A Young Cambodian Leader Goes to Washington DC

January 23, 2016

Hun Many Speaks to the United States: Cambodia-US Relations

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This Keynote Address at John Hopkins University was hotly debated by doctoral students at my class today.  I hope this is useful for those who are interested in Cambodian affairs. This erudite and articulate leader spoke with conviction about the path towards freedom, peace and development and the achievements and challenges of his country.–Din Merican

The Voice of America (dated January 21, 2016) carried the following report (by Kamseng Men)


‘Good Prospects’ for Improved US Relations, Cambodia Lawmaker Says

FILE - Hun Many, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's son, attends the Independence Day celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 9, 2015.

The U.S. and Cambodia have so far forged a good relationship, but there is room for improvement, a Cambodian lawmaker said Wednesday.

In a rare speaking engagement, Hun Many, a son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told an audience in Washington that there are “good prospects” for the two countries.

“But it starts with us trying to understand each other, trying to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, and [understand that] any decision is actually rational, in regards to the perspective of our own national interests,” he said.

Hun Many, who spoke at the U.S.-Korean Institute under Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, said Cambodia needs more friends than just the U.S. and China.

“We don’t only look at narrow spectrum of, ‘OK, I choose only this friend over this friend,'” he said.

Crowd Reaction

Conor Cronin, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who attended the discussion — which comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to visit Cambodia next week — said that in the current context it is possible for a stronger relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia.

“I think the U.S. wants to be close, but they don’t want to ignore human rights abuses,” he said. “They don’t want to ignore issues with corruption and governance in Cambodia. So I think the U.S. does want to be closer with Cambodia, and Cambodia wants to be closer with the United States, but they need to iron out certain differences before that’s going to be possible.”

However, more work needs to be done to convince others, like Michael Doung, a Cambodian American who attended the talk.

Hun Many and other lawmakers have done little to help Cambodia’s youth who are migrating in high numbers in search of work abroad, Doung said.

“There should be broader education for Cambodian youth, quality education, and there should be jobs for them after they graduate,” he said. “If they have to migrate outside of the country to seek jobs, what’s the point of learning? It’s just a waste of school tuition fees.”

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Today

TPPA: To Sign or Not to Sign

January 16, 2016

TPPA: To Sign or Not to Sign

by Lim Teck Ghee

The TPPA is neither a poison pill nor a panacea. While there is a price to pay, the Government has made the right choice by opting to join it. The discipline that the TPPA will demand will further the cause of the rule of law and force the Government to think twice before embarking on rule changes. Membership will force the Government to reconsider and amend existing rules that have the effect of furthering protective and rentier practices… [t] TPPA is also not the ultimate game changer for the country’s economic fortunes and future. Sound, prudent, competitive and merit-based policies together with much needed but still suppressed structural reforms along a broad front are the only way forward.–TG Lim


An array of disparate groups and individuals have emerged in the country to dissuade the Government from signing the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). They include political parties, non-governmental organizations, individual academics and various professionals.

They join a number of trade unions, advocacy groups, activists and elected officials from other participating countries who have protested against the treaty, in large part because of the secrecy of negotiations, its all-compassing scope, and various controversial clauses contained in early drafts.

But does this diversity of national and international opposition signify that our Government has made the wrong decision in joining 11other Pacific Rim countries in this landmark agreement?First, it is necessary to note that the agreement’s stated goals are to “promote economic growth; support the creation and retention of jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in countries; and promote transparency, good governance, and enhanced labor and environmental protections.”

Trade is seen by all the signatory countries as an instrument to help achieve national and regional economic and social goals that are desirable.Second, although the current agreement covers the initial 12 countries which have been engaged in the 7 years of negotiation, five other countries – Colombia, Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea – have expressed interest in joining; whilst Indonesia has expressed intent to join.

All the Governments that have joined now or may join in the future can be presumed to have their own national interest at heart. Twelve have weighed the losses and benefits of the agreement and decided that it is in the best interests of their country and people to sign on.

Has the Malaysian Government somehow been taken for a ride, deceived or been derelict in protecting our national interests? How valid are the concerns expressed and should Malaysia stay out of the TPPA?

Many of the objections put forward in our country are cut and paste jobs mirroring those articulated by critics in the United States, New Zealand and some of the other Pacific Rim countries. Thus, a major concern has been over the special rights provided to foreign investors and what has been denounced as a straight jacket around policies and laws relating to GM labelling, foreign investment laws, price of medicines, etc.

These objections have been responded to by the Malaysian government which will be presenting two separate cost analyses on the agreement in Parliament soon.Looking beyond the lens of trade and a narrowly economic perspective, we can see three areas of larger concern stressed by the the TPPA’s critics and detractors in the country.

The first relates to the possibility that the TPPA will lead to or result in greater inequality in Malaysia due to its negative impact on the country’s access to affordable medicines, education, food security and employment generation.On this concern, it is possible that we will see greater inequality and wealth concentration take place in Malaysia in the foreseeable future. But this will not be because of the TPPA. In the last 20 and more years we have seen low wages and the high cost of living hurt our lower and middle class. Wealth concentration has led to a serious and increasing gap between the rich and the poor. At the same time corruption, extravagance and waste has resulted in less resources being made available to develop the nation and assist the poor.

At the heart of our inequality malaise is not trade policy. It is not how we have been or will be integrated into international markets and trading blocs.It is due to economic mismanagement and badly implemented policies, especially in education, which have squandered our comparative advantage and resulted in the inability to sustain our global competitiveness or raise our game when we had the opportunity with our strong post-independence head-start and the bonanza of oil and natural gas wealth in the 80s and 90’s.

A second concern is that we will have a loss in our national sovereignty by signing the agreement. The red flag of national sovereignty or national security, unsurprisingly, has been raised by Perkasa and other Malay rights groups and individuals who want NEP (New Economic Policy) and pro-Malay policies in the economy and society to continue indefinitely.

On this concern, developments in the drafting work point to the fact that the Minister of International Trade and Industry and his team have done a good job of negotiating an agreement which in Dato’ Seri Mustapa Mohamed’s words “ensures that our Constitution, sovereignty and core policies of the nation – including the interests of the Bumiputera community – are safeguarded and upheld.”

Whether the retention of pro-Malay policies in government procurement and other key areas will in fact work out to the advantage of the Malay community or will turn out to be a dead weight working against our national, including Malay interests, remains to be seen.

A third objection is that the TPPA is the creation of US multinationals and investors who, together with US foreign policy interests, are aiming at curbing the rise of China and Chinese economic dominance. It is possible that an anti-China bias is part of the agenda of some US multinationals and of US policy makers. But this really is not any concern of ours as a sovereign and non-aligned nation and is no reason for us to stay out.

At the same time, opposition against US foreign policy and dominance of the world is best expressed at the appropriate fora and various channels of state and public opinion – not in a multilateral trade agreement.


The arguments advanced by critics of the TPPA on the lack of trade benefits or losses especially those focusing on loss of national sovereignty are premature, exaggerated and overdrawn. Of course, we need to do due diligence to all chapters of the TPPA and ensure that our national interests are protected.

But at the end of the day, we must not avoid being integrated into the existing dominant trading system. We cannot afford a retreat into isolationism; neither should we fall prey to the romantic belief that we have special characteristics which can enable us to stand against the tide of global or regional economic integration.

We risk losing more especially if foreign businesses and investors stay on the sidelines or reduce their investment should we opt out of the TPPA. Without the TPPA too, it is likely that many local businesses will face greater international barriers in addition to the local and national constraints and handicaps already in place.

It is not only big local corporations and their workers that will be hurt. The Malaysian consumer and ordinary worker will also suffer from the direct and knock on effects of a closed or isolated economy. Look at Cuba, North Korea and Iran.

Most scholars and policy makers are in agreement that globalization and growth in trade have contributed to the reduction of poverty and raising of living standards in many countries. Unless contrary evidence is produced to show that this hypothesis does not apply to Malaysia, we can assume that our present and future prosperity and development rests with an open economy (and society).

The TPPA is neither a poison pill nor a panacea. While there is a price to pay, the Government has made the right choice by opting to join it. The discipline that the TPPA will demand will further the cause of the rule of law and force the Government to think twice before embarking on rule changes. Membership will force the Government to reconsider and amend existing rules that have the effect of furthering protective and rentier practices.

Finally, the TPPA is also not the ultimate game changer for the country’s economic fortunes and future. Sound, prudent, competitive and merit-based policies together with much needed but still suppressed structural reforms along a broad front are the only way forward.     


Malaysia :Moderates and extremists and anyone in between

January 15, 2016

 Malaysia :Moderates and extremists and anyone in between

by Dr. Kua Kia Soong

Our society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which “moderates”, “extremists”, “national security”, “national harmony” and other fluffy terms have become relative (Doublespeak) and imprecise, depending on how they are defined by the state and the judiciary.–Kua Kia Soong

The rise of the far right and the religious bigots in Malaysia has in turn given rise to a movement of “moderates”. As human beings, we have an instinctive grasp of the ancient wisdom of moderation as the way (the Tao) to a healthy body and way of life. In the body politic, however, espousing “moderation” becomes imprecise since it is an example of fluffy language that is also used by the powers-that-be to deal with those who uphold truth, justice and human rights.


Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was detained without trial by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad under Operation Lalang from 1987 to 1989, the Special Branch in their relentless interrogations insisted on categorizing me as an “extremist”.

Among ‘allegations of fact’ under the Internal Security Act, I was alleged to have written a book ‘Polarisation in Malaysia: The Root Causes’. This is an excellent example of the relativism of “moderation” and “extremism” in Malaysia.

In the first place, this book was sponsored and signed by all the 24 major Chinese associations in Malaysia in 1987. It was not banned by the government. But I was considered an “extremist” for having written it and (in their eyes) deserved to be detained without trial because I was alleged to have threatened the internal security of the country.

On the other hand, Mahathir himself had in fact written a book, The Malay Dilemma, in 1969 and the government at the time under the Tunku had considered it “extremist” and banned the book. Nonetheless, while his book was considered “extremist” and not fit for public consumption, Mahathir was not considered extremist enough to be detained without trial and he has, in fact, never been detained under the ISA.

If we are to ensure the principles of democracy are upheld, we have to question the validity of the issues involved in such loosely used terms as “moderation” or “extremism”, and take a stand so as not to fall for these fluffy concepts. Recently, we had religious bigots and racists calling for Bibles containing the word “Allah” to be burned. The authorities considered them to be “moderates” because they were “merely trying to defend Islam”. Such an interpretation of “moderation” seems to go on ad nauseam in contemporary Malaysian society.


Our society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which labels such as “moderates”, “extremists”, “national security”, “national harmony” and other fluffy terms have become relative (Doublespeak) and imprecise, depending on how they are defined by the state and the judiciary. This requires civic vigilance to demand precision about who “the perpetrators of a crime” are; we need to know “who specifically said what” and “what specifically they said or did”. “

Calling an Equality Act an Equality Act

It is very clear that we are trying to deal with a problem widely recognised by the world community, at least since the Second World War – namely, racism, racial discrimination, related prejudice and intolerance. Let us examine how other countries deal with this problem.

Britain has the Equality Act 2010, the purpose of which is to align the Race Relations Act with European human rights legislation and to extend protection to other groups not previously covered namely, age, disability, gender, religion, belief and sexual orientation.

Thus, in my critique of the “Harmony Act” that has been proposed to replace the Sedition Act, I have stressed that we should call an Equality Act an Equality Act and not by any other fluffy name. If equality is still taboo in Malaysia in the 21st century, we are indeed living in Never-never Land (or Takboleh Land)!

Religious bigotry and Islamic populism

The increasing cases of religious bigotry and injustice toward non-Muslims in the country are actually instances of the misapplication of the federal constitution which provided for freedom of religion as at independence. Subsequent amendments to the Federal Constitution and state enactments have led to the Judiciary deferring its powers to the inferior syariah courts in disputes between a Muslim and a non-Muslim regarding conversion from Islam and other areas.

To reinstate the status quo ante as it was in 1957 (our “social contract”?), there needs to be in place a Law Commission that would be empowered to ensure freedom of religion in this country and restate the jurisdiction of the civil courts and the syariah courts. In upholding the principle of freedom of religion in the federal constitution, the post-1957 state enactments that clearly violate this freedom – as in the case of the Bible-seizing episodes – have to be rescinded. Such a reform is essential in order to recognize the 1957 “social contract” as supreme and thus prevent any further Bible-seizing adventures. This and not the magnanimity of the Menteri Besar or the monarch is crucial in establishing our right to freedom of religion under the federal constitution.

Routinization of racial discrimination

These are examples of the routinization of racial discrimination in Malaysia that has become part of the “normality” accepted by many so-called “moderates”. Again, this only exposes the relativity and vagueness of the concept of “moderation” that currently abounds in the media and begs the question: moderate in relation to what?

Concerned Malaysians should call for the institution of structural reforms for healthy ethnic relations and the equality to which we as citizens are entitled. These include calling upon the government to immediately initiate moves to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

We need to address the main issues of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance in our society and to propose appropriate bills and institutions to resolve these problems. Failure to do so results in fluffily clad initiatives and bills which can be used by despots as double-edged swords to deal only with human rights defenders rather than the perpetrators of hate and division.

Dr. Kua Kia Soong is the adviser of SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia).


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.

US Foreign Policy :The Limits of American Realism

January 12, 2016

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Columnist

US Foreign Policy :The Limits of American Realism

Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy? Stephen M. Walt, a Professor of International affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”


Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge.

He describes the expansion eastward of NATO after the end of the Cold War as “a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics” that needlessly poisoned relations with Russia. This argument is in fact a textbook example of the cynicism and smallness inherent in realism.

Guaranteeing security as the basis for a liberal order in nations from Poland to Estonia emerging from the trauma of the Soviet Imperium amounts to a major American strategic achievement. (Baker was instrumental in it, proof he was more than a Walt-school realist.) Ask any Pole, Lithuanian or Romanian if they think America erred.

Realists tend to dismiss human suffering; it’s just the way of the world. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe were ushered from totalitarian misery to democratic decency under the protection of the United States and its allies. A debt incurred at Yalta was repaid. European peace and security were extended, an American interest. There is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin would today have overrun at least one of the Baltic countries, absent their NATO membership.

Absolute Power corrupts Absolutely

Putin has created havoc precisely in the no man’s lands — Georgia and Ukraine — rather than in the NATO lands. Russia’s interest, post-1990, was in the dismemberment of the European-American bond, most potently expressed in NATO. That was the real problem.

The United States, almost alone among nations, is also an idea. Excise the notion of the global extension of liberty and its guarantees from American policy and something very meager remains. Putin is a fierce, opportunistic realist. But Americans — Donald Trump notwithstanding — do not want that dish on their tables.

They especially do not want it after the Syrian debacle. Walt argues that realists would have dissuaded President Obama from saying President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and setting a “red line.” But the problem was not that uttering these words was unrealistic. It was that failing to follow up on them was feckless.

Syria has illustrated the limits of White House realism. Realism has dictated non-intervention as hundreds of thousands were killed, millions displaced, and Islamic State emerged. Realism has been behind acquiescence to Assad’s barrel-bomb brutality. If Iraq illustrated disastrous American pursuit of an “ideological blueprint,” Syria has demonstrated a disastrous vacuum of American ideas.

Realism is an essential starting point for American foreign policy. It was absent on Iraq: The result was mayhem that, as Walt rightly says, cost America several trillion dollars. Realism brought the Iran nuclear accord, a signal achievement. More of it might help on Israel-Palestine.

But this is more a time to acknowledge the limits of realism — as a means to deal with the evil of ISIS, the debacle of Syria, or the desperate European refugee crisis — than to cry out for more, or suggest that it is underrepresented in American discourse.


When China becomes No. 1, what then?

January 5, 2016

When China becomes No. 1, what then?

by Kishore Mahbubani*


In introducing this lecture, the Harvard Kennedy School said that for the first time in more than 200 years, a non-Western power, China, will have the largest economy in the world. China’s emergence will change our world order. To understand how China will behave when it becomes number one, this lecture by Kishore Mahbubani will introduce several questions: What are the priorities of the Chinese leaders? What impact have American policies had on China? Will China behave as America does when China becomes number one?

Kishore Mahbubani

It is truly a great honour to be invited to deliver the Albert H. Gordon lecture this year. The hardest part is deciding how to start. Asians always start with an apology. Americans always start with a joke. Sadly, I could not find a good joke, certainly not one as good as the joke that Richard Fisher started with when he delivered this lecture in February 2009.

This is what he said: “Yesterday morning, as I got on the plane to fly up here, I turned to Nancy and said, “In your wildest dreams did you ever envision me following in the footsteps of Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush, David Rockefeller and Ban Ki-moon in giving the Gordon Lecture at the Kennedy School?” And she replied, “I hate to let you down, Richard, but after 35 years of marriage, you rarely appear in my wildest dreams.”

My wife Anne and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in Greece just before coming here. I am sure she would say the same as Nancy. Anyway, as a good Asian, let me apologise for the fact that I have no joke.

It is also no joke that we are probably living through the greatest transformation in human history we have seen. This was the underlying theme of my two most recent books, “The New Asian Hemisphere” and “The Great Convergence”. However, to illustrate this point more clearly, let me cite three spectacular recent developments whose profound implications have not been adequately noticed. In the spirit of the Albert H. Gordon Lecture series, let me pick three examples from the financial sector.

We all know that the world experienced a global financial crisis in 2008-09. We also know that the Fed launched a series of unorthodox monetary policy measures, most notably quantitative easing (QE), to avert a deep recession. What few noticed was what the Fed’s decision meant for Beijing.

Until the onset of the crisis, Chinese leaders were happy that the US and China had settled into a comfortable pattern of mutual dependence. China relied on the US markets to generate exports and jobs. The US relied on China to buy US Treasury Bills to fund US deficit spending. Tom Friedman, in his usual brilliant way, captured this interdependence with a simple metaphor. He said, “We are Siamese twins, but most unlikely ones – joined at the hip, but not identical.”

This Chinese belief that the US government depended on China was further reinforced when President Bush sent an envoy to Beijing in late 2008 to request Beijing not to stop buying US Treasury Bills to avoid rattling the markets further. The Chinese leaders readily agreed and probably felt very smug as this confirmed that the US was also dependent on China.

This smugness was shattered when the US Fed announced the first round of QE measures in November 2008. The Fed’s actions demonstrated that the US did not have to rely on China to buy US treasury bills. The Fed could create its own money to do so. This decision had profound implications for the world. Axel Merk, the president of the investment advisory firm Merk Investments said, “The US is no longer focusing on the quality of its Treasuries. In the past, Washington sought to promote a strong dollar through sound fiscal management. Today, however, policymakers are simply printing greenbacks.” Merk said that by relying on the Federal Reserve’s printing press, the US has effectively told other nations that ‘it’s our dollar – it’s your problem’.

It was clearly a mistake for the Chinese leaders to believe that they had created a relationship of mutual dependence. When China decided to buy almost a trillion dollars of US Treasury bills, it had to do so from export revenues earned from the toil and sweat of Chinese workers. However, if the US wanted to repay this trillion dollars, all the Fed had to do was to increase the size of its balance sheet. This is why several leading economists have said that the US enjoys an “exorbitant privilege” in being able to repay its debts by increasing money supply. The term was coined by Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the French economist Jacques Rueff explained its workings. Barry Eichengreen famously wrote a book on the topic in 2010.

Let me quickly mention the two other developments whose implications have not been fully noted. It is well-known that in recent years, the US has prosecuted several foreign banks, including HSBC, RBS, UBS, Credit Suisse, and Standard Chartered. For example, Standard Chartered Bank was fined 340 million dollars for making payments to Iran. Most Americans reacted with equanimity to the fine paid by Standard Chartered Bank and thought it was just that the Bank was fined for dealing with the “evil” Iranian regime. However, few Americans noticed that Standard Chartered Bank, domiciled in the UK, had broken no British laws. Nor had they violated any mandatory sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. However, since almost all international payments have to go through the United States payment mechanism, the Standard Chartered Bank was fined for violating American laws.

To put it simply, what the US was doing in this case was to say that American laws applied to non-American citizens and non-American corporations operating outside America. This is called extra-territorial application of domestic laws.

The third development was the threat of the US to deny countries access to the SWIFT system. Since all international payments have to go through the SWIFT system, any country denied access to the SWIFT is thrown into a black hole and denied access to any kind of international trading and investment. In a recent column, Fareed Zakaria described well the Russian reaction to the possibility of being denied access to the SWIFT system. In Western media commentaries, Putin is often portrayed as the bad guy and his successor as well as predecessor, Medvedev, is portrayed as the good guy. Yet, it was the “good guy” who went ballistic when he was told of this threat. This is what Medvedev said, “Russian response – economically and otherwise – will know no limits.”

I begin with these stories for a simple reason. Events such as these will have a deep impact in determining the answer to the biggest question of our time: what happens when China becomes number one in the world? Clearly, the answer to this question will determine significantly the course of the 21st century. Hence, we should study this question carefully.

Let me begin with what I hope you will agree are three incontrovertible facts. First, China will become the number one economic power in the world. Second, most Americans, like most Westerners, view China’s rise with great foreboding. Third, the role that China will play as the number one economic power has not been cast in stone. How the world, especially America, reacts to China’s rise will help to influence China’s behaviour in the future. If we make the right decisions now, China could well emerge as a benign great power (even though most Americans find this virtually inconceivable).

This is why it is timely to address the topic of what happens when China becomes number one. It is always better to prepare for the inevitable than to pretend that it will not happen. So far, on balance, America has reacted wisely to China’s rise. However, it is always easier to be wise when a power assumes that it will be number one forever. When the reality sinks in that the number one power is about to become the number two power, it is conceivable that fear may replace wisdom as the dominant driving force in American policy towards China. It would be perfectly normal for this to happen. My goal in this lecture is to try to persuade my American friends to continue to react wisely to China’s rise.

To achieve this goal, I will make a three-part argument. First, I will try to explain what I think are the goals and ambitions of China’s leaders as China emerges as number one. Secondly, I will explain how several wise American policies have so far managed to allow the relatively peaceful emergence of a new great power. Thirdly, I would like to conclude by recommending that America can protect its long-term interests by reacting even more wisely to China’s rise.

Let me begin with the first question: what are the goals and ambitions of China’s leaders as China emerges as number one? Since China is still run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it is conceivable that the goal of China’s leaders could be the same as the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party (like Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev): to prove the superiority of the Soviet Communist System. As Khrushchev famously said on November 18, 1956, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you”.

One of the biggest sources of misunderstanding between America and China arises from China’s decision to retain the term “Communist” in the name of its party. This may clearly signify a commitment to Communist ideology. Yet, even a brief survey of China’s deeds rather than China’s words will show that China has effectively walked away from Communist ideology. Deng Xiaoping encapsulated this shift with his famous remark, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black and white. If it catches mice, it is a good cat.” Effectively, Deng was saying: “It doesn’t matter if the ideology is communism or capitalism. If it helps us, we will use it.” Effectively, China behaves more as a capitalist country rather than as a Communist country, but for complicated internal political reasons, it cannot abandon the term “Communist”.

So if the Chinese leaders are not defending or promoting Communist ideology, what cause are they trying to achieve? The answer is simple and direct: they would like to revive Chinese civilization. If there is one thing that motivates China’s leaders, it is their memory of the many humiliations that China has suffered over the past 150 years. If there is a credo that drives them, it is a simple one: “No more humiliation”. This is why they want to make China a great and powerful nation again. Xi Jinping explained this goal well in his address to UNESCO on March 27, 2014. He said, “The Chinese people are striving to fulfil the Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation. The Chinese dream is about prosperity of the country, rejuvenation of the nation, and happiness of the people. It reflects both the ideal of the Chinese people today and our time-honoured tradition to seek constant progress. The Chinese dream will be realized through balanced development and mutual reinforcement of material and cultural progress. Without the continuation and development of civilization or the promotion and prosperity of culture, the Chinese dream will not come true.”

The revival of the great Chinese civilization is something we should welcome. If the CCP could change its name to ‘Chinese Civilisation Party’, it would do a lot to assuage Western concerns. It has already transformed itself into a meritocratic talent-seeking mechanism that is constantly searching for the best leaders to rule China. Despite the many ups and downs in the history of the CCP, this is what the CCP has become. If the Chinese have finally succeeded in finding the right mechanism to revive Chinese civilization, we should, in theory, welcome this development.

In practice, it is a fact that the West will not rest easy till China transforms itself into a liberal democracy. The Economist, a leading Western magazine, reflects these views. The Economist said in its issue of September 20-26, 2014 that Xi “has become the most powerful Chinese ruler certainly since Deng, and possibly since Mao.” It then calls on Xi to use this enormous power for the greater good and change the system.

The Economist assumes, as most Westerners do, that if China’s system is changed and a Western-style democracy emerges in China, this will be an unmitigated good. This is a dangerous assumption to make. A more democratic China is likely to be a more nationalist China. A more nationalist China could well be a more assertive and aggressive China. Such a China would launch a “popular” war against Japan and act in a far more belligerent fashion over territorial disputes, like those in the South China Sea.

In this sense, the CCP is delivering a major global public good by restraining nationalist forces and voices in China. From time to time, it has to allow some of these forces to be expressed; it has to allow its people to vent nationalist sentiments. However, the CCP also knows when to draw back from volatile situations, as it did with Japan, India, the Philippines and Vietnam in recent years. The West should be careful about wishing for early democracy in China. Its dream could become a nightmare.

At the same time, the West must recognise and respect that China is different; that it is not going to become “Western”. Therefore, the wisest course for the West to adopt would be to allow the present system to continue and to allow it to evolve and change at its own pace.

This brings me to the second part of my argument. As I said earlier, wise American policies have allowed China to emerge peacefully. Some of this wisdom arose out of historical necessity. At the height of the Cold War, when America genuinely feared Soviet expansionism, it reached out to China to balance the Soviet Union. Indeed, America reached out to China when China had emerged out of one of its most brutal phases. Human rights were not a factor in American policy towards China then. This paved the way for Deng to use America as an example to persuade Chinese people to switch away from central planning to free market economies.

In the 1990s, official US-China relations went through a series of ups and downs. Despite the efforts of President George H.W. Bush to keep the relationship on an even keel, the Tiananmen Square episode on June 4, 1989 assaulted American sensibilities and constrained his ability to improve relations. Tiananmen could have derailed US-China relations. When President Clinton took office in January 1993, after having described the leaders of China as the “butchers of Beijing”, one could easily have predicted a far bumpier road. Fortunately, Bill Clinton reacted wisely. I was present at the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting at Blake Island in November 1993 and saw with my own eyes how Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin made an enormous effort to reach out to each other. By the end of the day, their mutual wariness was replaced by a significant degree of personal bonhomie. This episode demonstrated that the United States had been wise in welcoming China into the APEC in 1991. Such a move not only garnered the US diplomatic goodwill but also ensured that China adopted the membership of yet another international forum whose rules and regulations it agreed to abide by. Later, the US also worked with China in the East Asia Summit. In addition, the US and China collaborate daily in the UN Security Council to manage the “hot issues” of the day.

The tragedy of 9/11 further solidified US-China cooperation. Apprehensions about the rise of China were replaced by a focus on the War on Terror. East Asia stopped being a priority for the United States for several years. This allowed China to rise peacefully and for the two countries to avoid the “Thucydides trap”.

America made several wise decisions during this time. Firstly, America proceeded to admit China into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001. Although the admission was made on the basis of stiff conditions, these conditions ironically benefited China and forced it to open up to world trade – leading to its current pre-eminent position as the largest economy in the world in PPP terms.

Another judicious call was to pay attention to China’s sensitivities on Taiwan. China had always regarded Washington’s policy towards Taiwan with suspicion, as they feared that the US could use the Taiwan issue as a means to destabilise China. Instead, America reacted wisely when in late 2003, the Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian suggested that a referendum be held to assess the views of the Taiwanese people on independence. In response, President George W. Bush made it clear that the United States did not approve of his move. He said: “The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.” This was wise statesmanship, even if it was partly the result of Washington’s dependence on Beijing’s support for other more pressing issues, such as Iraq and North Korea.

Some of these wise policies emerged out of America’s selfish interests, especially during the Cold War. However, it is possible that few Americans are actually aware how wise America has been. And even fewer Americans understand that it is in America’s national interest to continue these wise policies towards China. For example, since Deng Xiaoping opened up China in 1978 American universities have educated hundreds of thousands of Chinese students. In the years 2005 to 2012 alone, 788,882 Chinese students studied in American universities. This number has risen steadily – in the 2013-2014 academic year, 275,000 Chinese students were enrolled at American universities . This is an enormous gift from America to China. Future historians will be puzzled by this massive act of generosity as many of these students then return to China to build up the Chinese economy and to create innovations in many different spheres of science and technology that propel China forward in areas ranging from space exploration to defence.

China has also contributed to the maintenance of friendly relations between the two countries. Firstly, China has “swallowed bitter humiliation” time and again and has reacted prudently to America’s mistakes. These mistakes included the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the downing of a US spy plane in Hainan Island in China in April 2001. The tact and restraint demonstrated by China in both situations averted military action between the two countries.

I have described these events in some detail as they help to explain a contemporary geopolitical miracle. Normally, when the world’s largest emerging power is about to pass the world’s greatest power, we should be seeing a rising level of tensions between the two (with the historical exception of one Anglo-Saxon power, the US, replacing another Anglo-Saxon power, the UK). It would therefore be perfectly normal to see rising tensions between the US and China today. Instead, we see the exact opposite: perfectly normal and calm relations between the US and China. This is a miracle.

However, miracles are by definition historical aberrations. They don’t last. Soon, we will revert to the historical norm and competition and tension could rise between America and China. To prevent this from happening, both sides will have to make a special effort to continue on their extraordinarily wise courses.

On the part of China, this means that it will have to learn lessons from the mistakes it has made in recent years in its dealings with its neighbours, especially Japan and Southeast Asia. For example, it completely mishandled an episode in which a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese Coast Guard patrols near the disputed Senkaku Islands on September 7, 2010. China unwisely demanded an apology from Japan after having publicly humiliated Japan into releasing the fishing boat. Similarly, China also mishandled the Korean crisis of 2010 by not condemning North Korea’s shelling of the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong. China also made aggressive statements and adopted more aggressive positions on the South China Sea in 2010 and 2011. When China submitted to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf a map including the nine-dotted-line territorial claim in the South China Sea on May 7, 2009, the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against China. Vietnam and Malaysia followed. Indonesia also registered a protest, although it had no claims on the South China Sea. In the face of this opposition, Chinese officials refused to back down.

China has also made mistakes vis-à-vis its relations with ASEAN as a whole. The lowest point in China-ASEAN relations occurred in July 2012 at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Until then, for every year since August 1967, ASEAN had always succeeded in issuing an agreed joint communiqué after each Foreign Ministers’ meeting. However, in July 2012, for the first time in forty five years, ASEAN failed to do so. They failed because they could not agree on the paragraph referring to South China Sea. Nine of the ten countries agreed that ASEAN should reiterate the previously-agreed paragraph on this issue. However, the host country, Cambodia, refused to do so. It later emerged that Cambodia had come under heavy pressure from Chinese officials not to agree to these previously-agreed paragraphs on South China Sea. Clearly, China’s rise had made some Chinese officials arrogant.

While China should learn from the mistakes it has made, America should study its own recent deeds through a simple lens: would it like China to replicate these deeds when China becomes number one? The reason for using this lens is that when China clearly becomes number one, it is likely to replicate abroad America’s deeds, not its words.

Bill Clinton saw this coming long before any other American did. In a significant speech at Yale in 2003, he said the following:

“If you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country’s future, there’s nothing inconsistent in that [the US continuing to behaving unilaterally]. [The US is] the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. We’ve got the juice and we’re going to use it. . . . But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that. It just depends on what you believe.”

Actually, as I document in The Great Convergence, Bill Clinton wanted to prepare his fellow Americans for the day when America becomes number two and China becomes number one while he was President. However, all his advisers firmly told him it would be politically suicidal for any sitting American President to talk of America becoming number two. Hence, he could only speak about it after he left office. Sadly, he has not said more on this issue after raising it in Yale. Hence, I fear that Americans are not psychologically prepared for the day when America will become number two.

All this brings me back to the three stories that I began the lecture with. America was able to and could threaten to act unilaterally in all three cases because it is clear that America is still the reigning Emperor of the global financial system. Indeed, like many strong ruling monarchs, it enjoys absolute sovereignty in these areas and is not subject to any checks and balances.

It unilaterally controls the global reserve currency, the US dollar. In theory, the US dollar is a global public good, but in practice, it is an instrument of American domestic and foreign policies. As former Treasury Secretary John Connally said in 1971, “It’s our currency but your problem”. Clearly, global interests are not taken into consideration when the US manages the US dollar. This is why many countries, besides China, were troubled by the QE measures.

Similarly, America acted unilaterally when it applied its domestic laws in an extraterritorial fashion to foreign banks. Its threat to use SWIFT, another global public good, to unilaterally punish Russia could have had even more devastating consequences for the global order.

And what would the devastating consequences be? To understand this, I hope you will look at my latest book, The Great Convergence. One reason why the world has been remarkably stable and peaceful over the past few decades is that the rest of the world, especially Asians, who have been passive for almost two centuries, had agreed to accept and work with the Western-created family of global institutions, including the UN, IMF, and the World Bank. They agreed to do so because they believed that these institutions were serving global interests, not Western interests.

This is therefore the big danger of the US using global public goods, like the US dollar, international banking transactions, and the SWIFT system, for unilateral purposes and ends. It will encourage the world, especially China, to work towards creating an alternative global order. If that happens, the world will become a far messier place.

This is why I was happy to deliver this lecture at this time. We stand at one of the most important forks in human history. I hope America will continue its wise policies of strengthening a global order that serves global interests, not just American interests. If America does this, China will do the same. If this happens, nothing will change fundamentally when China becomes number one. We will continue to live in a safe and predictable world.

Therefore the final question I need to answer is, “Will China emerge as a responsible stakeholder?” – to use the famous words of Bob Zoellick. My simple answer is this “China could emerge as a stakeholder that is as responsible as the United States”. Since America is still the number one power in the world, the big question that America should ask itself is a simple one: would it feel comfortable living in a world where China behaves just as America did when it was the sole superpower?

*Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is the author of “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World.”

Source: http://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=3643