The United States' Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific and the Question of Smart Power

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0




Theory and Methodology





Declaration of Authorship


Much has been said and written in the last years concerning the „Pivot to Asia” (see Glaser 2012), meaning that the United States’ (US) strategy agenda has been moving away from a post-Second World War European to a recent Asian focus. In maritime patterns this change in US interests is described by the term „Pacific century”, which is said to be going to replace the Atlantic one. But the Asia-Pacific has been of strategic interest for the United States long before it was en vogue to take it as a matter of course. The Treaty of Wanghia, established in 1844 to fix US’ trade relations in Chinese ports, marks the first significant rule-based engagement of America in the region (Connors 2004, p.17). In the 44-page „Chinese Memorandum” the legendary and somewhat controversial US General Douglas MacArthur foresaw American future in Asia and the Pacific Ocean in 1884. As Arthur Herman says, the General campaigned for a „trans-Pacific commercial network” and the expansion of US Manifest Destiny1 across the Pacific (Sempa 2016, p.271; Herman 2016). So one can certainly say that the idea of the US being a major power in the Asia-Pacific already was given birth in the 19th century. However, the idea got more and more concrete, when the Washington naval treaties were signed in the beginning of the 1920ies and especially after the US victory in the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945. Other major events concerning the consolidation of America’s role in the world’s most populous region were for example the Korean war from 1950 to 1953, the so called „Sino- Soviet” split2, the devastating and 20 years long war in Vietnam until 1975, the birth of ASEAN in 1967, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the crises of new Asian capitalist societies in 1997 - to name just a few. Most of that time, US foreign policy was concentrated on anti- Communist counter-policies to gain influence in Asia in the name of Manifest Destiny. With the fall of the Soviet Union, US strategy towards the Asia-Pacific has been undergoing a significant transition. As Warren Christopher, Secretary of State under the first Clinton presidency, said in Hanoi in 1995: „In the old days we wanted to make Asia safe for democracy, these days we want to make it safe for American exports.” (Buckley 2002, p.177). This quote fits perfectly in the 1990ies neoliberal zeitgeist of the successful presidential campaign „The economy, stupid” of Bill Clinton, who wanted to reinvent US predominance based on an economist point of view, rather than continuing with expensive military power politics. But it would fall too short if one wants to understand the post-Cold War US’ engagement in the Asia- Pacific only by explaining the economic and trade policies of the United States. Both security and economy are at the core of US foreign policy strategy, since these two objectives being more and more intertwined in terms of globalization, digitization and other megatrends.

Classical and “old-fashioned” hard power approaches are therefore questioned, as they sometimes fail to explain the rise of messy multilateralism and a total heterogeneous security landscape in this region of interest. But to what extent the US strategy in the Asia-Pacific really is a sign of a more cooperative approach based on Neoliberal-Institutionalist3 thought rather than referring to Neorealist hard power politics? And which role the US seeks to have in this complex setting?

Theory and Methodology

In the following section I will examine the theoretical and methodological fundament to answer the research question(s) in a scientific way. Thus this paper’s focus lies in analysing and explaining US’ security strategy in the Asia-Pacific, especially related to the most current trends. However, I will refer to the past attempts of former US administrations to illustrate the continuity and change of US strategy towards the Asia-Pacific.

No single scientific theory - no matter how sophisticated its specific analytical approach is - can explain every social phenomenon entirely. In such a disruptive and confusing international environment it is all the more evident that scholars and students of International Relations have to be aware of analytical shortcomings of theories that explained the past to a satisfactory degree, but probably not the present. This is not to say that (Neo-)Realism, the most referred paradigm of the discipline, has run out of steam. Indeed, it needs a multifaceted theoretical framework to understand what and why the US is doing in this crucial part of the world. Of course the restrictions of the given research resources do not allow a well-advanced theoretical evolution. But the usage of more than one theory can be a fruitful attempt on decoding the mentioned research problem.

Before we turn to the relevant theories, certain technical terms have to be defined.

The arguably most important term in the discipline of political science is power. The American political scientist Joseph Nye sees power as the ability to get the results, which someone wants and if necessary to change others’ behaviour to reach this aim (Nye 2003, p.24). Moreover, Nye distinguishes between hard and soft power. Hard power is “the ability to get others to act in ways that are contrary to their initial preferences and strategies” by using all forms of coercion

(Nye 2011, p.11), whereas soft power is “the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion” (Nye 2004, p.5). Hard power focuses on military and economic advantages, while soft power is concentrated on the attraction of culture and ideas, as well as on the persuasion of the advantages of certain institutional settings. Finally, the fine balance of hard and soft power is called smart power, which Nye introduces for modern great powers like the United States (Nye 2005). In this perspective the so called Manifest Destiny is particularly interesting. By Connors, Manifest Destiny is the US’ “missionary, sometimes aggressive promotion of democracy, human rights and market economy” (Connors 2004, p.24). So, is this term reflecting smart power? Theoretically speaking it is, because of being both actively promoting (see military engagement, e.g. in Middle East and Asia) and passively “convincing” (who would seriously be against welfare and freedom?). But in practice it seems to be more hard than soft power politics, hence the US often using its promoted liberal ideology as some kind of a pretext to enforce its power interests. In the history of US foreign policy one can see a clear supremacy of Realist hard power politics, especially in the Cold War era, but even afterwards. Recent shifts towards a more cooperative strategy based on soft or at least smart power under the Obama administration are put to the test. That’s why for the given task I prefer a two-sided theoretical analysis, using Neorealism and Neoliberal Institutionalism. Where they fall short to explain the topic, other approaches will complement or criticize them.

Furthermore, we have to declare what is new (“neo”) on Neorealism and Neoliberalism.

The main difference between classical Realism and Neorealism is the assumption of the former that states act like human entities, who are naturally seeking power because of their biological instincts. This anthropological and somehow self-fulfilling tautology is criticized by Neorealists, who think that states are acting like rational entities in terms of the sociological model of homo oeconomicus (see Weber 1972). Of course power and interest politics are also at the core of Neorealism, but the justification of that lies in the anarchic structure of the international system and not in the bottom-up perspective of a single entity’s instincts. The top- down structural pressure of the anarchic international system forces a state to act like the security dilemma predicts: because of a missing supranational authority, which has the power to enforce widely accepted rules (for example a “world government”), there is a huge uncertainty of the intention of other states (see Herz 1961). The consequence of this mutual distrust is that states take the possibility of violent confrontations into account and favour offensive actions instead of defensive actions at the expanse of a possible armament race.

When it comes to Neoliberalism, we should first and foremost clarify that the term “Neoliberal Institutionalism” is generally more suitable. The reason is that Neoliberalism in principle has the tendency to be an ideology and thus a political project. Neoliberal Institutionalism is mainly an academic theory, even if it’s empirically (mis-)used by political actors (as any theory is). What makes it even more difficult is the fact that there is sometimes a blurred line between theory and ideology. Both classical Liberals and Neoliberals say that anarchy could be overcome with states being embedded and domesticated by mutually controlling each other’s behaviour. Common norms and deep economic relations lead to international interdependence and cooperation (see Keohane and Nye 1977 and Nye 1988; Connors 2004, p.9). Institutions should enable states not only to cooperate, but also to empower their civil societies, as well as encourage free markets within and close relations between the states. Neoliberals radicalized the idea of free markets to the extent that the classical Liberal positive-sum-game of cooperation turned into a zero-sum-game of radical individualism (see Harvey 2005 and Eccleshall 2003). As a consequence of Neoliberal restructuring of the Bretton Woods institutions - the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank - Neorealism regained importance in the theoretical debate claiming this institutional design as advantageous for already powerful states. So, in their eyes Neoliberalism strengthens the status quo of the powerful capitalist West under the leadership of the US. But this could also be understood as a theoretical argument for Neogramscian thought, which criticizes Neoliberalism of intensifying global inequality - not only between the industrialized global north and the underdeveloped (or developing) global south, but also within capitalist societies themselves (see Cox and Sinclair 1996).

With regard to the research question, Neorealists tend to interpret multilateralism as a sign of weakness. A state only supports membership in multilateral institutions or agreements, when it can dominate the scene aiming at the enforcement of its egoistic self-interest (Connors et. al. 2004, p.142). Institutions should be used by the hegemon to consolidate and foster its own power. For Neorealists international politics is a zero-sum-game: A’s win is B’s loss. With the incentives of cooperation being weak, states usually cooperate on a lower level of politics, e.g. in areas like trade and investment (Connors 2004). This is the reason, why Neorealists favour bilateral agreements for state interactions, where they can control beneficial outcomes all the better.

The just stated assumptions will be applied in the analysis to answer the research question(s), which I will present in the following.

Unfortunately, there cannot be a well elaborated methodological framework within a limited space of 10-13 pages. However, a secondary content analysis of selected articles and studies will be the methodological fundament. The content analysis is inspired by Mayring (2000). The following keywords facilitated the research process: *US* OR *USA* AND *ASIAPACIFIC* AND *ECONOMY* OR *SECURITY*.


First and foremost, it is crucial to clarify what is meant by the term “Asia-Pacific”. Barshefsky (2017, p.5) interpret this world region by equating it with the 18 countries of the East Asia Summit (EAS): these are the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam - plus the single countries Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Russia. Of course this is a very broad approach, but it should be appropriate for this region being understood as the most populous and important area of 21st century world politics.

As former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged in the face of the changing international landscape, “the United States is a great Pacific power” and therefore a peaceful development in the Asia-Pacific requires a cooperative US (Buckley 2002, p.178). With this statement, Gorbachev anticipated the unipolar Post-Cold War era, which was replacing the old bipolar system of two great powers. During this time, the US began to fasten its hegemonic politics based on more soft power-issues, like spreading the Neoliberal capitalist model of politico-economic order, where it has been not yet appeared. Specifically, this involved the strengthening of the Bretton Woods Institutions and their concentration on developing certain world regions, what was later called the “Washington Consensus”. Until the Asian crisis in 1997 the so called Tiger states of Southeast Asia faced a massive economic boom (Castells 2003). But, as Buckley (2002, p.18) stated, the “Pacific Pax Americana” was there long before the Tiger boom. After the major defeat of then-Fascist ally Japan in 1945 the American hegemony began to rise within a new triangular order alongside with the two Communist powers China and Soviet Union. Being embedded in a system of bilateralism (strong ties with Japan after reconciliation, Taiwan, Philippines), the US fostered its role as a hegemon and avoided multilateral attempts, where they were not necessary (ibid., x.) There is no such institution like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Asia-Pacific, because in this part of the world America focused more on short-term, anti-Communist strategies in the name of Manifest Destiny, than on long-term institutionalization. This is one reason for the appearance of proxy wars in Asia, where the Cold War often was not cold. The only multilateral experiment in the first post-Second World War years was the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was of course built under the guidance of the United States. The equivalent to NATO later served as justification for future military interventions in hostile states like Vietnam (ibid., p.5). The devastating Vietnam war and the loss of the US led to the fall of this early multilateral experiment. In addition, the form of regionalism in the Asia-Pacific is quite different to the one in Europe, where the United States supported institution building on a large scale. The specific Asian regionalism is often termed the “ASEAN way”, because ASEAN is the main forum of this concern. It stands for regional dialogue, rather than for supranational institutionalism (Connors 2004, p.5). Keohane and Nye (2001) talk about “transcontinental regionalism”. As a result, one can see a specific form of multicontinental interdependence (ibid.). But where to locate the US in the peculiar Asia-Pacific policy environment? Marvin Ott (2001) claims a consistency in US’ Asian-Pacific interests. He names the following objectives as crucial: 1. Consolidating the status quo as a regional hegemon, 2. Military protection of open transit routes at sea and in air, 3. Maintaining commercial ties and the security that commerce needs, and therefore 4. Strengthen security relations with allies like Japan. First of all, this reflects the strong interconnection between security and economy issues. Concerning the fourth objective elaborated by Ott, it is evident that the US-Japan alliance is the most important for regional security in the Asia-Pacific. Started with the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the accompanying end of American occupation in Japan, both countries manifested their security partnership, which is legally based on the Mutually Security Treaty since 1960 (Connors 2004, p.18). It also marked the start of a quite long unchallenged American hegemony, despite the US facing domestic economic challenges in the 1990ies, what initially led to a short period of multilateralism. For the Clinton administration it was a suitable option to keep the United States involved in the Asia-Pacific. But by Connors (2004), multilateralism never has been a real alternative to or replacement of the bilateral agreements that already existed. During this time, institutions like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) were founded. This can be classified as an indication for the then in force Institutionalist zeitgeist. But even in this era of multilateral approaches, bilateralism remained important.


1 Manifest Destiny: see p. 3

2 Sino-Soviet split: In the eyes of Buckley the Sino-Soviet split was „an intense competition for power over which state was best equipped to manage the international Communist movement and how its business should be conducted (Buckley 2002, p.154)

3 Adjectives that describe certain political ideologies, programmes or actors,, like the term „neoliberal”, are written with a small initial letter. Adjectives that describe certain scientific disciplines, like „Neoliberal/Liberal Institutionalism” or „Realism”, are written with a big initial letter.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The United States' Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific and the Question of Smart Power
Warsaw University  (Institute of International Relations)
Security System in the Asia-Pacific Region
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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429 KB
Asia-Pacific, USA, Security, Smart Power, Bilateralism, Multilateralism, Außenpolitik, Foreign Policy, Sicherheitspolitik, Strategy
Quote paper
B.A. Benjamin Weiser (Author), 2017, The United States' Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific and the Question of Smart Power, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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