The Backstory on Pacific Power Paradox: Part I of II

The Backstory on Pacific Power Paradox: Part I of II

Today’s the big release day for Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace. If your heart is pure and your intentions noble, then Pacific Power Paradox is calling out to you from wherever fine books are sold. Be your best self and buy a copy. 😀

The book is not nearly as polemical as I sometimes am. It’s policy relevant scholarship, written with the general interest reader in mind—all except Chapter One passes my "airport bookstore" test. Even the publisher’s book jacket summary is written with a more strident edge than the book itself. So the foreign policy establishment shouldn’t be pissed about it for any reason other than that it exposes the growing cracks in US Asia policy narratives.

For historians and policy wonks with a pragmatist streak though, the book should be a gem—it gives advice about how to make a better, more stabilizing, and more just strategy than the one we’ve been working from for the past generation. It also gives policymakers a more accurate history of US-Asia relations to work from than the oversanguine image of America as a beneficent “Pacific power.”

So what’s the book’s origin story?

I address some of that in the book’s preface, which I’ve included at the bottom here as a taster. After re-reading it myself, I realized that the preface has some cryptic elements/references that are maybe worth unpacking.

I had an inkling of a glimmer of a notion of an idea for this book back when I was still doing my PhD, circa 2012 or so. The “East Asian peace”—the absence of new interstate wars in East Asia since 1979—was the single most interesting research puzzle I came across in my doctoral studies, but it was a poor fit with my work in defense policy at the time. Or, more precisely, I lacked a perspective that allowed me to see how the peace puzzle might be relevant to defense issues and vice versa (there was no strategic peace studies to guide me!). But it was always in the back of my head, nagging me to come back to it.

I didn’t start putting pen to paper until late 2018, during my tour promoting On the Brink. That book, which documented an unfolding nuclear crisis of epic proportions, was written in record time—from concept to final manuscript revisions in six months. I’m proud that the story in there actually holds up given how feverishly I wrote the thing.

On the Brink was my publisher’s (Cambridge University Press) first foray into trade press titles. In terms of book promotion, they didn’t know what they were doing, and I didn’t really either. But I managed to cobble together a three-country tour (US, Japan, South Korea) giving maybe a dozen in-person talks at events. There was other promotional stuff—news, podcasts, op-eds, salons at the homes of friends. But the heavy lift was the physical travel from location to location over the span of a month.

During that period on the road, I had a lot of down time, filled with a mix of networking and sitting in coffee shops for hours on end with my laptop open, pecking away in a zombie-like state of exhaustion. Every meeting started with my friends saying, "You look tired!"

In those coffee shops, I kept mulling over what my next book would be. I had notoriety from the crisis punditry, some scholarly momentum, and the novelty of being a major academic publisher’s first go at trade publishing (although as it turned out, nobody, save a few editors, cared about that). And so being in “hustle” mode, I was trying to figure out how to segue from writing about the North Korean nuclear crisis to something with similar gravity but where I had a unique take that would matter.

My early attempts at writing the proposal were focused, righteously, on attacking Trump. Asia was a mess, "on the brink" if you will, and it wasn’t just North Korea—it was Trump. That was how I saw it at the time. And it wasn't wrong, but was very unoriginal, and low-hanging fruit analytically.

Because my lens for viewing the situation was basically that of liberal internationalism, I didn't have any way to explain Trump himself—he was just the ultimate exogenous shock. Implicitly, I was thinking of US-Asia relations as basically good and incredibly stable, except that occasionally one of America's foes would rattle their sabers at us or one of our allies.

This, of course, is the prevailing view in Washington and, as I discovered while doing research for an updated version of the book proposal, not correct at all. It's dangerously naive, in fact.

If there was an epiphanous moment though, it wasn't some gotcha document in the archives—it was during a book talk at a friend's brownstone in Dupont Circle as part of my promotion tour in early 2019. This friend was a prominent Asia hand—a political appointee from the Obama years. And a player in Washington foreign policy circles.

Brownstone friend invited a who's who of Democratic Party political appointees to hear me talk about North Korea policy, and how Democrats should make sense of the then-ongoing summits between Trump and Kim Jong Un. 90% of the people who showed up are now appointees in the Biden administration.

Anyway, at one point during the Q&A, I was asked about how Democrats should respond if Trump proposes a peace treaty with North Korea—implicitly they were asking how Democrats oppose a peace treaty (something North Korea has long sought, part earnestly and part to get US troops off the Peninsula). I kind of guffawed, like, what? We're Democrats. The Korean War is an open wound. And the grassroots of the party are anti-war. Obama started out as anti-war before we got our collective hooks in him. Dems can't oppose a peace treaty politically, and I explained that they need to be very careful if they're going to oppose it on strategic grounds.

The room turned in discomfort. Nobody pushed back in that moment, but suddenly a rapt crowd was divided in whether they liked what I had to say. The focus shifted from "How do we oppose a peace treaty?" to "How do we explain the risks of a peace treaty and buy time, try to run out the clock?" The goal was ensure the least amount of change possible in US and South Korea policy and posture while seeking maximal change from North Korea. Ridiculous.

That night in my hotel, and for the rest of my trip, it kept gnawing at me that my fellow Democrats were opposed to peace. I understand their reasoning, and I had written some of the arguments about what could be at risk strategically if Trump did peace badly (yes, you can do peace badly—see, for example, Treaty of Versailles). But that moment in the brownstone crystallized for me that peace—not the status quo—should be a major priority of our policy. The question was just how to get there; what were the causes of peace.

Now, if you've been reading this newsletter for any amount of time, you know I'm pretty critical of liberal internationalism; I've moved left. Well, that political shift owes to a lot of things, but one thing pushing me was the history involved in writing Pacific Power Paradox. The actual history of America's role in Asia gave the lie to our rhetoric and talking points about our regional role...

[I’m writing this late at night and need to crash. Will finish the backstory in Part II, in a separate post.]

Preface to Pacific Power Paradox

Had I tried to write this book at any prior moment in my life, it would have come out differently. Or maybe not at all. But it has been percolating since the first time I was introduced to the puzzle of the East Asian peace a decade ago. The peace puzzle and the academic debates surrounding it struck me as vital to informed statecraft, and it troubled me that nobody in Washington ever talked about it . . . or thought about the absence of war as anything more than the by-product of American hegemony. How could the United States engage with the region on the basis of ideas and presumptions that had only incidental intersections with a puzzle so important? How could it be okay to live with a distorted sense of not only what kept war at bay but also what could make for a deeper and more durable peace? And since American hegemony was fracturing before our eyes (it was the Obama era), what would become of the Asian peace if the conceit of U.S. policy makers was more correct than many scholars had previously acknowledged?

Whereas the Washington of my early career offered no room for these kinds of questions, the Trump era made them impossible not to ask. As unusual and erratic as Trump was stylistically, what eventually discomfited me most about that time was the shocking amount of continuity his administration represented in U.S. foreign policy, especially toward East Asia and the Pacific. That many of us failed to see Trump’s policies as such owed to the way in which we—scholars, practitioners, pundits, the media—regurgitated stories about America as a beneficent “Pacific power” that were at best reductive and at worst propagandistic. In my first cut at this book, in fact, I assumed I would be portraying Trump as a stunning rupture in U.S. statecraft. But as I revisited the archival material, old speeches, and strategy documents of past presidents, I could no longer deny that the Trump era was an amplification of habits that had always been in U.S. statecraft but simply not in our narrative about it. I came to see our collective mythologizing of what was often really American imperiousness as encouraging U.S. policy makers to play with Asia’s fate without even realizing it. And that was why the United States had become Asia’s greatest source of volatility.

This book is my reckoning with all of that: a bridge between the worlds of knowledge (where scholars theorized and measured the Asian peace) and practice (where many policy makers had a self-aggrandizing theory of security that was sometimes right). It gives America due credit for sustaining the Asian peace where and when that is actually true—but it does not shy away from showing us how America has been not just Asia’s firefighter but also its arsonist and an impediment to more durable forms of security. Above all, this is an attempt to correct our vision of the past, and to reconcile ourselves with how the region itself has been changing. As I write this, the sun has not yet set on the Biden presidency, but what we have seen so far corrects for the Trump administration’s style far more than for its substance, which worries me about what comes after.

If this tickles your fancy (and even if it doesn’t), do us both a favor and buy the book!