rights. Unwilling to countenance the slightest disruption of American economic growth, the neoliberal Clinton Administration subordinates political and security considerations in order to reap short-term commercial benefits. One sees this most vividly in the eagerness with which the Clinton White House pursues expanded commercial relations with China even if that means sharing advanced technology adaptable for military purposes and ignoring the widespread violation of human rights. Neoconservatives are no less predisposed to favor free trade. But they view trade less as an end in itself than as an instrument to support the larger goal of securing the global adoption of American values. The principle of free trade can be compromised; the commitment of the United States to its fundamental ideals must not. Thus, when it comes to democracy and human rights, in contrast to the yawning gap between neoliberal talk and action (again, Clinton on China illustrates the point), neoconservatives are the custodians of American exceptionalism and the true heirs of Woodrow Wilson. Like Wilson, they aspire to a leadership that is at once universal in extent and thoroughly American in character.


Each of these competing visions of the American imperium will give rise to its own complications. In both, the pitfalls awaiting the United States are large. They alike contain large defects that call into question their prospects for success.

The neoliberal vision is unsustainable, a military-economic Ponzi scheme. With delicious irony, the Clinton Administration’s aggressive sponsorship of American commercial interests recalls the revisionist critique of American diplomacy devised a generation ago by the New Left. Back when the President and his friends were attending Georgetown and Oxford, writings by William Appleman Williams and other members of the “Open Door School” were all the rage. These historians argued that the beginning of enlightenment lay in ripping the mask off of U.S. foreign policy. New Left scholars declared that all the Cold War talk about defending the “Free World” was so much hokum. The record of American diplomacy amounted to ill-disguised economic imperialism, aimed at penetrating and dominating foreign markets. Making ceaseless economic expansion abroad the sine qua non of prosperity and stability at home condemned the United States to perennial conflict-Vietnam was a case in point-and would undermine democracy at home. Thirty years later, with pronouncements by senior Clinton Administration officials seemingly cribbed from Chamber of Commerce propaganda, the Open Door thesis-at least in this one respect-deserves a second look.

Thus, it is a safe bet that Professor Williams would find the military adventurism of the singularly unmilitary Clinton Administration unsurprising. By asserting that American well-being is contingent upon access to an orderly and expanding global economy, neoliberal dogma makes it imperative that the United States guarantee that order. When Mr. Clinton sends rangers to take out General Aideed in Somalia, occupies Haiti, launches punitive strikes against Saddam Hussein, intervenes in Bosnia, or sails a carrier task force into the middle of a dispute between China and Taiwan, he invites charges of using force with little apparent strategic consistency. According to its own lights, however, the administration’s record of using force makes all the sense in the world. In the neoliberal view, to permit instability is to put the international economy and by extension the U.S. economy at risk-hence the alacrity with which President Clinton dispatches American soldiers to police, punish, and pacify.

The likelihood that these constabulary burdens are likely to prove permanent, not to mention enormously costly in material and human terms, is the dirty little secret of neoliberalism’s furtive hegemony. As Benjamin Schwarz has observed, the very “logic of economic interdependence leads to a proliferation of American ‘security’ commitments in what all agree is an unstable world order.” This, writes Schwarz, leads to the “dismal conclusion” that “America’s worldwide security commitments are a truly permanent burden.”

Furthermore, the heightened military activism and new security obligations undertaken by the Clinton Administration and its immediate predecessor (not untainted by neoliberalism) suggest the contradictions that this approach to policy invites. Thus, in the Persian Gulf, where an American-led coalition intervenes to punish one autocrat for disrupting the status quo, U.S. forces remain to protect other autocrats committed to preserving it, with our friends in the region hardly more interested in human rights or democracy than our adversaries. In Somalia, where American soldiers arrive to succor the starving, they stay on to kill women and children in bloody street fighting. In Haiti, where the United States intervenes to restore democracy, despots in tropical suits supplant despots in uniform and democracy remains nowhere to be seen. In Bosnia, where genocide creates a moral imperative for action, the United States and its allies deem it inexpedient even to detain the perpetrators of ghastly war crimes. Then there are the Kurds: having led an emergency effort to rescue them in 1991, the United States of late turns a blind eye as Turks and Iraqis take turns pummeling the erstwhile subjects of American solicitude. Finally, there is the matter of proliferation: standing in the forefront of global efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, the United States simultaneously floods the international market with top-quality conventional weapons, far outselling all other rivals as arms merchant to the world.

Further compromising the integrity of this neoliberal version of American hegemony is the character of modern liberalism itself. The compensatory rewards that neoliberals proffer to those who abide by the rules of the United States are as likely to inspire loathing as to command respect. In its favor, as Irving Kristol notes, the Pax Americana “lacks the brute coercion that characterized European imperialism. But it also lacks the authentic missionary spirit of that older imperialism.” At most, continues Kristol, the American empire promises the world “a growth economy, a ‘consumerist’ society, popular elections, and a dominant secular-hedonistic ethos. It is a combination that is hard to resist-and equally hard to respect in its populist vulgarity. It is an imperium with a minimum of moral substance.” While the people of the world may find the allure of American popular culture momentarily irresistible, “one wonders how soon they will weary of it.”

Not, one hopes, before the American people weary of it first. Indeed, the inadequacies of neoliberalism, particularly as a response to any but the basest human aspirations, loom so large as to offer at least some solace: in the end, neoliberalism will discredit itself. When that occurs, Americans may well disenthrall themselves of the diplomatic formula that neoliberals have devised to prop up their dubious endeavor.

By comparison, contemporary American conservatism, whatever its idiosyncrasies and wayward tendencies, at least sees the human person as something more that the sum of his or her appetites. Recognizing the fact of original sin, conservatives are also certain that a profound discontent forms an indelible part of human nature. At its best, the conservative movement seeks to restore to the United States the ordered liberty that permits citizens to address that discontent by aspiring to genuinely worthy pursuits.

Yet neoconservatives believe in the possibility of greatness not only for individuals, but for nations as well. Viewing (with considerable justification) the outcome of the Cold War as a matter of personal vindication, neoconservatives remain dazzled by the results of their exertions. Success against communism has fostered the belief that for America the mantle of greatness lies in underwriting the world’s progress toward democracy everywhere. There is, in this self-prescribed obligation to light the lamp of liberty around the globe, vaulting ambition, no small amount of arrogance, and real potential for jingoism. But there is also idealism and high-mindedness. For these very reasons the neoconservative prescription for American hegemony cannot be dismissed lightly. For those same reasons, it may prove to be a singularly reckless proposition.

The neoconservative prescription for American hegemony is defective on two counts. First, it overstates the impact of democratization on the character of peoples and the behavior of nations. Second, it underestimates the obstacles that an American-sponsored campaign of global democratization must overcome. Ironically, in the latter case, neoconservatives-righteous combatants in the ongoing culture war-err because they misconstrue the true extent of the cultural crisis that has befallen the West.

For neoconservatives, democratization comprises the Big Scorecard of foreign policy, the authoritative measure of America’s progress in setting the world right. A nation that adopts popular government takes its place among the elect. Nations languishing in tyranny or wallowing in disorder remain on the wrong side of the ledger. Yet only for the moment: neoconservatives assume that progress toward democracy-given a generous American nudge-is virtually inevitable. Once having become democratic, a nation is presumed also to become peaceful, with the expectation that it will conform thereafter to the rules of behavior prescribed by the benign hegemon.

This curiously generic view of democracy admits to little variation in the actual practice of self-government among different countries. Furthermore, it implies that particular habits of political practice diminish or seal the wellsprings of collective disenchantment, antipathy, and ambition, feeding the idea that the citizens of democratic nations are inherently given to living in peace with their neighbors. The history of the United States itself would suggest that this bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to close scrutiny. As Fareed Zakaria has observed in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, democracies can, in fact, be “illiberal.” In certain circumstances, the concomitance of newly formed democratic governments is likely to be “hyper-nationalism and war-mongering.”

More specifically, the frequently heard assertion that democracies do not wage war against one another is dubious in the extreme. One need not be a diehard believer in the Lost Cause to acknowledge that the Confederate States of America constituted a genuine, if deeply flawed, democracy, pitted in one of the fiercest of modern wars against another genuine (although imperfect) democracy. Similarly, if universal manhood suffrage, an elected legislature exercising real authority, and adherence to the rule of law are marks of democracy, then in 1914 Germany no less than France or Great Britain deserved to be classified as democratic. Furthermore, the historical record includes several confrontations in which democracies narrowly averted war-the escape having nothing to do with common devotion to democratic practice. Consider, for example, the Fashoda incident of 1898 involving Britain and France or the Ruhr crisis of 1923 involving France and Germany. In short, neoconservative predictions that a democratic world will culminate in a Kantian perpetual peace, with the costs of sustaining American hegemony being correspondingly slight, deserve to be treated skeptically.

Moreover, if neoconservatives overstate the benefits that will flow from democratization, they likewise tend to exaggerate the ease with which democracy will expand its hold. Without doubt, people around the world thirst for freedom and authentic self-government. Equally without doubt, the obstacles to satisfying that thirst loom large. When it comes to nurturing the spread of democratic institutions, none of the three areas in which the United States today is especially dominant-military might, mastery of the so-called information revolution, and the “soft power” of pop culture and lifestyle-are likely to be decisive. In the end, values will count most.

Yet as conservatives above all understand, the United States has a problem with values. Americans are no longer quite sure what they ought to believe or what their nation stands for. As the sludge of multiculturalism seeps from the academy into everyday life, national identity becomes a cause for remorse or self-flagellation rather than a source of inspiration, collective self-confidence lapses, and moral certitude gives way to doubt and bewilderment. The politics of race, gender, and ethnicity demolish claims regarding the dignity of the individual, distorting beyond recognition the traditional American concept of equality. The insistence upon unfettered self-gratification tears at the basic structure of the family, sowing confusion about the most intimate human relationships.

In other words, the challenge that neoconservatives face in constructing their benign global order is that they must do so in the teeth of an intellectual climate that is deeply and resolutely hostile. Derisive of everything that conservatives hold dear, those who control our key cultural institutions will bitterly oppose any enterprise that assigns to the United States the “moral supremacy and moral confidence” that William Kristol and Robert Kagan identify as the essential underpinnings of American hegemony. After the crimes of slavery and racism, they say, after the mistreatment of Native Americans, the systematic oppression of women, the cruelties inflicted on gays and lesbians, who are Americans to pronounce judgment? Who are we to censure others? Sadly, the longer we ingest the fumes of cultural and moral relativism, the more difficult it becomes to persuade even ourselves that we can rightfully claim-indeed, at times ought to assert-such prerogatives.

Elsewhere in the world, those hostile to democracy (and to American hegemony) delight in our confusion and turn it to their own advantage. Their arguments seemingly legitimized by Western intellectuals contemptuous of the West and all its works, proponents of radical Islam and of “Asian values” mock American presumptuousness in admonishing others on matters such as community or respect for human life.

Thus, neoconservative advocacy of a campaign for global democratization implies a struggle fought on two fronts, one external and one domestic. A two-front war is a fundamentally risky venture, inviting over-extension, exhaustion, and premature decline. In this instance, with the people perplexed and our adversaries deeply entrenched and cunning, the correlation of forces is hardly promising. Thus, however insistent the neoconservative demand that the United States seize this particular moment to embark upon a democratic crusade, conditions for doing so are not especially auspicious. When facing multiple adversaries, sound strategy requires the designation of a main effort. Prudence dictates attending to the more dangerous foe first-which is why conservatives would do well to defer any new crusades abroad until they have turned the tide in the culture war at home.


However much neoliberals and neoconservatives may monopolize the current foreign policy debate, the schools of thought that they represent do not exhaust the range of possibilities available to the United States. Realism offers a third-and in every respect preferable-approach for guiding the policies of the world’s only superpower.


Herbert Butterfield once observed that realism tends to be a boast rather than a philosophy. More commonly in American political circles, realism has been an epithet. To the extent that it conjures up images of Machiavelli or Metternich, Americans dismiss realism as amoral and cynical. Yet the United States can draw on a specifically American realist tradition that is not synonymous with realpolitik. It is this American tradition-the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau-that offers an alternative to the flawed visions of neoliberals and neoconservatives.

Realism is not a cover for isolationism. The realist acknowledges the existence of an American imperium, although perhaps viewing it as, at best, a mixed blessing. If doubtful that empire-even “empire by invitation”-is entirely conducive to the well-being of American democracy, the realist nonetheless recognizes that the issue of whether or not to accept hegemonic responsibilities is moot. For the United States, there is no going back. Having mounted the tiger, we cannot easily dismount.

The American realist tradition in fact furnishes the surest guide for enabling the United States to sustain its preponderant position while avoiding the vanity and hubris that Morgenthau has identified as “the poisonous fruits of power.” Realism does not provide a formula for policy prescription, but it does offer criteria for analyzing policy alternatives. In contrast to the tawdriness and dishonesty of neoliberalism, realism offers directness and consistency. In place of the illusions and improvidence to which neoconservatism is prone, it requires the careful calibration of means with ends. Realism guards against a nation’s reach exceeding its grasp, precluding the “insolvency” that Lippmann cited as the defect to which American statecraft in this century has been peculiarly susceptible. It recognizes the wisdom of Lippmann’s dictum that sound policy “has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance.” Above all, for conservatives who believe that the character of a nation counts for more than the expanse of its empire, realism allows for the responsible exercise of power abroad while accepting the primacy of efforts to revitalize the culture at home.

The realist vision is modest in scope and ambition. Wilson’s ultimate triumph over Lenin has revived American dreams of “managing history.” Niebuhr’s call for Americans to disavow such dreams, voiced nearly a half century ago, has today acquired renewed relevance. “The course of history cannot be coerced,” he warns, “in accordance with a particular conception of its ends.” That our own particular conception of politics has prevailed over various perverse alternatives is cause for celebration, but the realist knows that even that large success leaves much unsettled. Tying up history’s loose ends does not lie within the power of the United States, however energetically it may exert itself. Democratic capitalism, as it has evolved in the American setting, is unlikely to respond fully to the aspirations of peoples around the world. Understanding that, in Niebuhr’s words, “the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension,” realism accepts the imperative of humility.

Thus, for the realist, the obligation of a great power is not to embark upon crusades but to pursue its interests. If defined with sufficient breadth and imagination, those interests will likewise respond to the minimal requirements of others, permitting the creation of an equilibrium that, however precarious, may approximate peace. Indeed, only then can the expenditure of power be said to satisfy the truest interests of the United States itself.

The realist knows that the exercise of power involves moral hazards. For an imperial republic in particular, charting a course of action that is both responsible and moral will provide a source of continuing challenge. The realist accepts Niebuhr’s maxim that for a great nation “it is not possible to be both pure and responsible.” In the formulation of policy, observes Morgenthau, “moral principles can never be fully realized, but must at best be approximated.” Knowing this, the realist shoulders the burdens of power with more resignation than enthusiasm. “Power,” advises Niebuhr, “ought always to be exercised with a certain uneasiness of conscience.”

Wary of claims of American exceptionalism, the realist understands that the United States is intrinsically neither more nor less virtuous than other nations that have wielded great authority in the past. As a result, for a democratic hegemon, the crucial function of those outside of government is to challenge claims by agencies of state power that their motives and actions are intrinsically righteous. “Powerful men and nations,” warns Niebuhr, “are in greater peril from their own illusions than from their neighbors’ hostile designs.” For the world’s only superpower, the most pernicious illusion may well be to cling uncritically to the myth of its own uniqueness, innocence, and moral superiority. Taken not only as an explanation for past success but as a “permanent quality,” writes Morgenthau, that alleged moral superiority seemingly “justifies the national claim to be the lawgiver and arbiter of mankind.” The unhappy result may be to lure an overconfident and unsuspecting people “to jump into the abyss as if it were the consummation of their dreams.”


A century-long effort to secure acceptance of American revolutionary ideals has culminated in spectacular vindication. Having labored so assiduously to make its imprint on the world, the United States cannot withdraw from the leading role it has taken on in international affairs. Indeed, those who prattle about the dangers of isolationism only divert attention from more pressing concerns. Yet if the United States cannot divorce itself from the world, neither can it indulge in utopian dreams that fuel expectations of sustaining American dominance on the cheap. Neither the process of economic globalization nor continuing efforts to spread democracy will free the United States from its vexing and morally perilous responsibilities. The position to which America has ascended demands that we shed our outmoded pretensions of republican innocence and accept the necessity henceforth of living with an uneasy conscience.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Taking stock of Obama’s promises

January 14, 2015

Taking stock of Obama’s promises


Obama’s final State of the Union address is his last chance to live up to once defiantly optimistic rhetoric that recently has devolved into pleading for change

by Dan Roberts in Washington and Mona Chalabi in New York

The return to Saudi Arabia on Monday (January 11) of the 104th detainee left languishing in Guantánamo Bay marks a concerted scramble to shore up Barack Obama’s legacy as he gives his final State of the Union address to Congress this week.

Seven years ago this month, in freezing conditions on the steps outside Capitol Hill, the president told euphoric crowds that American ideals would once again “light up the world” in an inauguration speech that promised an end to such ugly compromises between liberty and security.

In some respects, the 44th President does rival Democratic legend Franklin D Roosevelt for his progressive accomplishments. Healthcare reform and action on climate change would alone be worthy of historic comparison. An unprecedented period of job growth since the banking crash breaks records even among Republicans.

But few have laboured under the weight of such expectation, or helped add to it with such soaring poetry. That first inaugural described how he hears “fallen heroes in Arlington [cemetery] whisper through the ages”. In last year’s State of the Union, he declared: “We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores.”

That 2015 speech showed Obama’s snarky side too, as he taunted opponents who clapped when he said he had no more campaigns to run. “I know, because I won both of them,” shot back a president whose command of comedic timing has repeatedly put professional comedians to shame.

Yet, not only is this year’s address his last big chance for talking, but also the last big chance to show he can live up to the rhetoric.

Though Obama has more than a year left in office, the Iowa caucus on  February 1 fires the starting gun in a presidential election likely to eclipse whatever achievements he can drive past a bitterly divided

The governing may not be over, but the accounting has begun. Assessing the legacy of the world’s most powerful man before he has even left office is an imperfect science. The most meaningful answer will come from the American people when they choose in November between one of the many Republicans seeking to reverse Obama’s policies, or a Democrat seeking to cement them.

But Guardian analysis of the 132 significant promises made over the course of six previous state of the union speeches, two inaugurals and Obama’s first address to Congress in 2009 reveals just how many will remain unfinished for his successor to tackle.

The big ones are signed off and there for all to see. Alongside climate, jobs and health, Obama can boast of meeting, in Cuba and Iran at least, his pledge to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.

Only when you study the speeches in detail to assess whether in fact they have delivered – do the oddities jump out: the forgotten boasts, or wrinkles in established wisdom.

Take Obama’s 2011 promise to “become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015”. Though his environmental record is strong overall, this particular pledge represents a moment of bold, unrealistic optimism from Obama – the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration show that sales have stagnated. A 2011 report from the Department of Energy foretold possible reasons why – “initial costs and lack of familiarity with the technology”. Even at the federal level, hybrid and electric vehicles make up just 7% of all vehicles purchased over the past six years.

Conversely a 2010 claim to “double our exports over the next five years” and strengthen trade with Asia, looks good on its own but needs to be put in context. An impressive growth in exports – up 50% between 2009 and 2014 – has been overshadowed by the fact that ambitions were again set too high. More importantly, that success is undermined by the fact that imports have also risen 46% over the same period meaning that the overall trade deficit has barely dropped.

Other stories are so twisty as to merit, acres of caveats. In 2011, Obama promised to reduce the deficit by $400bn over a decade and when the financial year came to a close on 30 September 2015, the federal deficit had shrunk by $45bn in the space of 12 months – but it was still an enormous $439bn. Government spending has actually risen by $0.2tn between 2009 and 2015) but overall Obama has managed to make progress in reducing the deficit, despite political deadlock, due to rising government receipts.

Even where success is largely acknowledged, there are wrinkles. The flagship healthcare reform was repeatedly justified on the grounds of cost – and although this should of course not be the only measure against which its success should be judged, there at least, it appears to have fallen short. Costs, including out-of-pocket expenses, have risen faster than inflation. The president instead, has to resort to technical explanations such as “bending the curve” of healthcare inflation to explain why this is still a notable achievement.

But the most telling story is the slide in Obama’s own expectations over the period of these speeches.What began as a promise to “brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come” quickly morphed into calls for Congress to allow him funding for more manufacturing hubs and use his “convening power” to persuade states to pay for more preschools.

And the biggest boast of all, to rebuild the American dream, appears as far off as ever, as wage growth and social mobility fail to match achievement elsewhere in the economy.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” acknowledged Obama in 2014. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

The tone toward lawmakers in that State of the Union in particular marks the point the president becomes pleading, almost exasperated with his fellow politicians. “Congress, give these hard-working, responsible Americans that chance,” he urges. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.”

By 2015, he was giving a taste of what we may expect this year, vague language focusing less on demands he knows will not be met and more on the political changes that need to happen first. “Tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us,” he said.

But Obama is nothing if not an optimist, and the 2016 final State of the Union is likely to centre on his belief that change and progress are both inevitable.

“Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision,” he said last year.

“I know how tempting such cynicism may be,” he added. “But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long,”


Realist Perspective on US Foreign Policy

January 14, 2016

Realist Perspective on US Foreign Policy

From Iraq and WMDs to Israel and Palestine to Syria and Russia, how the United States could’ve avoided some of its biggest mistakes.

by Stephen M Walt

What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like?


Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr and Jimmy Carter

Here’s a puzzle for all you students of U.S. foreign policy: Why is a distinguished and well-known approach to foreign policy confined to the margins of public discourse, especially in the pages of our leading newspapers, when its recent track record is arguably superior to the main alternatives?

I refer, of course, to realism. I’m not suggesting that realism and realists are completely marginalized these days — after all, you’re reading a realist right now — but the public visibility and policy influence of the realist perspective is disproportionately small when compared either to liberal internationalism (among Democrats) or neoconservatism (in the GOP).

This situation is surprising insofar as realism is a well-established tradition in the study of foreign affairs, and realists like George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and others said many smart things about U.S. foreign policy in the past. Realism also remains a foundational perspective in the academic study of international affairs and with good reason. At a minimum, you’d think this sophisticated body of thought would have a prominent place in debates on foreign policy and that card-carrying realists would be a visible force inside the Beltway and in the world of punditry.


Furthermore, realism’s predictions over the past 25 years are clearly better than the claims of liberals and neoconservatives, which have dominated U.S. foreign policy making since the Cold War ended. Yet time and time again, presidents have pursued the liberal/neoconservative agenda and ignored the counsels of realism. Similarly, major media outlets have shown little inclination to give realists a prominent platform from which to disseminate their views.

The results, alas, speak for themselves. When the Cold War ended, the United States was on good terms with all of the world’s major powers, al Qaeda was a minor nuisance, a genuine peace process was underway in the Middle East, and America was enjoying its “unipolar moment.” Power politics was supposedly becoming a thing of the past, and humankind was going to get busy getting rich in a globalized world where concerns about prosperity, democracy, and human rights would increasingly dominate the international political agenda. Liberal values were destined to spread to every corner of the globe, and if that process didn’t move fast enough, American power would help push it along.

Fast forward to today. Relations with Russia and China are increasingly confrontational; democracy is in retreat in Eastern Europe and Turkey; and the entire Middle East is going from bad to worse. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting in Afghanistan for 14 years, and the Taliban are holding their own and may even be winning. Two decades of U.S. mediation has left the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” in tatters. Even the European Union — perhaps the clearest embodiment of liberal ideals on the planet — is facing unprecedented strains for which there is no easy remedy.


All of which raises the following counterfactual: Would the United States and the world be better off today if the last three presidents had followed the dictates of realism, instead of letting liberals and neocons run the show? The answer is yes.

To remind you: Realism sees power as the centerpiece of political life and sees states as primarily concerned with ensuring their own security in a world where there’s no world government to protect them from others. Realists believe military power is essential to preserving a state’s independence and autonomy, but they recognize it is a crude instrument that often produces unintended consequences. Realists believe nationalism and other local identities are powerful and enduring; states are mostly selfish; altruism is rare; trust is hard to come by; and norms and institutions have a limited impact on what powerful states do. In short, realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint, no matter how appealing it might be in the abstract.

Had Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama been following the realist playbook, how would U.S. foreign policy since 1993 been different?

Had Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama been following the realist playbook, how would U.S. foreign policy since 1993 been different?

First, and most obviously, had Bush listened to Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, or some other notable realists, he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush would have focused solely on eliminating al Qaeda, instead of getting bogged down in Iraq.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers would not have been killed or wounded, and several hundred thousand dead Iraqis would still be alive. Iran’s regional influence would be substantially smaller, and the Islamic State would not exist. Thus, rejecting sound realist advice has cost the U.S. taxpayer several trillion dollars, along with the obvious human price and the resulting geopolitical chaos.

Second, had American leaders embraced the wisdom of realism, the United States would not have pushed NATO expansion in the 1990s or would have limited it to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Realists understood that great powers are especially sensitive to configurations of power on or near their borders, and thus experts such as George Kennan warned that NATO expansion would inevitably poison relations with Russia. Expanding NATO didn’t strengthen the alliance; it just committed the United States to defend a group of weak and hard-to-defend protectorates that were far from the United States but right next door to Russia. Ladies and gentlemen: This is a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics.

A better alternative was the original “Partnership for Peace,” which sought to build constructive security ties with former Warsaw Pact members, including Russia. Unfortunately, this sensible approach was abandoned in the idealistic rush to expand NATO, a decision reflecting liberal hopes that the security guarantees entailed by membership would never have to be honored.

Realists also understood that trying to bring Georgia or Ukraine into “the West” was likely to prompt a harsh reaction from Moscow and that Russia had the capacity to derail these efforts if it wished. Ukraine would still be a mess if realists had been in charge of U.S. foreign policy, but Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and the fighting that has taken place in eastern Ukraine since 2014 would probably not have occurred. Had Clinton, Bush, and Obama listened to realists, in short, relations with Russia would be significantly better and Eastern Europe would probably be more secure.

Third, a president following the realist playbook would not have embraced the strategy of “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf. Instead of pledging to contain Iran and Iraq simultaneously, a realist would have taken advantage of their mutual rivalry and used each to balance the other. Dual containment committed the United States to opposing two countries that were bitter rivals, and it forced Washington to keep large ground and air forces in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. This long-term military presence became one of Osama bin Laden’s major grievances and thus helped put the United States on the road to the 9/11 attacks. A realist approach to Persian Gulf politics would have made that attack less likely, though of course not impossible.

Fourth, realists also warned that trying to “nation-build” in Afghanistan was a fool’s errand — especially after the invasion of Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup — and correctly predicted that Obama’s 2009 “surge” was not going to work. Had Obama listened to the realists, the United States would have cut its losses in Afghanistan a long time ago and the outcome would be no different from what we are going to get anyway. Countless lives and vast sums of money would have been saved, and the United States would be in a stronger strategic position today.

Fifth, for realists, the nuclear deal with Iran shows what the United States can accomplish when it engages in tough-minded but flexible diplomacy. But Washington might have gotten an even better deal had Bush or Obama listened to the realists and conducted serious diplomacy back when Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was much smaller. Realists repeatedly warned that Iran would never agree to give up its entire enrichment capacity and that threatening Tehran with military force would only increase its desire for a latent weapons capability. Had the United States shown more flexibility earlier — as realists advised — it might have halted Iran’s nuclear development at a much lower level. More adroit U.S. diplomacy might even have forestalled the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and moved the two countries toward a more constructive relationship. Perhaps not, but the United States could hardly have done worse.

Sixth, realists of various stripes have been critical of America’s “special relationship” with Israel and warned that it was harmful to both countries. Contrary to the smears directed at them by some of Israel’s more ardent defenders, this position did not stem from any intrinsic hostility to Israel’s existence or to the idea that the United States and Israel should cooperate when their interests align. Rather, it stemmed from the belief that unconditional U.S. support for Israel was undermining America’s image in the world, making the terrorism problem worse, and allowing Tel Aviv to continue its self-destructive effort to create a “greater Israel” at the expense of the Palestinians. Realists also argued that achieving a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians required that the United States pressure both sides instead of acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” At this point, can anyone seriously question the accuracy of this view, given the repeated failures of alternative approaches?

Finally, had Obama listened to his more realistic advisors (e.g., Robert Gates), he would not have helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, creating yet another failed state in the process. Qaddafi was a despicable ruler, to be sure, but advocates of humanitarian intervention both exaggerated the risk of “genocide” and underestimated the disorder and violence that would follow the collapse of Qaddafi’s thugocracy.

A realist would also have warned Obama not to say “Assad must go” or to draw a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons.

A realist would also have warned Obama not to say “Assad must go” or to draw a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons. Not because Bashar al-Assad should be defended or because chemical weapons are legitimate instruments of war, but because U.S. vital interests were not involved and it was clear from the beginning that Assad and his associates had little choice but to try to cling to power by any means necessary. For realists, the overriding task was to end the civil war quickly and with as little loss of life as possible, even if that required doing business with a brutal tyrant. Had Obama listened to realists a few years ago, the Syrian civil war might — repeat, might — have been shut down before so many lives were lost and the country was irretrievably broken.

In short, had realists been at the helm of U.S. foreign policy over the past 20 years, it is likely that a number of costly debacles would have been avoided and some important achievements would have been realized. One might question some of these claims, but on the whole realists have a much better track record than those who keep insisting the United States has the right, responsibility, and wisdom to manage virtually every important global issue, and who have repeatedly urged Washington to take actions that now look foolish.

So here’s the puzzle: Realist advice has performed better than its main rivals over the past two-and-a-half decades, yet realists are largely absent from prominent mainstream publications.

Consider the regular op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. These three newspapers are arguably the most important print publications in the United States, and their coverage and commentary set the tone for many other publications. Columnists at each paper are also widely sought out for lectures and other media appearances and routinely hobnob with influential figures in the policy worlds. All three publications are essentially realism-free zones, and the Post and the Journal are, if anything, openly hostile to a realist view of international politics and U.S. foreign policy.

At the New York Times, the list of columnists regularly writing on foreign affairs includes one neoconservative (David Brooks) and several well-known liberal internationalists (Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, and Roger Cohen). Ross Douthat is a more traditional conservative, but he rarely writes on foreign affairs and is certainly not a realist. Despite certain differences among them, all of these writers are eloquent defenders of U.S. interventionism all around the globe for all sorts of reasons. The Washington Post employs four hard-line neoconservatives—editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and Jackson Diehl–and used to feature William Kristol as well. Its regular columnists also include former Bush administration speechwriters Marc Thiessen and Michael Gerson and far-right blogger Jennifer Rubin, along with the more centrist  David Ignatius and the increasingly bellicose Richard Cohen. Needless to say, none of these writers is a realist and all of them strongly support an activist U.S. foreign policy. As James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn observed in The National Interest last year, Hiatt has in effect “turned the paper into a megaphone for unrepentant warrior intellectuals,” and now leads “the most reckless editorial page in America.”

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving these writers a prominent platform, and many of the people I just mentioned are worth reading. What is bizarre is the absence of anyone presenting a more straightforward realist view of contemporary world politics. On rare occasions, all three papers will publish a guest op-ed reflecting a more realist perspective, but there’s nobody on the regular payroll who comes close to advocating for a realist approach. You can find a few realists at specialized publications like this one (or at the National Interest), but not at the commanding heights of American journalism, let alone big broadcast outlets like Fox, CNN, or even MSNBC.

Why are these three elite outlets so allergic to realist views, given that realists have been (mostly) right about some very important issues, and the columnists they publish have often been wrong? I don’t really know, but I suspect it is because contemporary foreign-policy punditry is mostly about indulging hopes and promoting ideals, rather than providing hardheaded thinking about which policies are most likely to make the United States more prosperous and more secure. And because the United States is already so strong and safe, it can afford to pursue unrealistic goals again and again and let the unfortunate victims of our good intentions suffer the consequences.

So here’s my challenge to Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, the Sulzberger family, and anyone else who runs a major media operation: Why not hire a realist? If you’re looking for some suggestions, how about Paul Pillar, Chas Freeman Jr., Robert Blackwill, Steve Clemons, Michael Desch, Steve Chapman, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Andrew Bacevich, or Daniel Larison?

Give one of them a weekly column, and then you could genuinely claim to be offering your readers a reasonably comprehensive and balanced range of opinion on international affairs. I mean: What are you folks so afraid of?


Reject TPPA for Malaysia’s sake

January 13, 2016

Reject TPPA, say  Centre for Human Rights Research, CLJ and Young Professionals

The Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA), Concerned Lawyers for Justice (CLJ) and Young Professionals (YP) follow with concern ongoing domestic developments with regard to the intended tabling of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) for debate before Parliament scheduled for the 26, 27 and 28 of this month.

MITI's Mustapha Mohamed

News reports have quoted our International Trade and Industry (MITI) Minister Dato’ Seri Mustapa Mohamed as stating that the TPPA is now better received now that “in-depth” discussions have been held with the rakyat and Opposition MPs.

Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Anifah Aman chipped in quoting a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, being a report prepared by a foreign and United States-based company, stating that participation of Malaysia in the TPPA negotiations was positive. Following Dato’ Seri Mustapa Mohamed’s statement, MITI has also released a booklet in Malay titled TPPA: Jawapan Kepada Kebimbangan, Salah Faham dan Tuduhan aiming to dispel so-called misconceptions on the TPPA arising ostensibly as a result of disinformation.

Alas, in our opinion, the said booklet has failed to achieve its supposed objectives, for far from dispelling concerns on the TPPA, it merely repeats bare and misleading assertions that the agreement will only be beneficial for Malaysia and in no way undermines our sovereignty.

This move, coupled with recent worrying actions on part of those in power especially in raising an objection to the application for leave for judicial review brought by three concerned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) casts serious doubt on the credibility and ability of MITI in particular, and the government in general, to keep the interests of the nation at heart when negotiating international agreements.

Since the government through their roadshows has confidently claimed that signing the TPPA will not infringe the Federal Constitution and would not affect the sovereignty of our nation, why then would they fear our courts hearing a challenge to the same on its merits? If indeed it is true as the government claims that signing the TPPA would not amount to bartering our independence for nothing, then they should not be afraid to let the court peruse and closely inspect the 6000 over pages TPPA to decide upon the constitutionality of the same on its merits — in pith and substance.

Certainly there are many aspects of the TPPA that concern us but for the purpose of this statement we would like to highlight in particular those relating to Chapter 28 on Dispute Settlement, known as ISDS.

According to the MITI-issued booklet, there is in place a transparent and predictable investment regime which allow recourse in the event of disputes and in these, there are clear provisions in the ISDS mechanism that ensures that the Government can control and avoid baseless proceedings made against it.


A careful scrutiny however, reveals otherwise. For one, the body that decides disputes arising under the TPPA are not the national courts and tribunals of the state parties to the TPPA, but a panel consisting of three privately appointed arbitrators (Article 28.9.1).

According to respected law academic, Alan B. Morrison, who is Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at The George Washington University Law School in the United States in his letter to his congressional representative dated June 10, 2015, these arbitrators are generally private lawyers who specialise in international trade and investment who themselves rely on income generated by representing investors suing governments, an observation echoed by University of Malaya law professor Professor Gurdial S. Nijar speaking at the Malaysian Economic Association’s forum on the TPPA on 11 January 2016.

Currently access to international arbitration is widely available for any trade dispute so it is hard to fathom why there is a need for this mechanism under the TPPA.

Further, under the TPPA, when laws and regulations are challenged by an investor, the sole defendant would be the Federal Government even if the law or regulation challenged is a state law or by-law, including Shariah enactments by the states. For example, the law and administration of waqf land which is under the jurisdiction of the states according to Item 1 of the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Were a corporation desirous of a certain parcel of land for development or in order to establish a factory and waqf law prohibits its acquisition by the said corporation, the corporation may then sue the Federal Government under ISDS.

Professor Gurdial at the above mentioned forum also mentioned that this is true in respect of the bauxite mining activities which have created serious environmental damage in the state of Pahang. The corporation which has caused the damage can and most certainly will sue the Federal Government over the move by the Pahang state government to stop such detrimental activities were the TPPA in effect.

Although pursuant to Article 80(5) arrangements may be made between the Federal Government and the state government concerns in respect of any dispute, there may be important legal and public policy differences that could hinder such cooperation, particularly when both governments are controlled by different political parties.

These raise four principal concerns: (1) the panel would be required to decide what are essentially matters of domestic Malaysian law which are reserved for our own courts; (2) the arbitrators are not officers of the Judicial and Legal Service established by our Constitution nor appointees by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong to our superior courts but are essentially private citizens that can be of any nationality; (3) the consent of Malaysia is a general consent at federal level and where there is a challenge to a state or by-law, the state or locality never consents and must rely on the Federal Government to defend it, raising federalism concerns; (4) there is no judicial review by our own courts or even any international court or tribunal of the merits of what is decided by the arbitrators, especially whether the TPPA has been violated at all, as all other courts and tribunals are excluded (Article 28.4.2). A proper ISDS mechanism is meant to assure investors that in the event of disputes, they have recourse in addition to domestic courts and not to their exclusion. In this regard the ISDS chapter certainly infringes on the policy freedom of the government by going beyond merely outlining the process by which a dispute over the underlining substantive principles in the agreement will be arbitrated.

And in fact, such arbitration can be resorted to by all parties without the need for this mechanism of the TPPA.

Under the previous version of Article 121 of the Constitution prior to the coming into force of the Constitution (Amendment) Act 1988 on 10 June 1988, judicial powers were solely vested in our superior courts.

Although the current version of the Article states that courts shall only have such jurisdiction as conferred by federal law, it is internationally recognised, and remains a fundamental element of sovereignty, that judicial decision making, in particular in disputes concerning national laws and regulations, are the sole prerogative of the respective national courts and tribunals, in the case of Malaysian laws, for the Malaysian courts.

Any transfer of this decision making process to three private individuals as provided for in the ISDS chapter in the TPPA is utterly abhorrent to our sovereignty and is unconstitutional. CENTHRA, CLJ and YP strongly believe that this concern on dispute settlement alone is reason enough to reject the TPPA in its entirety and calls upon the Government to do so immediately.

For the reasons enumerated above we call on the Government to heed the concerns of the rakyat not to sign the TPPA and to immediately cease all activities geared towards that end, and for Parliament to exercise its wisdom in rejecting outright, in totality, the TPPA. If, as the MITI Minister says, the TPPA will be signed without Malaysia as a result, then so be it, and we at CENTHRA, CLJ and YP believe that such an outcome would indeed be the better one for the continued independence of our nation. — Reuters