The Pentagon’s fairy tale history of U.S. involvement in eastern Asia appears alive and well. So at least statements made by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent visits in Singapore and Vietnam suggest. Following the lines of the mythology that seems to exercise strong appeal in official U.S. circles, Carter claimed that the United States by playing a pivotal military role in the region over the past seven decades has “helped maintain peace and stability.” (See the transcript of his address in Singapore on 30 May and his interview in Vietnam with the BBC dated 1 June.)
The United States has championed a values-based approach with a strong missionary impulse behind it. Woodrow Wilson provided its first full-blown articulation, and post-World War II policy saw to its full-blown application. Holding a dominant global position, Washington sought with varying degrees of urgency and determination to advance a basket of ideological goods. U.S. leaders have articulated these goods in a variety of ways such as “democracy,” “free-market capitalism,” and “human rights.” But underlying all these formulations is a strong and distinctly American belief in the autonomy of the individual and a commitment to political liberty and limited state power. In the rhetoric of American statecraft these notions are a leitmotiv. They have generally set the direction of U.S. policy responses to problems of the sort that Ukraine poses.
Empire has had a long and troubled career in U.S. politics and culture–and the old angst is still very much with us. Over the last decade or so we have heard the familiar refrain adamantly denying the existence of an American empire, even as some have insisted just as adamantly on the reality or at least the possibility of an American empire. We embarked on our study of the four U.S. wars in Asia with no intention of getting mixed up in what seemed a tired, unproductive debate. We had our hands full working out the contours of our wars and tracing the relationship of each to the others.
The Cold War, far from an aberration, built on a pattern that had become well established earlier in the century. Elected governments, Washington feared, might be swayed by popular passions or betrayed by their own immaturity. Coups whether in Iran in 1953 or in Egypt in 2013 paved the way for strongmen promising stability and accommodating U.S. interests.
Language is in its potency a trap—in this case an inducement to action even when careful consideration warns of potentially dire consequences. Put differently, the axioms handed down from earlier policy practice have demonstrated their capacity to overrule prudent calculation. That insight leaves us with a set of genuine questions.
Reading the address delivered 23 May at the National Defense University surprised me not just because it went well beyond the drone issue to address the conduct of the war on terror. More than that, Obama took some significant steps toward dealing with the war in terms of classical realism.
The new consensus has been confirmed since Obama’s victory. His inaugural address announced the end of a decade of war and the start of a process of national reinvention meant to address challenges on the home front. However sensible this new consensus may be, it suffers from a major flaw: its profound vulnerability.
If you think the past week or so has not gone well for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then what to say about the U.S. position in the Middle East? Washington’s attempt to remake or at least manage the region has suffered a string of blows that suggests the end is nigh.
One reason for the U.S. failure in the Middle East seems obvious. The Bush administration embraced empire long after empire’s expiration date had passed. The American project faced potent opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan that could be contained only by making deals with shrewd collaborators with their own interests to serve. The international hostility to the Iraq invasion was intense, and even in the United States the Iraq adventure fell into disfavor.
Panetta’s formal comments and casual remarks reveal little interest in this rich past, no insights that would be instructive, and some generalizations that are distinctly misleading if not wrongheaded.
The reality is that the large-scale targeted killing of civilians has been an integral part of America’s military strategy for well over a century.
American leaders still crave international leadership. But the time for sweet dreams of a U.S. era in Asia is over.
Turning our backs on the grim prospects for Afghanistan is part of a long tradition. We drew a veil over the struggle against insurgents in the Philippines. A combination of amnesia and speculative might-have-beens disposed of the Korean stalemate and the Vietnam defeat, and it seems likely the Iraq invasion and occupation will suffer the same fate.
What is China going to do? Now that our Middle East wars are winding down, this question has fixated the U.S. policy community and policy commentators. Even aspirants for high political office feel compelled to have an answer. A substantial historical literature offers solidly grounded insight on how Chinese officials and commentators have viewed the United States from the nineteenth century to the 1970s. Let me suggest three conclusions drawn from my reading of that literature. Each is pertinent to any attempt to interpret recent developments and predict the future.
Regional issues continue to tie politicians in knots. Michael Hunt responds to the GOP debate on foreign policy, as both an historian and as a citizen.
U.S. politics threatens to become an endless, self-defeating round of missions impossible with each failure pushing public frustration ever higher. Yet for the historian, there is hope.
Polanyi’s classic suggests we should ignore the profoundly false choice between markets and the state.
Revisiting Henry Luce’s essay on American ascendancy, Michael H. Hunt considers the current era of American decline.
The notion of isolationism belongs to a time of U.S. dominance now passed.
Michael Hunt on how the United States’ exit from Afghanistan might seem similar to some past tricky military retreats.