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Book Review: Finding the right balance; By K. Subramanian

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

C3S Article no: 0073/2017

Courtesy: The Hindu 

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783; Michael Green, Columbia University Press,Rs. 2943

From trade to security, a historical narrative of American foreign policy explains why the U.S. has deep interests in the Asia Pacific region.

Many of us, including learned professors of International Relations, are baffled by the course of American foreign policy and find it rather difficult to discern any clearly defined strategy to be christened as ‘grand.’ This is what Prof. Michael Green seeks to do in this book. It is a historical narrative of American policy towards the Pacific and Asia since 1783 to the Obama era.

Prof. Green has all the credentials to undertake the task. He served as special assistant to President George W. Bush and was an Asia hand in the National Security Council. Currently, he heads the Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and also holds a chair in Foreign Policy at Georgetown University.

The book is meticulously researched; while the text runs to 548 pages, there are 138 pages of Notes in support. The author has drawn on sources from declassified State Department archives. Prof. Green takes the view that “modern America’s pre-eminence in the Pacific was no accidental byproduct of victory in the Second World War.” As he explains, “It has intellectual roots going back to the handful of New Englanders who first carried Bibles, ginseng and visions of the Pacific empire to the Far East.”

Self-serving goals

In later years too, he argues, American values such as democracy, governance, rights, etc. held the policy in good stead. The broad strategy adopted by U.S. policymakers was to safeguard their national interest, including security of sea lanes and accessing Asia trade. Washington began to look upon itself as an offshore balancer determined to prevent any one power from dominating Asia and its adjacent waters. As he puts it, the goal was for the Pacific to serve as a “conduit for American ideas and goods to flow westward and not for threat to flow eastward toward the homeland.” Protection of the Pacific has been of paramount concern. This is because policy “always flowed organically from the Republic’s values and geographic circumstances.” His argument on geographic circumstances has more validity than that on American values. The U.S.’ attachment to so-called values is debatable as it has supported authoritarian or despotic regimes based on realpolitik and attempted ‘regime’ change on some others considered ‘evil'.

The author posits ‘five tensions’ underlying U.S. policy towards Asia-Pacific running across the years and elaborates them at length. These are: Europe vs Asia; continental vs maritime; defining a forward defensive line in the region; self-determination vs universal values and protectionism vs free trade. The U.S. authorities have always tried to find a right balance. These have been analysed in great depth and the narration also suggests shifts in emphasis over time. In the early years (and more so in the post-war years) there was greater attention to Europe and thinkers like Sir Halford Mackinder argued that the nation that controlled the Eurasian heartland would achieve eventual hegemony in the international system. On the other side, Admiral Mahan took the view that security and hegemony depended on control of the seas.

Green devotes several pages about the strategies followed by Theodore Roosevelt who was greatly influenced by the views of Admiral Mahan. Naval defence became even more necessary as the U.S. acquired new Asian and Pacific countries like the Philippines, Hawaii, Samoa and Guam during and after the Spanish-American war. With the weakening of European powers in Asia, the U.S. had to step in directly.

Roosevelt maintained the Asian balance and expanded the U.S. naval power. He also used diplomacy to maintain a balance between Russia and Japan. Green quotes Henry Kissinger who rated Roosevelt as the greatest geostrategic president, rivalled only by Nixon. The priorities shifted from Asia to Europe with the outbreak of World War I. These years saw the rise of Russia and Japan. Then the Cold War gripped the world. The American defeat in Vietnam is described as a “humiliating failure of grand strategy.” One small consolation was that the Soviets made no advances on the European front as the U.S. dealt with fires in Asia and the offshore island chain in the Pacific remained undamaged. Chapter 9 on ‘Nixon and Kissinger’s redefinition of containment in Asia’ is a fascinating account of the normalisation of relations between the U.S. and China.

New stress lines

Unfortunately, the equilibrium sought to be brought about under Nixon’s initiative is now under stress. The U.S. policymakers underestimated the rise of China. There are continuing squabbles over trade, exchange rates, rising military strength, South China Sea and the growing aggressive postures of China.

Meanwhile, there are reports about the U.S. losing major allies in the Asia Pacific, e.g. the Philippines. It is also true that Washington lacks power to influence ASEAN member states to adopt an anti-China stand. Some surveys suggest that China may dominate the region in the next decade. To add to these worries, President Trump tends to act in a whimsical manner. He wants to renegotiate trade treaties with South Korea and Japan. Trump does not yet have an ‘Asia Team’ to advise him. With his insular policies, he is vacating all the spaces secured over recent decades.

Even so, Green’s recommendations are rather tepid. He wants the U.S. to work with Europe and bring about a rules-based system within Asia; get the balance between continental and maritime priorities in Asia by establishing favourable strategic equilibrium vis-à-vis China through deepened partnership with countries like Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and others; define the U.S. forward defence line as far west as possible; and, finally, establish values such as democracy, etc.

Sadly, we cannot recreate the past again. It has to be a new beginning with new players and on balanced and equitable terms. The U.S. and Europe cannot set them for Asia.

(The writer Mr. K. Subramanian, is Former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Government of India and Member, Chennai Centre for China Studies – C3S. Email: The views expressed are the author’s own. )

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