The Backstory on Pacific Power Paradox: Part II of II

The Backstory on Pacific Power Paradox: Part II of II

[This is the second installment finishing an earlier post on the origins of the Pacific Power Paradox book.]

Sorry there was such a delay between Part I and Part II of this post on the Pacific Power Paradox. Have been overwhelmed with bullshit related to the release of the book, and a corresponding essay in Foreign Affairs that got way more attention than I was expecting (will write about that separately).

So where were we? Ah yes, my political evolution happened while I was writing this book. I’ll save for another day the story of how I became a critic of the same national security state that gave birth to me, but it’s important to understand that the Beltway think tank version of Van could not have written this book.

As I say in the book’s preface, I really had been enamored of the East Asian peace as an empirical puzzle as early as 2010, but after forcing it into a couple conversations around town, it was clear enough that nobody wanted to talk about it. And when I officially moved from bureaucrat to think tanker in late 2014, you’d think I’d have room to write something about the East Asian peace if I loved it so much. But no.

In the world of Washington national security think tanks, you have to hustle to eat, intellectually. The product isn’t cutting up coke or bricks of hash, but the logic of the Beltway grind isn’t so different. You’re not making a dollar out of fifteen cents in a dirty industry; you’re making a dollar out of fucking nothing in a dirty industry, and the way to do that is by serving up ideas that serve the interests of the powerful. You have to thread the needle of making some claim to differentiation—novelty with your research—while also being completely unoriginal and not challenging the preferences of potential funders. You must pander to conventional wisdom. There’s an art to working within a status quo, and successful Washingtonians instinctively master it.

So, circa 2014, who was funding peace-related research in national security?...crickets, pregnant pause…nobody.

Well, Ploughshares Fund, if you could yoke your project to nukes. But their grant sizes were a rounding error compared to what we were expected to fundraise each year. The MacArthur Foundation had been bankrolling some Asia-related projects that had a peaceful/non-militarist dimension, but I heard there was some mismanagement with the program officer who was administering those funds and that funding stream got more or less shut down just as I entered think tank life. The US Institute of Peace had some small-grant programs, but at the time especially, they were basically a counter-insurgency organization draped in olive branches and dove symbolism; ironically far from peace-oriented.

Given the landscape of acceptable ideas at the time, and the roster of potential funders, I had to focus my research on what was hot and what I knew best—defense technology stuff, the South China Sea, and my original beat—North Korea. It was stimulating just to be in an idea space where I could write, but man was the content of my writing soul-sucking. My focus necessarily shifted from peacemaking to war avoidance. The closest I could get to orienting myself toward what normal people might consider a peace agenda under these constraints was making the case for arms control with North Korea. Adam Mount and I co-authored a piece for The National Interest explaining why denuclearization was an unrealistic goal and nuclear diplomacy focused on arms control (which, given North Korea’s demands, implicitly required some engagement with a peace process) was the best way to stabilize the Peninsula. We were the first in DC to argue for arms control per se—the rare idea that was edgy by Washington standards yet not unpalatable given how crappy the security situation was in Korea.

So the East Asian peace was officially off my agenda until I was sitting in DC coffee shops in 2019, promoting a book about a nuclear crisis that nobody was any longer thinking about (at that moment people were obsessed with Trump-Kim summit diplomacy and, ironically, talk of peace). As a university professor, I no longer needed to chase funding, so could write about what I thought important, and the farcical Trump-Kim summit diplomacy was nudging me back to questions of peace.

In my first draft of the Pacific Power Paradox proposal (the title came much later), I decided to write about how Trump was a threat to the East Asian peace. It was a much larger issue and question than Trump-Kim summit diplomacy, but implicit in the original project idea was that the summits would not bring peace—or change anything, really—because Washington was literally opposed to peace (without nuclear disarmament) and Trump was only in it for the spectacle. And since Kim obviously wasn’t about to give up his nukes no matter what he told Trump, peace was nowhere near at hand.

But saying that Trump was a threat to peace required a baseline claim about what “caused” the Asian peace that he was supposedly disrupting. The literature on the East Asian peace hadn’t evolved much in the decade since I first read about it, and I noticed a wide gap. Asian peace scholars were focused on factors—economic interdependence, democratization, regional norms, habits of informal diplomacy—that were TOTALLY different from the way Washington’s national security establishment talked about Asian security. But peace was an outcome of concern in security research, obviously, so what the hell?

So when I came back to New Zealand after the On the Brink book tour, I worked on two book proposals simultaneously. One was about progressive foreign policy, which is a book I’ve since drafted and that’s another story entirely. It became the vehicle for my formal study of leftist and progressive thought, which had as part of it an understanding of security as something that militaries tended to threaten rather than produce. The other proposal was Pacific Power Paradox, whose argument could not be that Trump threatened peace without a serious reckoning about what made the Asian peace. And that meant there needed to be some attempt to reconcile America’s role in Asia with the sources of the Asian peace that scholars had identified.

And that is the analytical core of Pacific Power Paradox. American security policy is unself-aware and dialectical, helping generate through its choices many of the things it later sees as threatening. The thing that surprised even me was that while this Asian-peace framework validated concerns I had about Trump being a menace to regional stability, nothing Trump did that liberals like me clutched their pearls about was entirely new. Trump had his own distasteful style, of course, but everything he did that we thought worrying had antecedents in past US policies since 1979—mercantilist hypocrisy in tandem with neoliberal rhetoric, opposition to regionalism that didn't center us, embrittling alliances when they didn’t serve our immediate needs (no matter how trivial those needs were), the logic of extreme military superiority, offensive coercion as a bizarro way of achieving deterrence. All of that was a problem in the Trump years and all of that was part of America’s track record in Asia…but somehow not in the self-image that presumed we were the primary source of the Asian peace.

A book was born. It’s really very far from a radical text, but I’m already getting a sense that it shocks the sensibilities of the DC pearl-clutchers because it dares challenge (empirically, mind you) the narrative of America as Asia’s oxygen.

If you haven’t already, please buy the book! And if you’ve got a copy, consider leaving a generous review somewhere like Amazon or Goodreads! ✌️