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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Liberal Pessimism

by | November 22nd, 2013 | 07:00 am

In the field of academic international relations, views of the Asia-Pacific remain sharply divided. Realists like John Mearsheimer have built reputations on a view of international politics as a relentless struggle among the great powers. They see the rise of China as posing epochal challenges; Mearsheimer went so far as to title one of his recent considerations of the region with a Churchillian reference: “The Gathering Storm.” Aaron Friedberg, in one of the more extensive statements in this vein, titled his book on the challenges posed by China’s rise A Contest for Supremacy: The United States, China, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. Yet again, an ominous reference to World War II; A.J.P. Taylor titled his epic history The Struggle for Mastery in Europe. Even more moderate realists, such as Australia’s thoughtful Hugh White—author of that country’s 2000 Defense White Paper and a serious China hand—see the challenges through the same lens of power-sharing; his China Choice: Why the United States Should Share Power looks to a great power condominium as a way of muting the risks seen by Mearsheimer and Friedberg.

Those who are more sanguine about the region root their views in the liberal tradition of international relations, with its focus on the pacifying role of institutions, commerce, and at least among the advanced industrial states, democracy. John Ikenberry is our favorite theorist in this vein. In a recent interview for the Asahi Shinbun he provides an excellent introduction to this way of thinking, stressing the enduring value of the alliances as liberal institutions and China’s dependence on the global economy for domestic political legitimacy.

We have generally steered clear of these big-think debates, but recently entered the fray with an an essay entitled “Liberal Pessimism” in a new journal from the Australian National University. The point of the piece is simply that the sources of liberal hope may be more fragile than previously thought.

Institutions—whether alliances or other multilateral organizations—do not easily incorporate rising powers, and when they do they can force unwelcome changes or generate deadlock; the entry of the emerging markets into the WTO may be more rather than less exemplary of the challenges facing global institutions. While it is true that China is increasingly dependent on the world economy, it is also the case that a growing number of developing countries rely on China as well, subtly shifting their diplomatic focus away from the advanced industrial states. As we frequently discuss in this blog, China’s economic engagement with countries such as North Korea creates a very different type of “engagement” then that which would have liberalizing effects.

And finally—and perhaps most obviously—the liberal reliance on democracy as the glue of peaceful international relations can’t help us in Asia either; if anything, the signals out of China are suggesting a new authoritarian turn in that country. And challenges do not just arise from great powers; small authoritarian regimes—the Syrias, Irans and North Koreas—have posed as many headaches as the big authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China who appear almost responsible by comparison.

Why does this matter? In thinking through policy, realists focus largely on the military-strategic dimension, but in ways that might be self-defeating. We need to be smarter about using international institutions, maintaining our economic links—and competitiveness—in the region and promoting democratic values and institutions. But even with such a smart diplomacy, the challenges in the Asia-Pacific are not trivial; they don’t, however, stem from the sources the realists think.