The Asia Institute and Foreign Policy in Focus held a seminar in Washington on March 25, titled “Re-Balancing In East Asia: Could 100-year Time Frame Under-gird U.S. Engagement,” at which a group of specialists asked, “How can the United States engage constructively with the countries of East Asia?” More specifically, the speakers sought an approach to U.S. involvement that is not rooted in fear, or in a Cold War past, but rather builds on the best in the traditions of all countries to solve common problems. The experts put forth ideas for a new form of engagement that did not depend on flags and aircraft carrier group movements, but instead enlisted the most visionary, the most idealistic, the most innovative ideas of the magnificent brain-and-heart power that is Asia’s and America’s next generation.
The three experts approached the problem from different perspectives, but all arrived at a common conclusion: there are common challenges like climate change that all nations face, and that cooperation in response to these challenges could bring about a global renaissance. But if these challenges are responded to in a non-collaborative way, the emergent possibilities may not be attainable.
Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff and former associate director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, framed the problem as a case of “The Elephant vs. the Shark.” He warned that the Obama administration’s nebulous “Pacific Pivot” was setting the stage for a superpower confrontation in East Asia. He held that what is needed is the formulation of a century-defining treaty between major powers that would put an end to petty bickering and generations of conflict.
Such agreements, Wilkerson explained, are based on mutual respect and acceptance of cultural and historical differences, while at the same time recognizing a certain core of universal human commonality. For the United States to reach the point of being an able and willing partner to such a regional meta-architecture, it must both give up its century-old attempt of trying to impose its own values on Asia. It must refine its own new grand strategy, to give it mooring and purpose.
Alexis Dudden, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, saw the Asia Pivot as a case of “Looking Backwards, Pivoting Sideways.” It was Washington’s past and present foreign policies that were in fact sustaining the fraught security environment of East Asia. Deftly describing how present East Asian security conundrums are in many ways the blowback from poorly-thought-out ad hoc decisions in which Washington was deeply complicit, Professor Dudden appealed for “the United States to use its formidable power for good to unravel a host of historical problems.”
She argued that even “to achieve progress on vital matters such as the de-nuclearization of North Korea, we must acknowledge that we helped create many of the region’s problems in the first place.” In other words, for the present and future of East Asia to no longer be held hostage to its past, she felt we need something akin to a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in which not only Japan and China, but also the United States, must face a lot of truth in order to get the reconciliation.
Daniel Garrett, former diplomat and current Senior Associate at the Asia Institute, spoke about “Climate Change and the Asia Pivot.” The failure to deal with climate change, he said, continues to be mankind’s and the United States’ greatest security failure. Due to multiple positive feedback mechanisms, the pace of climate change is accelerating and rapidly approaching a non-linear phase change, at which it becomes abrupt climate change with a high probability of essentially becoming irreversible.
This is, for humanity, and particularly Asia, an existential threat, and only cooperation and collaboration at every level will make it possible for the region to ride out the coming storms of climate chaos with any modicum of energy, food, and water security.
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and senior associate of the Asia Institute, concluded the seminar with the observation that President Ronald Reagan had once said that only a common enemy, like Martians invading the Earth, would bring the nations of the world together to work in peace for a common goal. “Now,” he concluded, “we do not need to look for some extraterrestrial invader to provide us with a common enemy. It is right here amongst us on Earth. It is climate change.”