The ‘vital bulwark’

Daniel Larison

The Asia-Pacific has remained at peace for over forty years thanks to a combination of several factors that have discouraged interstate conflict and deepened economic interdependence.
While it is popular in Washington to attribute much or all of this to the stabilizing role of the United States, its alliances, and its forward-deployed military presence, that is not the whole story of why the peace has endured and it overlooks how the U.S. has sometimes been a bystander or a destabilizing force in Asian affairs.
This is the paradox that Van Jackson identifies in h-is new book, Pacific Power Paradox: American Stat-ecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace. It is an incisive and engaging account of how the U.S. has acted both to promote and undermine Asian peace and security since 1979. Policym-akers in the United States would do well to read and learn from it to avoid taking the U.S. down the path of destructive rivalry and militarism that it is currently on.
Jackson sees the U.S. as having occupied three distinct roles in the Asia Pacific: the “aloof hegemon” that has stood at the margins and did not involve itself in regional institutions, the “vital bulwark” that has provided security and deterrence through its alliance commitments, and the “imperious superpower” that has acted according to its own designs without regard for the consequences that its actions might have on the peace.
The U.S. needs to understand the full record of how it has acted in Asia if it is to make smart policy choices in the coming years, and it needs to recognize that the Asian peace is fragile and has grown much weaker as one of the main supports of that peace — U.S.-Chinese détente — has been replaced by an increasingly contentious rivalry.
The book proceeds chr-onologically through each administration from the start of the peace in 1979, and it identifies how the U.S. contributed and detra-cted from the peace under each president. Jackson takes us from the early tentative days of U.S.-Chinese détente under Carter and traces how the two governments deepened their cooperation and expanded economic ties under every administration until Trump.
He explains how the Asian peace was built up and consolidated as a result of multiple reinforcing factors that have made the peace as resilient and long-lasting as it has been.
Jackson identifies six distinct factors undergirding the peace: U.S. forward military presence, U.S. alliances, great-power détente, economic interdependence, regionalism, and democracy and good governance. This is what he calls a “layered peace” with many sources. All of these have been important, but he argues that it was détente between Washington and Beijing that “underwrote or made a constructive contribution to nearly all the factors for the Asian peace.”
The danger for the U.S. and Asia today is that some of these factors are at risk of being ignored or rejected, and that in turn puts the peace in greater jeopardy than it has been before.
Most Americans don’t appreciate how close the U.S. and North Korea were to war in 2017, but this was one of the most dangerous moments in the last forty years and the closest that the world has come to nuclear war since the depths of the Cold War. Jackson has previously documented how dangerous the 2017 nuclear crisis was in his earlier book, On the Brink, and he weaves parts of that story into the account of the Trump administration’s role in threatening the peace, through both a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions as well as threatening preventative war.
If U.S. policymakers don’t understand how close the U.S. came to a major war in that case, it will be much harder for them to avoid future crises and to devise a more successful North Korea policy. While Trump’s erratic and aggressive behavior was a major factor in making that crisis as dangerous as it was, this was not just a Trump problem but a persistent problem with U.S. policy towards North Korea.
Trump justifiably gets the worst marks in Jackson’s assessment of U.S. policies over the last forty years, but he makes an important point that Trump also represented a great deal of continuity with earlier administrations. Jackson wants us to remember that “the United States has often been the imperious superpower whose actions made war more likely rather than less.”
As he notes in the preface, “the Trump era was an amplification of habits that had always been in U.S. statecraft but simply not in our narrative about it.” As in many other things, Trump’s bad conduct revealed ugly truths about how the U.S. has operated in the world long before he came to office.
Washington’s new hawkish consensus has concluded that the U.S. was wrong to pursue engagement with China as much and for as long as it did, but détente and engagement have been very important in stabilizing the region and allowing Asian countries to flourish economically. Without U.S.-China détente, the modern history of East and Southeast Asia would have likely been more fraught and violent than it was.
As Jackson says, “U.S. détente with China—the flawed but long-lasting cooperative relationship between Asia’s two largest powers—has been a vastly underappreciated source of regional stability since the 1970s.”
Replacing that détente with rivalry will have serious consequences for peace in Asia. He warns that “rivalry has its own price, and the loss of such a foundational source of the Asian peace requires compensation if stability is to persist.” What troubles is that the U.S. has so quickly “embraced a paradigm of rivalry with China without recognizing the tremendous work that Sino-U.S. détente had been doing to keep Asia stable.” Détente has been one of the pillars holding up the structure of the peace, and now that it has been knocked out without any replacement the entire structure is at risk of crumbling.
The lessons Jackson offers from Asia are also applicable elsewhere. “No long-term stability can come from a policy tool kit limited to economic sanctions and the threat of war,” he writes. That seems correct to me, and the record of U.S. foreign policy in many parts of the world proves it. North Korea stands out as the most prominent example of how a policy defined by economic warfare and threats combined with unrealistic goals is bound to fail and lead to worse conditions and possibly even war.
Instead of continuing down this dead end road, Jackson proposes that “the only solution lies in living with the Kim regime’s need to gird itself against ingrained perceptions of external threat while making a serious bid to change the relationship of rivalry that fuels that perception.” Continuing to insist on denuclearization while piling on more sanctions, as the Biden administration has been doing, isn’t going to resolve anything.
Pacific Power Paradox is a thorough, carefully researched study of the Asian peace and the U.S. role in both maintaining and threatening it. It is not written as a polemic, but it has a clear warning for U.S. policymakers that they ignore the full history of the U.S. role in Asia at our collective peril.