Dr Van Jackson on His New Book: Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace

Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast. Before entering academia, Van was a foreign policy practitioner, working as a strategist and policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration and serving in the US Air Force as a Korean linguist and intelligence analyst. He is the author of two books on US-North Korea relations with Cambridge University Press, On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (2018) and Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations (2016). He has a third book with Yale University Press titled Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace.
Umer Lakhani '25 interviewed Dr. Van Jackson on on February 16, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Van Jackson.

In your new book, Pacific Power Paradox, you single out some notable factors contributing to “the Asian peace,” which can be categorized into Power Rationales, Economic Rationales, Normative Rationales, and Institutional Rationales. Could you briefly explain what these are and how they collectively helped maintain “the Asian peace”?

The Asian peace is a global public good. How do we account for it? Scholars have been working on this since 2007, trying to make arguments that highlight one source of the Asian peace over another. They emphasize the explanatory power of general deterrence, alliances, regionalism, or economic interdependence. They go about doing research in a way that says this factor has greater explanatory power than the other factors. The implication is that we need to focus foreign policy on that factor in order to preserve the Asian peace.

What I show in the book is that the Asian peace is very much a layered peace. It is bigger than any one factor or any one actor. Asian international relations scholars want one dominant explanation, but they are doing an injustice to the phenomenon since the Asian peace cannot be explained by any one thing. These scholars acknowledge that the historical record is more complicated than their social science tools can accommodate. Yet, their social science tools are the only way that they can weigh in, analytically speaking, to explain the puzzle. 

Bizarrely, there is a great novelty in arguing that the Asian peace is a layered peace. Multiple sources were all converging in time, starting in 1979. The Asian peace was, for a while, over-determined. We are lucky that we had all these multiple sources of stability converging; there is nothing essentialist about this. Each of these sources of peace promoted stability at some point. If you try to dissect, or pull out, or extract one of these sources, and then try to hold it up and say that it is the source of peace for all time, you are probably going to get us all killed. The idea of the book was to discuss these many layers, because policymakers want to know what to do with levers of power. If they believe that there is this one major source of stability at the expense of other sources, then they are going to start making bad policy and bad strategy decisions. That's how we get tragedies. Painting a more complicated picture that shows how it is all historically contingent is a better way to attune this discussion about the Asian peace to the policymaker’s sensibility. 

One of your central points is the three faces the United States presents with regard to Asian peace: the “aloof hegemon,” the “vital bulwark,” and the “imperious superpower.” Can you briefly explain what these are and elaborate on how they manifest themselves with regards to specific countries and issues? 

The prevailing narrative in Washington about America's role in Asia is that the US is the beneficent Pacific power, the ultimate source of stability. John Mearsheimer once called America “Asia's pacifier.” This hubristic, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing view that American power is a public good because it provides for Asian stability misses the bigger picture. Indeed if you believe that, then all the other sources of the peace don't matter, and that's also obviously not true. 

What I show is that there are ways in which the narrative that America is the vital bulwark of Asian security sometimes has merit to it. It is just too partial a story, a cherry-picked story. In 1996, for example, Taiwan tried to hold presidential elections, in an effort to become democratic, and China was engaged in saber rattling. While the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996 is more complicated than this, in essence, American power served as a check against Chinese encroachment against Taiwan, as Taiwan tried to become a full-fledged democracy. This is an example in which America played a positive stabilizing role. In 2010, when I was working in the Pentagon on Korea, the US was using its alliance with South Korea and its foreign military presence in a way that prevented a nightmare escalation of a small military crisis, where North Korea attacked South Korea twice that year. 

There were examples like that, where the US was the vital bulwark of Asian security, and that flatters Washington’s self-perception. But those are very small moments compared to the totality of the history since the Asian peace started. The much more accurate narrative is that America has been the dominant power since 1979, but as the aloof hegemon. It has not paid attention to certain things that did threaten the Asian peace. For example, Thailand and Cambodia got into a small military conflict that lasted from 2008 to 2012. The US had nothing to do with any of that, even though technically the US is an ally of Thailand. The Americans didn't weigh in, they didn't try to stop it or suppress it, or prevent it from escalating. It was managed by regionalism and the ASEAN way. There are many examples in Asian security where America is just not relevant even though it is the dominant power. 

Then there is the US being the imperious superpower, which is a third narrative about America's role in Asia—the third face. The imperious superpower is the one that is really challenging to the Washington sensibility because it forces us to look in the mirror and it shows that we are often the threat to Asian stability. Everybody knows about “fire and fury” and the Trump escalation of nuclear threats in 2017 and 2018. North Korea did not change suddenly in 2017 when that nuclear crisis broke out, but what did change was the American president. This is not to say that North Korea gets a pass or that North Korea is blameless, but rather the US is part of the picture of analyzing the Asian security situation. When the U.S. removes itself from being implicated in the outcomes in the world that it doesn’t like, it ends up making bad choices, and then shifting the blame. It externalizes problems instead of recognizing how problems are interconnected. There are times when the US is directly menacing the Asian peace, but there are times when it is indirectly menacing the Asian peace too, by opposing regionalism. There have been proposals for regional organizations intended to bolster peace, and the US stopped them from forming in the 1980s by vetoing them. In the 1990s, there were multiple times when Malaysia proposed the East Asian Economic Caucus. Since the US was excluded, it vetoed it. In the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, Japan, an American ally, tried to create an Asian Monetary Fund to prevent future Asian financial crises. The US vetoed that one too. 

Many Republicans derided regionalism and multilateralism in Asia as feckless talk shops worse than nothing, but America made it that way. That's what the US wanted. Reagan issued a national security memo that got declassified in the 1980s, which confirmed that America wanted to make sure that regionalism stays weak and informal—"It should serve American business interests and be led by the private sector.” So, to the extent that regionalism is a source of stability, the US is on the wrong side of it, and there are ways that America has shaped political economy that have been a menace to the region. It's just more evidence of America as the imperious superpower. When you zoom out, the totality of all of this is that there is no one narrative that captures America's role in Asia, except that of the Pacific power paradox. 

You note that the Reagan era ended with the world on the cusp of a “unipolar moment,” where the United States enjoyed unrivaled global primacy due to the fall of the Soviet Union. We find ourselves in more of a multipolar era today, but do you think the US’s ultimate goal is to return to that position of unrivaled primacy in Asia?

Sort of, yes. America is pursuing primacy now. It is acting as if it is trying to preserve unipolarity. The problem with that is what's required to preserve primacy is at odds with what's required to preserve peace. The big problem is that US policymakers do not think that the world is multipolar. They think that they are preserving primacy, but they are actually trying to recover a lost primacy. There is the inherent problem that primacy and peace are at odds, but there is also the double problem that US policymakers are operating from a map of reality that is not accurate. There is something about American exceptionalism--a pathology that refuses to acknowledge power realities, which is really ironic because American policymakers think that they are power-driven, first and foremost. The idea that you would have a bad assessment of distribution of power or how power works would be funny, except it is tragic.

This goes back to the Obama years, when Ben Rhodes was Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor. He said very openly that the US was trying to make decisions in such a way that can get America another 50 years as a leader. There are also declassified memos from the Trump years that say American preeminence is in the ultimate national interest. If the US loses preeminence, then it will be harmed. Now with Biden, it is very clear that his administration thinks the US still has preeminence, that the US still has primacy. If that were true, why is it that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is unfavorable to the US? Why is it that the US is on the periphery of the Asian political economy? There are all these regional economic and financial bodies that do not include America, like regional trade agreements. In many ways, America is not the hegemon anymore. But US policy still acts as if the US is trying to preserve that at all costs, and that is ultimately Sisyphean. The US is in the Chasing Shadows moment where it is not dealing with reality.

This idea of economic interdependence comes up a lot in your discussion of China’s rise throughout the 21st century. Can you explain why the US sought economic interdependence with China for nearly four decades, but is now trying hard to decouple from China?

US foreign policy has been remarkably neoliberal toward the rest of the world, which is to say it has been guided by an imperative to force others to open up their markets, to privatize public services, to deregulate their economy. This allows the US to move in and invest. This way, we can move money in and out at will to speculate on the value of currencies. As a result, economic interdependence was not sought but rather was a byproduct of the US moving out with globalization. The nature of globalization coupled with the nature of the East Asian development model required that countries with rising economies had to suppress labor in order to have a competitive advantage in the global marketplace. The positive story there is that this stitches together markets, and it creates manufacturing networks that are transnational. That does have a pacifying effect because everyone is getting paid—well, everyone except the workers.

Economic interdependence is the byproduct of that. Military primacy is the guardian of this system. In Asia, when the Asian Financial Crisis happened in 1997-1998, the thumbnail version of that crisis was that the Thai baht, Thailand's currency, crashed because currency speculators had quickly moved out money. That precipitated a crisis that became a regional contagion, and then several countries in East Asia had problems managing balance of payments. As a result, they needed emergency foreign currency. Ultimately, the IMF bailed them out. As part of that, the IMF did what it is notorious for, which is imposing conditions of austerity on these countries. The US ran the IMF at that point in time. It appointed every head of the IMF and had disproportionate voting shares compared to the rest of the members. The US Department of the Treasury is essentially the US agent that decides what the IMF should do, and then it goes to the IMF and tries to get the IMF to do what it wants. It's all very collusive.

In the Asian Financial Crisis, Asian governments, including allies like South Korea, got hit hard by this crisis. In Indonesia, that financial crisis actually caused regime change. It led to the mass protests in the streets, and then ultimately, the overthrow of Suharto. To prevent this, they needed to build up an architecture, a set of arrangements in finance to bolster and secure these economies, and to create measures to never live through this again. The IMF is a proxy for the US in their minds. What you see, starting with the Asian Financial Crisis, is a twenty year period, all the way up until the Biden era, where East Asian governments start setting up institutional mechanisms and arrangements that do not involve the US, because involving the US would be like inviting in the IMF. That is the way the Asian political economy looks now, with a lot of intra-regional interdependence. This came about, starting in the late 1990s, as an allergic reaction to the world America built.

Economic interdependence was never the priority of American foreign policy. It was a byproduct, and then the character of that byproduct shifted from being US-centered to China-centered over time. It is the wager that East Asian governments made. Starting in the 1990s, China looked like an economic super engine. It looked like a safe bet, an obvious bet. It was a no-brainer for Asian governments trying to develop their economies to align themselves with China. They were taking advantage of their position in Asia geographically, but also their position in global manufacturing networks. Consequently, China becomes central to economic interdependence as an alternative to the United States being central to economic interdependence. 

You note that the Obama administration’s high sensitivity to risk served regional stability well at the time, but Trump’s risk-acceptance may have undone the work that Obama did to further Asian peace. Is it possible to revert back to high-risk sensitivity and conservative statecraft that adapts to regional and domestic trends, or is a new approach necessary?

I can imagine a future president, especially a Democratic president, possibly adopting a much more risk-averse attitude, managing the status quo, which was very Obama-like. The problem is that it will not have stabilizing consequences the way it did in the Obama years. Merely replicating Obama’s foreign policy verbatim will not have the effects that it had in the Obama years; the economic and political climate has just changed too much. In the current context, where the whole framework for viewing the region has devolved into superpower rivalry and trying to forge geo-economic blocs, this risk-averse attitude will only serve to propel rivalry and exacerbate a situation that is eroding the Asian peace. What is really needed is not risk aversion or risk acceptance, but new wagers for how to keep the Asian peace stable. 

Umer Lakhani '25Student Journalist

Tia Dufour, White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *