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The United States Re-Balancing in East Asia

At a moment when the United States government hops up and down frantically every time North Korea launches a missile, a group of concerned individuals in policy gathered together for a discussion of what a hundred-year commitment to East Asia would look like and how the United States can respond in a meaningful manner to such challenges as climate change.

At a moment when the United States government hops up and down frantically every time North Korea launches a missile, a group of concerned individuals in policy gathered together on March 26, 2014 for a discussion of what a hundred-year commitment to East Asia would look like and how the United States can respond in a meaningful manner to such challenges as climate change together with China, Japan and Korea. The event, hosted by Foreign Policy in Focus and the Asia Institute, brought together author John Feffer, Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Alexis Dudden, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut and Daniel Garrett, former diplomat and current Senior Associate at the Asia Institute. The following is a statement written for the occasion by Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute.

This seminar embodies the spirit behind our efforts at the Asia Institute to increase the commitment of the United States to East Asia over the long-term in a constructive and focused manner. We feel strongly that a pivot to Asia, a fundamental re-balancing of national priorities, is essential to the economic, political and security concerns of the United States, but we do not think that such a shift can take place as a result of moving around aircraft carriers or selling more missile defense technology to nations in the region. Only by building a deep human network that ties the United States to East Asia through person-to-person professional and personal relations over a lifetime can we hope to have any meaningful impact.

For too long East Asia has been crowded out of the American consciousness by Europe and the Middle East. Asia tends to be a place for Americans where their consumer products are made but about which we know close to nothing. We do not demand a high level of proficiency in Asian languages of Americans and we do not read Asian media carefully. Our engagement is sadly limited.

At the same time, in the conferences, meetings and collaborative projects in East Asia between local government, universities and NGOs, we find that more often than not the United States is not represented. There are occasional visits by high officials from the United States to talk in a rarified atmosphere about trade agreements, but there are few American high school soccer teams or chess champions who make their way to Tokyo or Beijing. That lack of day to day engagement with East Asia, from collaboration in science to exchanges between local governments, is, in our opinion, a serious mistake.

But more importantly, a pivot to Asia must be fundamentally different in nature than the previous US presence in Asia. We are no longer looking at a backwards Asia where the United States can offer its good will, funds and know-how as the Asia Foundation did back in the 1970s. We are looking at nations in East Asia that are peers, and often ahead of the United States in certain sectors. We must have an equal relationship in our discussions in which we are learning as much as we are teaching and where we are assuming a long-term relationship, no matter what short-term political tensions may arise. So the relationship must be one between equals, akin to what we have seen in Europe over the last fifty years.

Some have expressed doubts about the practicality of planning for 100 years. We know that there has been a tendency over the last twenty years to increasingly shorten our time span to years, and then down to the next news cycle, in our consideration of America’s future. Many experts in foreign policy assume simply that what happens between nations after they have moved on to cushy consulting jobs is simply not their problem. This perfidious approach is not unique to foreign policy, of course. It pervades US culture and suggests the adoption of a consumer’s attitude towards all aspects of international relations. The primary concern becomes merely how the individual can profit from the transaction with a foreign country by raising his or her profile. The smart person in policy knows how American responsibilities can be outsourced to third parties while still allowing us to claim credit for the benefits in the media.

It is an entirely legitimate, and much-needed, approach to speak about security in 100 year units. There are examples in the past of thinking about governance in 100-year (or longer) units. Seeing that we can look forward to a series of massive security threats related to climate change that can only be addressed in the 30-50 year range, the shift in thinking is absolutely necessary. As David Montgomery explains in his book “Dirt,” we lose top soil at a rate of about 1% a year now. 1% does not seem like much, hardly anything in an age in which we are blinded by media images. But at that rate, we will lose half of our top soil in less than fifty years. As top soil is essential to human survival, and it takes hundreds of years to renew, we are facing an existential crisis that dwarfs any North Korean nuclear program. But it is a crisis that is invisible to short term thinking.

It is the great tragedy of our age that at the very moment that exciting new technologies capture our imagination and suggest that we can do miraculous things in a split second, that the looming threats for us are those emerging over long periods of time, threats that cannot be responded to by missile defense programs. Those threats are as invisible to us as are the twists and turns of the tulips growing in our garden. We think that plants are stationary, but that is merely a delusion born of our inability to detect slow movements. In the case of the environment, that blindness to slow change can be fatal.

As far as I know, no other think tank in Washington DC is making presentations on security and US international engagement in 100-year units. At the minimum, our very presence here talking about long-term security can help put pressure on others to broaden their perspectives. We should adopt the Native American tradition of security in our policy, the so-called “seventh generation” principle: We must consider how our decisions will impact our descendants seven generations in the future. Although the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a grade of D+ in 2013 for our quality of infrastructure, we must admit that from the “seven generation” point of view, we deserve an unmitigated F.

When I imagine the future role of the United States in Asia, I am reminded of what my father told me as a young boy. My father said repeatedly, “Never do the same job for more than one year.” He did not mean you should quit your job every year. What he meant, I think, is that although one may keep the same title in the same organization, one must innovate constantly, transform how one works and adapt to new issues and circumstances.

That advice applies to the role of the United States in East Asia today. The United States should take the lead in working together with Korea and Japan to come up with a comprehensive, long-term, strategy to address the overwhelming threat of climate change in East Asia. The spreading deserts in Northern China threaten to destroy the region’s ecosystem. The risk caused by dust and fine-particles has reached crisis levels and will require a complete restructuring of our economies. And the oceans are quickly becoming watery deserts. The time has come for true action.

The United States also should work together with Japan, Korea, China and other Asian nations to develop a long-term (100-year) plan to respond to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The Asia Institute has been very active with regard to this issue. It is not a problem that can be solved by press conferences or by political posturing. It requires thousands of people to work together closely for decades on concrete and focused projects.

And yet, in the face of overwhelming security threats in East Asia, we find that there are many in the United States who would rather make up new threats than respond to real ones. They would rather imagine some sort of a new “Cold War” that will justify the existing structure of the Pentagon, rather than engaging in the profound restructuring and re-imagining required to make our institutions and our theories match the real-life threats or our age. The Cold War structure has so distorted our domestic economy and our society that our think tanks are no longer even capable of considering true national security. As the old saying goes, “Cold Wars repeat, first as tragedy and then again as farce.”

We should not deal with Asia in terms of next week’s headlines, but rather we should plan for a response to climate change with the nations of East Asia through 30-year or 50-year projects. Such long-term ecological projects can bring new stability to the economy and they can assure that we form long-term relations between people and institutions that will stabilize international relations in the region.

The United States also can work together with the nations of East Asia to set up a fundamental agreement on the administration of cyberspace in Asia could be a model for future governance of this increasingly important field. In the case of cyberspace, and assuring the integrity of information and the neutrality of the internet, the United States should learn as it teaches and it must approach relationships with a degree of humility that is hard to find in Washington DC.

Finally, the United States can work together with Korea, China, Japan and other nations to brain-storm and imagine an inspiring future for a unified Korean Peninsula. That vision can present a new hope for the region and the world of how we can create new institutions, a new culture, that transcends the social and economic divisions of this age. There is plenty of room in this process for Americans. But American participation in Korean reunification should not be limited to diplomats eating shrimp at six party talks meetings closed to the public. American participants in this project should be ecologists and city planners, high school teachers and NGO activists; a broad range of Americans who can contribute concretely to the future of Korea and East Asia.

This seminar is the first in what we hope will be a series of provocative discussions in Washington DC and Seoul about what America’s appropriate role in East Asia can be. We invite the suggestions and perceptions of everyone and hope that together we can create a road going forward.

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