Huntsman on Pragmatic US Foreign Policy in a Competitive Age

On Monday September 17, the Asia Society and George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies hosted the event “In Conversation with Jon Huntsman.”  Moderated by David Shambaugh, the discussion covered questions for former Governor Jon Huntsman about the US political process, public service, US foreign policy, and current affairs in Asia.  While many of the topics Huntsman discussed involved reminding the audience that the geopolitical and economic position of the US is sliding, he remained optimistic that America’s values are still the “envy of the world” and urged younger generations to participate in the domestic and international policy process.   While being realistic about the challenges that the US faces, Huntsman offered areas to improve the country’s global image.  Both at home and abroad, the US must seek collaboration with partners to correct issues such as mistrust that perpetuate a fearful narrative of competition.

 ‘Cleaning up’ the economy and politics

 At least three times, Huntsman mentioned crony capitalism, and emphasized that the US has a lot of “cleaning up to do.”  He offered solutions to help mitigate the “trust deficit” in the US, such as Congressional term limits, eliminating super pacs, and expanding participation in democracy by improving voter turnout.  For an effective foreign policy, according to Huntsman, Americans “need to be united on the home front.”  With a weak economy, the US has no leverage in international trade negotiations which seek fewer restrictions on trade barriers. 

 With the world lacking leadership, the Obama Administration has attempted to project its strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.  However there will always be a concern that the US may be unable or unwilling to sustain its role in the region given the lack of a concerted world view.  In line with current government officials, Huntsman believes that the future of the US does not lie in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Asia.  Huntsman proposed that the youth of today should have linkages with Asia in the same way that earlier generations had with Europe, participating in a shared culture and exchanges.  Seemingly optimistic, Huntsman said it boils down to the “people to people” relationships and connections to reinforce and strengthen US foreign policy.

 Working with rather than against China

 In the preamble to a question, the moderator invited discussion about how in recent times, the US has had to balance cooperation with competition – what Shambaugh calls “coopatition.”  Certainly, balancing cooperative efforts, not appearing to ‘hold China back’, and maintaining global and regional primacy is not an easy task.  Huntsman interprets  US-China dynamics pragmatically; when working with China on causes of mutual interest (such as China’s WTO accession), the US is able to manage the competitive dynamics of the relationship.  However, the US is failing to put at the forefront the issues on which the two powers can collaborate effectively. 

 The bilateral relationship between the US and China is understandably more similar to a global relationship; recognizing and changing the narrative will be a large undertaking given the lack of domestic American enthusiasm for China.  As the two leading global powers, when the governments of China and the US meet they must discuss a range of international issues such as the financial crisis in Europe, freedom of navigation, the Arab spring, and so forth.  There is a need to “humanize” US-China relations, and to move away from the “easy” fear factor narrative and “toward the opportunity factor.” 

 Overall, Jon Huntsman provided an honest, albeit moderated, conversation about the state of US foreign policy regarding China specifically and Asia more broadly.  Drawing on his experiences in different US administrations and most recently as Ambassador to China between 2009-2010, Huntsman offered unique insights, personal anecdotes and policy points like a candidate just off the campaign trail (or potentially still on that trail).  Perhaps he is still reflecting on his failed presidential campaign, including the debates in which  antagonistic opinions were rewarded while his more reasoned approaches to policy left the crowd cold.  If, as Huntsman claims, there are “impressive personalities coming forward in China” that hold pragmatic viewpoints, the American public should watch the leadership transition and hope that the US can engage its largest potential threat – or opportunity.

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Prospects for Regional Security in Asia

The convergence of economic interests, shared transnational threats perpetuated by globalization and balancing powers are drivers of regional security cooperation in Asia.  As recent events in the South China Sea have illustrated, how to deal with these issues and the conceptualization of threats to state security has differed across Asia.  Therefore, rather than caving to external pressures and trying to be like the European Union or NATO, a regional security framework for Asia would need to be organic and based on the distinct experiences, interests and values of Asian states.  In order to be successful, regional security mechanisms in Asia must: take a pragmatic, bottom-up approach to regionalism; involve China and the US as strategic players; and, establish a clear division of labor among existing political and security entities to promote maximum efficiency.

Increasingly states in Asia are incorporating non-traditional security issues such as energy security, human security, threats caused by climate change and other transnational issues into their traditional state military-centered security institutions.  Attaining security, according to Alan Collins (2003) involves effectively managing threats and having sufficient access to resources to maintain relative peace and stability.  For example, part of China’s energy security strategy is to control the supply chain by gaining equity positions in the oil sector using national oil corporations.

In the wide regional landscape of Asia, states have the goal of political interdependence and territorial integrity, but in part their lack of agreement regarding what constitutes a threat has led to the stalling of deeper regional security cooperation.  Security cooperation in Asia combines power-political and institutional approaches to encompass joint actions to advance a common security goal.  Security architecture, meanwhile describes a broader security environment in which distinct mechanisms and processes interact with the aim of ensuring regional stability.

There is no indication that states in Asia will initiate a new comprehensive regional security architecture.  Europeans frequently criticize the multitude of regional institutions and loosely structured arrangements in Asia; outsiders have argued that Asia must follow a European model to succeed in promoting functional cooperation and real integration.  For Asia, a more likely path is to take a pragmatic, step-by-step, bottom-up approach to regionalism instead of an idealist, comprehensive, top-down pan-Asian ‘vision’ approach similar to Europe.  Given the delicate nature of security and historical animosities built over time, a pragmatic approach such as the institution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are a way forward for regional security.  Originally started to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism in Central Asia, the SCO has added observers and dialogue partners in addition to additional issues of drug trafficking and economic issues.  The SCO brings together countries which did not previously consult together.

Any approach to regional security in Asia must take into consideration the United States and China as leading regional powers.  The US alliance system is the most important feature of security in Asia and is the central stabilizing factor.  Both the US and China prefer a bilateral structure over multilateral institutions as the most efficient way to organize state security policy, and for the US because of geographic concerns.  The ‘hub and spoke’ pattern enables the central power to have more influence over its junior partners.  Further deepening bilateral security relations is part of the US Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative.  Moreover the rise of China and India has led states to reconsider regional security dimensions; as China continues to flex its strategic muscles in the South China Sea and continues with a charm offensive in the Pacific, Asian states will need to gauge future bilateral and multilateral relations.  The incorporation of the US into the East Asia Summit and China into ASEAN + 3 are examples of regional security cooperation extension.

With overlapping membership and areas of capability, the “current alphabet soup of groupings” (Bisley, 2009) has not met the demand for institutionalized security cooperation.  As Jim Rolfe (2008) highlights, relations within and between these organizations are complicated.  Therefore there is a significant need to set out a clear division of labor among political and institutional entities.  The desire for APEC to include a security dimension demonstrates the changing attitudes to security cooperation.  A regional security architecture is needed to facilitate regional order, and the broad range of multilateral mechanisms – including platforms such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting, the EAS, ARF and others – need to be catalogued and work together in a more constructive way.  With an active secretariat, historical longevity and due to the fact that it is not led by China, Japan or the US, ASEAN is the premiere regional grouping; it would however need to change its membership rules and the ASEAN way in order to take a central role in security maintenance in Asia.

Because of the changing regional landscape in Asia, the prospects for security cooperation rely primarily on the attitudes of regional powers.  China, India, the US and Japan approach state and regional security based upon their own interests.  These powers have already demonstrated their desire to take part in multilateral institutions alongside deepening of bilateral relationships and alliances.  There is genuine interest in Asia in the ability of cooperative elements of existing security architecture to reduce strategic uncertainties, improve policy coordination and collaborate on nontraditional security problems.  While the drivers for regional cooperation are evident, nationalism (including increased military modernization), historical animosity, and balance of power thinking remain as impediments to a concerted architecture.  Therefore, when considering regional security architecture in Asia, policymakers must take into account the achievement of relative international strategic stability in the post-Cold War period for such a diverse region.  A forced architecture from non-Asian states (such as former Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s Australian-led Asia-Pacific community) has already been rejected, and is a clear sign that like ASEAN, movements must be made from within Asia.

Facing Regional Challenges & Pursuing Opportunities: Pacific Day 2012

On 23 May 2012, the Embassy of New Zealand in Washington, DC hosted the annual celebration of ideas, food and culture from the Pacific Islands region.  Photos of the event can be found on the New Zealand Embassy Facebook pagePacific Day has typically focused on getting different groups together in celebration of Pacific food and culture.  With the US turn to the Pacific and the strengthening of the Pacific Partners Initiative, Pacific Day 2012 had an equal focus on the social, political and economic issues important to the region.  The event began with a seminar moderated by Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies that included a keynote address by New Zealand Foreign Minister, Honorable Murray McCully.  A panel discussion addressed the impact and concerns of small states, climate and environmental issues, and the role of powers in the Pacific.  The reception featured entertainers from Australia, Hawai’i, Fiji, New Zealand and Samoa, as well as food and beverages from Australia, Hawai’i, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Guam, the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Palau and Papua New Guinea.  The independent nation-states and territories from the South Pacific enjoy their differences but at different times celebrate a shared history and geography.  Other than geography, the smaller states of the Pacific face strikingly similar challenges and opportunities, hence it is beneficial for them to collaborate with states such as the US, New Zealand and Australia. 

For the major powers in the Pacific, the current outlook for the region is one of cooperative engagement and closer dialogue.  Australia, New Zealand and the US have all, in one way or another, promoted the “Pacific Century.”  As these powers seek to further engage with the Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum will become more prominent in connecting Pacific states throughout the Asia-Pacific.  The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Auckland in September 2011, was the first time that the three US Pacific territories – Guam, Northern Marianas and American Samoa – were granted observer status.  The focus of Pacific Day was not just on the major powers, but on examining the roles of the smaller states and the issues pertinent to the region.

In addition to the geopolitical issues that find their way into the news, Pacific nations are collaborating on pressing economic and environmental issues like sustainable fishing. In his keynote address, Hon. Murray McCully proposed that the only fisheries in the world that are not overfished are those in the South Pacific.  While China and the Philippines fight over territory and cause international incidences with fishing boats, states in the Pacific are working to connect their fisheries policies.  The South Pacific Tuna Treaty is currently being renegotiated. Pacific states are working with Australia, France, New Zealand and the US to stem illegal fishing through Operation RAI BALANG. The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency continues to work on new and existing issues.  The World Wildlife Foundation recently praised the efforts of Parties to the Nauru Agreement with their strengthened fisheries management measures to promote sustainable fishing.  Since several Pacific Island states – with Kiribati being a leading example – rely upon the resources caught from their Exclusive Economic Zones, a major concern has been how best to ensure revenues from primary industries are spread amongst states’ residents. While several panelists offered that question, answers as to how profits might “trickle-down” were in short supply. 

Pacific Island states are also pursuing environmental and energy policies.  Kate Brown from the Global Island Partnership gave an example of how Pacific Island states are being creative in their environmental protection policies.  In Palau, a $15.00 “Green Fee” collected upon departure is used to support the country’s natural resource conservation efforts within the Protected Areas Network.  The fee was initiated in 2009, and has collected well over 2 million US dollars.   In addition to protecting the environment, improvements in sustainable energy and dealing with the effects of a changing climate remain significant.  With assistance from others, Tokelau will soon be moving from relying solely upon fossil fuels to relying upon solar power for 90% of its energy. At the UN climate talks in Durban last year, Tokelau challenged other states to follow its lead. Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development pointed to other strategies being utilized to mitigate climate change in the Pacific: black carbon is the worst polluter in the Pacific, and innovative methods are being used to capture it; the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants is making headway, and there are hopes it will benefit island states in the Pacific.  Very recently, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community signed grant agreements with the Government of Australia to support work in climate change adaptation and educational assessment.  As Ms. Brown reiterated, island nations around the world are looking to the examples being set in the Pacific for environmental management as well as effective multilateral collaboration. 

Pacific nations face a range of security issues from governance to international crime and disaster relief that are best tackled through regional partnerships. As Patrizia Tumbarello from the International Monetary Fund stated, the cost of running a government in the Pacific Island region is higher than in other parts of the world due in part to their small populations. A lack of investment due to transport and infrastructure issues, reliance on diesel energy, and distance from neighbors and larger markets impede economic security and stability.  The consistent linking of Pacific Island states to Australia, New Zealand and economies in Asia adds resilience to their economic and social networks.  Tackling transnational crime and human trafficking and enhancing information sharing were the goals of US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s recent trips to New Zealand and Australia; in New Zealand, Secretary Napolitano signed a Joint Statement on Combating Trafficking in Persons in the Pacific Islands Region with Immigration Minister Nathan Guy, and signed a Joint Statement to Strengthen Border Security, Combat Transnational Organized Crime, and Facilitate Legitimate Trade and Travel with Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.  In addition, development aid, disease prevention and disaster management go hand in hand with economic and more traditional security issues.  Australia provides half of all global Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Papua New Guinea and Pacific island states, representing almost 25 per cent of total Australian ODA; similarly, over half of all New Zealand’s total development aid is provided to its neighbors in the Pacific.  Taken holistically, the security of the Pacific island states cannot be guaranteed on their own.  As CSIS Non-resident Fellow Eddie Walsh mentioned in his briefing, Pacific states must be part of the greater Asia-Pacific in their economic, security and political networks.

The guests in attendance at Pacific Day 2012 – like the nations they represented – had an interest or even a stake in the prosperity of the Pacific.  Diplomats, representatives of nonprofits and corporations, scholars, journalists, students and members of the public attended the festive affair focused on celebrating all things Pacific and promoting cooperation amongst neighbors.  The nation-states of the Pacific maintain unique economic, political and social structures; yet because of their small size and geographic location they understand the significance of multilateral institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the need to collaborate with Western regional powers Australia, New Zealand and the United States and Asian powers like China.  In a recent statement, the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat proclaimed that “Pacific countries cannot be left isolated from regional economic integration initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region.”  Mutual advances toward sustainable fisheries, development, and economic, human and physical security, may lead to a more prosperous Asia-Pacific region. 

NATO’s Enduring Alliance

The highly anticipated twenty-fifth North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit began May 20 in Chicago; most of the NATO member states are facing defense budget cuts, their publics have grown tired of the war in Afghanistan, and some are worrying about NATO inevitably becoming militarily irrelevant.  In an election year, the Obama Administration wants to look strong on defense while leading the alliance to a reasonable exit from Afghanistan.  Despite the Administration’s policy ‘turn’ to the Asia-Pacific, NATO remains a formidable alliance structure unlike any other.  While not all 28 members may pull their weight (only two states follow the mandate that defense budgets be 2% of GDP), the collective defense alliance remains a pertinent force that states in East Asia and the Pacific were never able to replicate.  Smart Defense and the institution of missile defense capability have been achievements outside of the ISAF operation in Afghanistan.

In Lisbon in 2010 NATO leaders agreed to develop a missile defense capability, and that concept has now come to fruition.  In Chicago, leaders announced that they have achieved an interim missile defense capability. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated “Our system will link together missile defense assets from different Allies – satellites, ships, radars and interceptors – under NATO command and control. It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.”  The controversial capability has added tension to the Russia-NATO relationship, but NATO has not left any room to back down. 

Planning for the next decade, NATO leaders seek to “embrace a new culture of cooperation”.  ‘Smart Defense’ is the buzz word for the Obama Administration and NATO member states.  More than 20 multinational projects gained approval ‘at an affordable price’- a sign that members still want to continue to develop and protect the alliance.  As would be expected, leaders agreed to boost military exercises, training and education.  According to the NATO Secretary General, 

 “Our goal is NATO Forces 2020 – an Alliance that deals with today’s economic challenges, and is prepared for the security challenges of the future. These decisions show that despite the economic challenges, Allies are committed to acquire, develop and maintain the capabilities and the skills we need to ensure that our Alliance remains fit for purpose and fit for the future.”

The forward-looking nature of discussions illustrates that member states see the benefit of maintaining a strong and cohesive structure and scope.  While NATO assists with anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, intervened in Libya and participated in a training mission in Iraq, it is important that NATO does not get overstretched or over-utilized in conflicts around the globe (that are not related to Article 5 of the Treaty).  The collective defense treaty should not get confused with international peacekeeping or policing forces; given that NATO member states do not explicitly seek expansion of activities much outside of their realm, regional powers in Asia have no cause for concern regarding the missile defense or smart defense initiatives.  Furthermore, NATO member states will be relieved that they are not being coerced into the Obama Administration’s overt Pacific turn.

A Hopeful ‘Turn’ Toward 2012

A series of critical events compelled the US to turn its attention toward the Asia-Pacific region in 2011. Natural disasters, leadership changes, protests, power struggles, China’s rise and American influence led the headlines. This tumultuous year foreshadows an eventful 2012 for those with interests in the region. Looking forward, states and their citizens should be prepared for continued political, economic and environmental disruptions.

Gripping Natural Disasters:

  • Flooding in Australia, Philippines, Thailand
  • Earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand
  • Water shortages in Tokelau and Tuvalu

Top Political Occurrences:

  • Death of Kim Jong Il and uncertainty for the future of the Korean Peninsula
  • Burma’s election of civilian government and promise of future elections with participation by Aung San Suu Kyi
  • China’s Peaceful Development white paper release
  • Disputes in the South China Sea
  • Political standoff in Papua New Guinea

Key US Initiatives:

  • President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s trips to the Asia-Pacific for bilateral and multilateral meetings
  • US ‘turn’ toward Pacific and “forward-deployed diplomacy”
  • Renewing and affirming alliances with Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam

Strides toward bilateral and multilateral cooperation in trade and security have been taken in 2011 in the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN and APEC are coming into their own, and the ASEAN Community has much to look forward to. Despite Canada leaving Kyoto, there is still hope for international climate agreements with the US, China and India beginning to accept their responsibilities. Furthermore, free trade agreements and regional trade agreements continue to gain momentum; the growing list of countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a signal of the importance of regional trade and plans for continued growth.

International cooperation can appear to be wishful thinking with growing resource insecurity, continued border disputes, periodic political instability, increasing natural disasters and renewed aggressive rhetoric from the US and China. However, economic, political and social progress demands increased cooperation. Hopefully China can use its influence in the region and alliances with countries like Burma and North Korea for good rather than aiding authoritarian leaders in their maintenance of power and in the exploitation of natural and labor resources. Popular movements in the region, spurred on by current injustices, are also providing pressure for change from the bottom up. Together, these events could have a powerful impact on the plans for greater regional integration, security cooperation and economic development. Hopefully 2012 will be a year of cooperation for mutual benefit for the people of the region.