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Toward a Pacific-Oriented America? (Part I)

Is the United States really shifting from an Atlantic to an Asia-Pacific orientation?

November 7, 2011

Is the United States really shifting from an Atlantic to an Asia-Pacific orientation?

The “reorient-to-rising-Asia” doctrine has reached new heights: Hillary Clinton recently penned an article on “America’s Pacific Century” in Foreign Policy, declaring that America is going to refocus its efforts on this area-of-the-future.

It fits in with wider fashions in public belief. A current survey finds that Americans, by a 51% to 38% margin, think Asia is more important for the United States than Europe. Evidently, the narrative about the West’s decline and Asia’s rise has had a major impact. In 2004, Americans had put Europe first, by a whopping 54% to 29% margin.

The reversal comports with the urgings of the numerous writers on Western decline: that America will shift — or should shift, or must shift or is shifting — from an Atlantic to an Asia-Pacific orientation. Secretary Clinton goes, to be sure, only halfway in this direction, mentioning that Pacific structures in this century can be built like the Atlantic ones of the last century. Her State Department editors no doubt would never let the Atlantic ones be forgotten altogether.

However, this still misses a central point: The United States has long been developing its Pacific links. It has been doing so in a natural way, on the basis of its primary Atlantic links and roots, not as a separate world.

The most developed areas of the Asia-Pacific have become a part of the West, making the growth of Asia also growth of the Atlantic-West, not a decline of it. New efforts and steps in the Pacific relationship, which are indeed advisable, should be and (unless done foolishly) will be an improvement over what has already been built in the Atlantic-Pacific, not a separate new departure.

Nor does it make sense to use Asia, as Clinton does, for a reorientation away from the Mideast — the indispensable resource base for our Pacific allies and an area of competition with China. The idea of an Asia-Pacific identity for the United States as an alternative to the Euro-Atlantic one is an illusion, no matter how popular it is these days.

Like most popular illusions, it can be expected to do a little good and a lot of harm, then fade as realities reassert themselves.

America can never lose its Atlantic roots. Its ideological orientations have always been either rooted, i.e., Western-based — or else uprooted, “alternative,” West-denying. Western-rooted means defining itself together with Atlantic Europe as the cornerstone of its further global policy.

The “alternative” approach means deracinating itself. It entails a reduction of the United States to a shrunken patriotism, a sectarian exceptionalist mindset and a shrill, brittle discourse. It is “isolationist,” not in the sense of literal isolation, but in the technical meaning that the term has always had in diplomatic history: aversion to enduring transatlantic ties, limiting itself to shifting global engagements.

The question of America’s identity pivots on its concept of the “West” and “the Rest.” America’s ties with “the Rest” have always come in two brands: the rooted brand that works with the Rest on the basis of America’s being a part of the West — and the alternative brand that links up with the Rest as a way of thumbing a collective nose at Old Europe.

America’s Pacific partnerships — with Japan, South Korea and many others — have in practice been the most Atlantic-linked of all its ties with the “Rest.” Far from being anti-Atlantic, the Pacific alliances and economic cooperation structures have become closely integrated parts of the Atlantic network. They constitute an extension wing of Atlanticism.

Nevertheless, the “alternative” Asia-Pacific ideology, opposing the Pacific to the Atlantic, is presently gaining renewed attention. It entails a reorientation toward China, and away not only from the Atlantic but from the Atlanticized parts of the Pacific.

What gives the “alternative” Asia-Pacific approach special appeal is that it not only jibes with the belief in Western/American decline, but is often packaged in a form that stokes American pride. It can present itself as a continuation of the 19th century drive westward to the Pacific, conceived as the true Americanism, in contrast to the Atlantic seaboard with its old elites. Asia-Pacific becomes the new “frontier,” a greater, global frontier for patriotic Americans.

This ties in handsomely with the sectarian element we have seen in American ideology — denying its European roots, making believe that its freedom comes from getting away from Europe rather than from its development of its European heritage. The “frontier hypothesis,” an influential national-populist movement among historians, depicted America’s freedom as coming from these relatively recent, relatively unique westward-pointed experiences, not from the millennium of American roots over east in Europe.

Add on the new Asia-Pacific “frontier,” and it forms an entire alternative grand narrative. It starts with the repackaging of the second colony, Puritan Massachusetts, as if it were the founding and core colony, with America’s “Pilgrim Fathers” trekking across the Atlantic Ocean to find freedom.

It couples this with the downplaying of the bulk of the colonists who came across the ocean to expand the British Empire and thought of this as the empire of freedom. It moves on, with strict linear logic, to the further treks westward to the Pacific, and now out across the Pacific.

Leading strategists of the move out into the Pacific, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and his friend Theodore Roosevelt, are often portrayed as having had an insular nationalistic empire orientation. In reality, they were solidly rooted Atlanticists. They knew that the exceptionalist nationalist pride was a truncated one, antithetical to the true needs of national growth and power.

In America’s actual history, the “alternative,” anti-European phase of its orientation was relatively brief, one century out of four — basically the period from the Revolution to the late 1800s. The bitterness and vulnerabilities left over from the Revolution were lived out in this century, then outlived — first within the elite, then in national policy, although never fully in rhetoric. America grew gradually more confident in its size and power, and after 1865 no longer needed to fear being broken apart by European interference. Its elite began giving renewed appreciation to its Atlantic roots already in the 1870s.

In the 20th century, America’s connections with its Pacific friends developed as an extension of its connections with its Atlantic friends. The Atlantic alliances of the two world wars always included Australia and New Zealand. During the Cold War, the collaboration gained institutional expressions, combining Atlantic and Pacific countries in groupings such as the OECD and G7.

Today’s Atlantic-Pacific organizations grew genetically, so to speak, out of the Euro-Atlantic organizations. OECD was born as a restructuring of OEEC (Organization for European Economic Cooperation), the original Euro-Atlantic institution — first adding the United States and Canada as members rather than just outside sponsors and supervisors, then adding Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea as members.

NATO and the EU were also offspring, or “spillovers,” of the Marshall Plan-OEEC network — of its methods and achievements, of what was learned from it about the usefulness of integration, and of its very staff and personnel. ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) and the U.S.-Japan pact completed the NATO alliance system.

While remaining formally separate for diplomatic reasons, their links with NATO keep getting quietly upgraded over the decades. Other Asian tigers were linked to the alliance system by bilateral and plurilateral arrangements. As they grew economically, they became de facto parts of the OECD world.

On the nongovernmental level, too, trilateralism was an extension of Atlanticism. The Trilateral Commission was conceived in the 1970s for the express purpose of widening the communications structures among the elites of the Atlantic alliance to include the elites of the Pacific wing of the alliance. The very term “trilateral” expressed the fact that the Pacific wing was a part of the same grouping as the Atlantic wing.

The Atlantic wing was the historical core, the Pacific an extension wing. The Atlantic system evolved over time into the trilateral system, as a reinforcement, not a loss, to its original Atlantic or Western identity.

It is a symptom of forgetfulness of history that a leading theorist of Atlantic decline and Asian rise, Martin Jacques, can define “the West” in a narrow way and deny the westernity of Japan. He argues the point at length, unconvincingly. Many of his arguments would serve as well for denying Germany’s westernity.

Japan joined the formal umbrella organization of the West, OECD, in 1964. A decade later Japan, like Germany, became a founding member of OECD’s informal inner summit grouping, G5-6-7.

Already before World War I, Japan had been accepted as “civilized,” i.e., modernized and part-westernized, by its acceptance into the Concert of Europe. Back then, Europeans maintained some heavy cultural standards for considering countries civilized. Still, Japan was included.

However, democracy was not yet so prevalent in Europe as to establish itself as a defining part of the standard. This left ambiguities that led, as with Germany, to world war. Democratization after 1945 overcame the main ambiguities in both cases.

Japan’s recent changes of governing parties, like South Korea’s, have not only deepened its democratization, but have consolidated its orientation toward the West, despite a hiatus: Japan tried out an alternative dream of a China-centered Asian Community, a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare as China took brusque advantage of it.

South Korea went through a similar evolution: electing a center-left party, dreaming of getting close to North Korea and blaming problems on the United States, then waking up as the dream turned to a nightmare. In the aftermath, Japan has looked for regional communities embedded within the Atlantic community: the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership, and a long overdue strategic reconciliation with South Korea. The Pacific wing of the Atlantic community has taken wider and deeper shape.

In the future, there will inevitably be still more extensions. But it is likely to be some decades before they become significant. For now, NATO, OECD and G7/8 have organized “outreach” and “partnership” links with other regions. It serves as a way to draw into the system dozens of countries that are important, but are still far from being in a condition to be counted as reliable members of the system.

The Atlantic continues to grow, and the Pacific wing continues to grow as a part of the Atlantic system. At the same time, one has to acknowledge that, while reality goes one way, publicity goes another. It remains popular, in political and academic as well as journalistic writings, to cast the Pacific orientation as something opposed to the Atlantic one.

This has obvious uses, for those who are against one part of the alliance or the other. It also sounds more newsworthy — more combative, more exciting, more new — to say America is abandoning the Atlantic for the Pacific, than to say, yawn, the United States is reinforcing its old Atlantic alliance by building up its Pacific wing.

The reality is more important than the rhetoric, and needs to be understood. But false rhetoric can be expected to exact a price. It always does.

Editor’s Note: Part II of this feature will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.


The "alternative" Asia-Pacific approach can present itself as the new "frontier," a greater, global frontier for patriotic Americans.

In America's actual history, the "alternative," anti-European phase of its orientation was relatively brief — the period from the Revolution to the late 1800s.

In the 20th century, America's connections with its Pacific friends developed as an extension of its connections with its Atlantic friends.

America's Pacific partnerships — with Japan, South Korea and many others — have in practice been the most Atlantic-linked of all its ties with the "Rest."

The Atlantic continues to grow, and the Pacific wing continues to grow as a part of the Atlantic system.