Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:26 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:26 | SYDNEY

WR Mead on Asia future order


Sam Roggeveen


30 July 2012 10:37

Below is part 3 of my interview with renowned US foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead; part 1 here and part 2 here.

Q. Walter, you again make an intriguing comment near the close of your previous answer, so I'd like to ask you about 'the emergence of an Asian society of states'. Can you describe what such a society would look like? What are its institutional forms and are there historical models that guide you?

The term 'society of states' might be taken to imply that each member of that society is relatively content with its place in the world. But with the distribution of power in the Asia Pacific seemingly so fluid, is a 'society' of states even achievable, or will the power balance among emerging and established powers need to be settled before they can reach such an accord?

A. It's clear that the balance of power among Asian states is going to be changing in a number of ways. And it's not possible from where we sit now to predict what a fully mature and developed Asian state system would look like. Would it have the same kind of legal arrangements as the EU? Would it look more like a bigger ASEAN? Would there be one umbrella institution, or would there be a society of institutions, with different competencies and priorities? It's a mistake to try to say too much now about how international relations might develop in Asia. But when I think about what American policy would try to promote in Asia, I think primarily about helping to provide a framework within which that future Asian society can begin to develop and grow.

I'm not sure historical models help much when thinking about the future of Asia. There are certainly things you can learn, and there are points of similarity you can find, but I think the essential thing here is to keep in mind the many directions in which Asia can develop, and so the danger of taking a model like the EU is that that model will blind you to all the ways in which Asia is not like Europe.

What's happening in Asia in the 21st century is unique in human history. We've never had so many countries and cultures with such huge populations going through such changes so quickly.

Asian states face huge challenges in constructing and maintaining their internal orders. Necessarily, many countries are going to prioritise the task of internal construction over creating an external state system. And we're looking at countries that are going through very rapid urbanisation and that are simultaneously industrialising and coming to terms with a post-industrial world. China today spends more money on internal security than it does on international defence.

We're likely to see in many Asian countries that the question of internal stability and order is the question that keeps rulers up at night. The question of the international security structures in Asia is going to be a secondary one. And because the internal struggles and upheavals through which Asian countries are passing are so dramatic and far-reaching, the ability of leaders to build strong external organisations and durable institutions is going to be limited. It's hard to imagine anything that looks like the EU being useful to countries trying to manage this set of pressures.

China, for example, can't make big concessions in the South China Sea without creating a crisis of domestic legitimacy for the government. And given the balance of risks that the government sees, it's going to choose domestic peace over international harmony.

At the moment, Asia doesn't even have a code of conduct for managing maritime disputes in the South China Sea. To leap from this situation to imagining a hypothetical future Asian international framework requires a little bit more confidence in my prophetic powers than I feel like I can summon.

The main quality that a society of states would have to have is the ability to avoid settling disputes through war. More than anything, Asia needs a generation of peace so that each Asian country can develop and concern itself with its internal social and political growth. The question is whether states think they can improve their condition by a mix of cooperation and competition without war, or whether they think violent conduct is the only way to provide for what they consider to be the minimal security and dignity they require. I doubt we'll ever see a world in which every country is completely satisfied with its place. But being unhappy is not the same thing as planning a war of revenge.

Flexibility may be the most important characteristic of any Asian international structures that do get built. China doesn't want a war over the South China Sea, especially not a war with the US, but the government also doesn't want to risk its power domestically by being perceived as weak and unreliable. Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries involved in these territorial disputes face some of the same issues. So we're looking at tentative small-scale flexible arrangements that over time might grow into something else.

Personally, I'll be happy if we find a way through the difficulties of the next ten years, and then we can start thinking about what we need to do next.

Photo by Flickr user MrTopher.