Saturday, June 24, 2017

Q&A with Michael J. Green

Michael J. Green is the author of the new book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783. He is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and he served as senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration. 

Q: You ask, "Does the United States have a grand strategy for Asia?" How would you answer that?

A: Since Thomas Jefferson wrote Colonel George Rogers on the frontier in 1783 warning that the British were sending an expedition to control the Pacific Northwest, the United States has endeavored to prevent hostile hegemons from blocking our access across the Pacific. That is the essence of our grand strategy towards that region.

Bismarck was said to have remarked that America was granted two oceans for safety “by providence,” but America’s strong position in Asia today was established by more than providence–it required strategic thought and action that began in the earliest years of the Republic. 

This involved military power (especially the Navy), trade, diplomatic undertakings, and patient support for the spread of democratic values. 

The United States faltered badly at times, but successfully coopted or defeated the hegemonic designs on Asia and the Pacific by the Europeans, Japan and the Soviet Union. 

Now China is emerging as the next challenge. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all. History strongly suggests that the United States will not retreat from this challenge, but will we be wise enough to craft a strategy that helps us to win the peace and avert war? Our own history is the right place to start answering that question.

The first thing to understand is that while the United States has been effective at grand strategy, we have also been grossly inefficient. 

Part of this is because the founders established a form of government designed to confound dictators and kings by dividing government into three branches and ensuring freedom of expression–the antithesis of the secrecy, patience and discipline that the Europeans considered essential for strategy. 

The United States has also struggled to sustain a consistent approach in Asia because of five recurring problems evident from the beginning of our first encounters with the region. 

First, we have always been a Euro-centric power and diplomacy and military operations in the Pacific have suffered as a result.

Second, we have been divided on the question of whether our interests lie with China—the civilizational center of Asia—or with Japan, a more modern maritime power that allows us to anchor our security and presence offshore in the Western Pacific.

Third, we have struggled to define our forward defense line –at times pulling back and accidentally inviting aggression (against Korea in 1950, for example)—while at other times overstepping onto the continent of Asia with dangerous results (the Vietnam War).

Fourth, we have asserted universal values as the basis for our international engagement, but often been divided about how we apply those values when the offending party is an ally or partner (like China against the Soviet Union, or Korea and the Philippines under the dictatorships of the 1980s).

And fifth, while we have always been in favor of opening markets in Asia and have increasingly reinforced American influence by keeping our own market open, we have retreated to protectionism at the most inopportune times (in the 1930s or more recently by withdrawing from TPP, for example). 

The leitmotif of successfully preventing the region’s domination by a rival hegemon, is interspersed with repeated debates and missteps in these five areas. 

We never learn…though this book is one modest attempt to try. And this is important today, because our margin for error with China is getting smaller all the time. 

Q: Your book covers more than 200 years of history. Are there particular periods that you view as particularly successful or particularly unsuccessful when it comes to U.S. strategy toward Asia?

A: This book is a history of grand strategy, which is to say that it is an intellectual history intertwined with a history of diplomacy and war. So there are some moments where the conceptualization of American interests in the Pacific are brilliant, but they only become actual policy a generation or more later. 

For example, I profile three prominent Americans serving in the Pacific in the 1850s who argued for an assertive American policy in the region. All three were ignored by their political masters in Washington as the Republic veered towards civil war. 

One was a Kentuckian serving as Commissioner in China in the 1850s, named Humphrey Marshall, who argued that the United States’ core interest in the region was to prevent the breakup of China, an insight that later became the basis for Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door policy five decades later. 

At the exact same time, Commodore Matthew Perry was opening Japan with his famous “black ships.” He later returned to New York to give a series of speeches in 1856 arguing that American strategy must be to align with Britain and Japan to ensure freedom of the seas in the Pacific –and to avoid any entanglement in China or the continent. 

His speeches failed to move the White House or Congress, but the ideas caught the attention of a young Naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan who later shaped Theodore Roosevelt’s strategy for expansion in the Pacific at the turn of the century. 

Our contemporary debates about Asia are inherited from these same early seeds of strategic thinking.

There are two men who stand out in this history as successful at both conceptualizing and implementing grand strategy in the Pacific. 

The first is John Quincy Adams, who used his deep understanding of European power politics to ensure that the relatively weak United States was guaranteed access to the Pacific Northwest (a relatively unknown West Coast corollary to the famous Monroe Doctrine regarding European intrigues in Latin America in the 1820s). 

Adams is a fascinating character, who threatened war to defend America’s tenuous toe-hold on the West Coast, knowing from long experience how that prospect would unsettle the delicate balance of power in Europe. His bluff worked. 

The second giant is Theodore Roosevelt, who similarly employed realpolitik but also self-restraint to ensure that the United States emerged as a major power in the Pacific in the early 20th Century without triggering alliances by the other powers (Britain, Japan, Prussia or Russia) to repel the new Yankee entrant into the great game of Asia. 

Reagan ranks high on Asia policy among modern presidents, thanks in large part to Secretary of State George Schultz who had written his senior thesis at Princeton on Asian security and stayed focused on the region ever since. 

One of the worst periods of American statecraft was under the presidency of Herbert Hoover. He refused to built a major navy ship while he was president, allowing the Imperial Japanese Navy to open a gap that the U.S. Navy didn’t close until 1942. 

Then he supported the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, which cut Japanese exports in half and helped to precipitate the rise of militarism in that country. 

The irony of all this is that Herbert Hoover spoke a bit of Mandarin and spent months under siege in Tsientsin during the Boxer Rebellion. The experience clearly did not endear him to the Far East. 

Nixon and Carter each made historic breakthroughs with China that enhanced American power and influence and stabilized the region, but those two very different presidents also made major mistakes. In the end, Nixon made by far the larger mark. 

Q: How did your own experience on the National Security Council inform the writing of the book, particularly the section on the George W. Bush administration?

A: I knew I wanted to write a big book on Asia after returning to the academy, but I wrote this particular book because of my five years on the NSC staff. 

For one thing, I saw too many debates in the Situation Room of the White House where key participants’ only frame of reference was Europe. And this was in an administration that had more senior Asia hands than any before or since. 

In the first and early second terms, for example, the Deputies for Defense, State, the Vice President’s Office, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all built their careers serving in the region. The Obama administration had one deputy (Jim Steinberg) with comparable experience and the current administration has none. 

So mission number one was to encourage current and aspiring practitioners and students to think strategically about the region--and that means thinking about history, geography and America’s own experience. 

My time on the NSC staff also inspired me to write this book because I was one of a small handful of officials in government who actually had a mandate to draft grand strategy and coordinate its implementation. 

The reality is that NSC staffers are ultimately just staffers. But I had the pen on presidential directives, speeches, and strategy memos that were truly “grand” in the sense that they covered everything from military planning to trade and human rights. 

The NSC is one of the only places in government where officials have an opportunity to think about the full range of American power (and problems) in a particular region. 

I thought this would give me unique insights–but I also recognized that a practitioner might be disqualified in the minds of some historians who rely entirely on archives and texts to create a more “objective” accounting of the past. 

Before diving into the book, I visited with some of the leading diplomatic historians in the country, including Nancy Tucker, Mel Leffler, Warren Cohen and others. They uniformly encouraged me to undertake this project because of my experience—not in spite of it—and also because so few modern diplomatic historians take on large themes like this. 

They also kept after me and made sure I didn’t mess it up (or tried). Nancy was particularly encouraging, and was sadly taken from us mid-way through the project.

That said, writing about the Bush administration was the most challenging part of all (followed by the chapter on Vietnam, where I was helped enormously by your book with your Dad, and by Marvin’s fantastic contemporaneous histories of events in Indochina). 

There were several landmines writing about the Bush administration on Asia. 

First, I had described the protagonists in previous chapters with a bit of color to engage the reader, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to give similar character portrayals of my peers–let alone my bosses. 

Second, I knew that the White House perch can be deceptive – you think you know the most important decisions and events—but at times you really have no idea. 

Third, I had to get certain elements of the narrative declassified and to protect the information I knew about but did not have permission to print. 

And fourth, I knew that some critics would zero in on my own time in government and judge the entire book from that perspective.

So I took great care: I found multiple citations for each point I made; I sent parts of the chapter to different players in the administration debates to ensure I had their account as well; I was critical where I thought criticism was warranted; and I explained to the reader that the chapter on George W. Bush is partly autobiographical and the challenges that presented for me as a historian and social scientist. 

But I had no option. I needed to carry the debates about Asia strategy through to the present. I did not want a blank space for the years I was actually in the story. I think I succeeded in using my insider’s experience to illuminate the major themes of the book and to propel the historic and narrative arc forward to the present. 

So far the reviews have been very good. One reviewer did focus on the Bush chapter, but surprisingly argued that the administration’s failure was not being hardline enough. Go figure. 

Q: What do you think of the Trump administration's policy toward Asia so far, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: Donald Trump has the potential to best Herbert Hoover and go down in history as the worst president on Asia (not to mention the rest of the world). 

His gratuitous withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was an act of unilateral disarmament in the contest over whether Asia will be bound by a trans-Pacific set of rules or Sino-centric mercantilism. 

Our friends are absolutely confounded by the move, since we were winning that contest in ways that were forcing Chinese economic reforms to urge greater opening in their own market. 

The president’s inability or unwillingness to differentiate between friends who share our values and interests and foes who seek to undermine them is equally unnerving for the region. Leaders from Tokyo to Beijing and Delhi are constantly guessing what the American president’s bottom line is.

That might be a clever ploy in real estate negotiations in New Jersey, but you can always walk away from those negotiations without serious damage to your interests. 

In diplomacy –and especially in an Asia Pacific region where American consistency, loyalty and leadership are the lodestars of stability – there is no option to walk away without serious repercussions. People who follow Asia on both sides of the aisle and in the region are very nervous, frankly.

On the other hand, President Trump has established a much closer relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than Barack Obama ever had. 

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has telegraphed a sense of American military resolve which many in the region found wanting under the Obama administration. These are pieces of a successful strategy, even if the president does not have one yet.

Our big allies and partners–Japan, India and Australia–are not going to abandon the United States easily (though we are losing smaller states in Southeast Asia right now). Nor is China going to ignore or confront this president either. In many respects, these Asian leaders know the history of American statecraft in Asia much better than our president does. 

They also know that a majority of Americans say in polls that Asia is now the most important region to America’s future, that public and congressional support for our defense commitment to Japan and Korea is more robust and bipartisan than ever before, and that 50 governors and even more farmers and manufacturers want this administration to make sure that we keep growing with Asia. 

So we will just have to see.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a half dozen small projects, ranging from an edited book on democracy in Asia to a short piece on the geopolitics of Tibet. 

My next big book project is on Japan. I have finished a draft first chapter in what should be something of a companion volume to By More than Providence, but this time looking at the geopolitical roots of Japan’s modern statecraft. 

As you know, I lived in Japan for five years and my dissertation and first few books were on contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy. 

Much of the debate about Japan’s role today –and reaction to Abe’s more assertive policies—focuses on pre-war Japanese militarism. But as traumatic as that was for the Japanese people and the entire region, it was only a brief moment in time. 

There are even more enduring roots in Japan’s historic experience as a maritime state athwart a massive China that are resurfacing in Abe’s own grand strategy. I want to recapture and trace those debates forward the way I did the early arguments about Asia by Americans. 

Maybe the third volume will be a history of U.S.-Japan relations that blends the two….but one book at a time. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. I'm glad to say that Michael J. Green is my cousin!

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