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Foreign Policy

Why the “Soft Imperialism” of Susan Rice’s “America’s Future in Asia” is Wrong

Dec 05 , 2013

A pernicious contradiction informs thinking in American foreign policy.  On the one hand, we find the confident assertion of American “exceptionalism.”  On the other hand, we see a “soft imperialism” positing that American standards and values are, or should be, “universal.”

Stephen Harner

One part of the contradiction is valid.  America is without doubt exceptional. The United States from its founding has perceived itself as something completely new, qualitatively different from (and morally superior to) any other nation that has ever existed.

And the rhetoric of American exceptionalism is matched by the reality of American society, politics, and culture.  What America is no nation on earth has ever been before.

The problem—and it is a big problem—is thinking that what America is other countries can be, should be, or, if their people could choose, would want to be.

Such thinking is combined with selectivity and hypocrisy about what is good about American society, ignoring our many social, cultural, political, and ethical pathologies.

This is arrogance, self-conceit, and provincialism. This is “soft imperialism” that disdains traditions, cultures and values that have over millennia produced successful and harmonious societies and advanced civilizations.

Such thinking is all too apparent in the speech entitled “America’s Future in Asia” by U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice delivered at Georgetown University on November 22.

Throughout Rice’s address an objective reader would be thinking:  America is not an Asian country.  How is it that U.S. policy would seek involvement or “ownership” of so many issues that are Asian issues with no direct relevance or importance to the United States, and which are properly the responsibilities and prerogatives of the countries in the region?

Rice present’s the Obama administration’s objectives in four areas:  security, trade, “fostering democratic values,” and “advancing human dignity.”

Leaving no doubt of an intention to remain the regional hegemon, seemingly oblivious to dangerous and wasteful arms race that is being stoked by the U.S. “pivot,” Rice said:

“America’s purpose is to establish a more stable security environment in Asia…and a liberal political environment that respects universal rights and freedoms for all…We are making the Asia Pacific secure with American alliances—and an American force posture—that are being modernized to meet the challenges of our time. By 2020, 60 percent of our fleet will be based in the Pacific, and our Pacific Command will gain more of our most cutting-edge capabilities.”

Rice gestures to China, but then turns away.  “When it comes to China, we seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations.” But in the next breath says, “that means managing inevitable competition….”

“Inevitable competition” is not, I believe, a given in China’s vision of a “new model of major power relations.”  Rather, it is mutual respect and constructive engagement and cooperation in all areas outside of inviolate vital national interests.

Rice continues that U.S.-China cooperation can be sought “on issues where our interests converge.”  But here the list is short—denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan—and clearly, except for North Korea, only U.S. priorities with scant importance to China.

The reality is that the WWII/Cold War legacy of U.S. alliances, and particularly the U.S.-Japan alliance, constitute a potential threat to China that continues (as we see in the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute) to be the greatest destabilizing factor in Asia.

Rice moves on to “Fostering Democratic Values” as a “vital element” in “America’s commitment to the Asia Pacific region:”  “In the early years of this new century, we must help to consolidate and expand democracy across Asia to enable more and more people to participate fully in the political life of their countries.

…“The United States will support those working to pry open the doors of democracy just a little wider—from Cambodia to Fiji….in every country of the region, we will strive to improve protections for ethnic and religious minorities and help nations see the diversity of their peoples as a source of deep strength.”

For the students and academics at Georgetown, steeped in progressive attitudes toward multiculturalism and “diversity,” Rice’s words were no doubt inspirational and incontrovertible. But what about leaders in Asia?  Asian societies are being painfully stressed by economic development and change. Asian traditions and cultures have striven to strengthen community and solidarity—seeking greater unity and harmony, not diversity.

The dissonance continues as Rice ends with the U.S. policy on “Advancing Human Dignity.”  “We want an Asia Pacific region in which poverty continues to decline, citizens are healthier, children are educated, the environment is protected, and women can participate fully and equally in their societies,” said Rice.

We say to ourselves “who can argue with such goals?”  On further thought, we realize that the Islamic countries in the region may feel discomfited, or threatened, by the last one.  And on further thought, we ask ourselves, “why just Asia Pacific? Aren’t these goals that the United States–if it has them for one–would have or should have for all the countries and all seven billion people on earth?” And then we may ask, “which of these goals, except perhaps the last one, can the United States itself claim to have achieved or to be the paragon?”

Displaying a self-conceit of political, cultural and moral superiority, “America’s Future in Asia” dismisses Asian traditions and culture, Asian political and social systems, even Asian nations’ sovereignty and independence.  It is a manifesto for maintaining and expanding a destabilizing and destructive American hegemony in Asia.

But the United States is not an Asian country.  America’s “exceptionalism” is in fundamental ways incompatible with and destructive of societies in Asia.  Harmony and peace in Asia will be achieved by Asian countries managing their own affairs according to their cultures and traditions.

The American future in Asia we need is not Susan Rice’s “soft imperialism.” It is a fundamentally changed U.S. policy embracing humility, self-restraint, respect for Asian nations’ sovereignty and independence, and military withdrawal.

Stephen M. Harner has been a U.S. diplomat, banker, and consultant in China and Japan since 1976.  He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University (SAIS). 

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