Historical Analogies in the Pivot to Asia

In 2011, the Obama administration unveiled a much-publicized “pivot to Asia”—a grand strategy to strengthen America’s position in the region through the overt use of military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural instruments. “Pivot” is an appropriate title; it is a definitive break from past policy. Waxing engagement and waning containment characterized American strategy towards China in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, it seems, the U.S. government is refocusing on military balancing.

Public assessment of the pivot varies almost theatrically depending on which side of the Pacific one is standing. American diplomats point to the economic vibrancy of East Asia as the future of U.S. foreign policy concerns; Chinese officials argue that a reinvigorated alliance structure is evidence that America wants to “contain” China’s rise. Understanding the assumptions on which the new strategy is based is critical because they gravely affect the region’s prospects for peace. The question I aim to answer is, why the pivot? Why now? The answer is not so obvious that one can say simply, China is rising, and America wants to prevent.

I hypothesize that American policymakers have taken a notion of historical learning from powerful, traumatic events in international history like the 1938 Munich agreement and Soviet containment. I want to examine whether the use of historical analogies—a “constructivist” argument about the importance of beliefs in international politics—explains the Obama administration’s reaction to China’s recent, limited assertiveness in the region. I think policymakers believe strongly in the efficacy of balancing and deterrence because of their understanding of international politics has been shaped by these stories, not necessarily because the stories are true in themselves or strictly applicable as analogies to the rise of China. The worry is that their policies may create much of the conflict they seek to prevent.

Alternative theories include the pivot as (1) a diversion meant to distract American citizens from the 2007-8 financial crisis or (2) a purely rational response of United States foreign policy to an aggressive shift in Chinese policy, without any causal influence from intervening variables like historical experience. For the second hypothesis, my task is to demonstrate how beliefs are affecting the policymaking process in ways that “structural” theory cannot explain alone.

To date, there has been no robust attempt to explain the pivot as the result of a policymaking process. A decision of such importance did not emerge in a vacuum—an actual sequence of events occurred. It is easy to make fatalistic arguments about the tragedy of great power politics when little is actually known about internal decision-making. For so-called “realists,” conflict in power transitions is inevitable and natural. My assertion is that arguing for geopolitical predestination masks the significance of internal, contingent, and personal influences.

By following the social science method known as “process tracing,” I hope to make careful inferences about institutional dynamics and individual personalities. I will analyze policy statements, congressional transcripts, internal documents, speeches, and research or advocacy done by members of government in and out of office (in the past five to six years). I will reconstruct the worldviews of key players and the process that generated “the pivot” as a coherent strategy.

For research support, I plan to rely primarily on the resources of Swem, the interlibrary loan system, open media sources, and Internet catalogues and databases. This issue is not so much that “new data” must be created. My task is largely concerned with rhetorical analysis and interpretation of implicit and explicit uses of historical analogy. I may travel occasionally for further material to institutions in D.C. like the National Security Archives. Attending academic and professional conferences in the U.S. or China would be extremely helpful; feasibility depends upon the size of the scholarship I am awarded.

Obviously, some key documents are yet unreleased—many memoirs yet unwritten. This makes the task of recent historical reconstruction more challenging, but it does not impinge upon the project’s value. If anything, I think, it amplifies it.

The autonomous influence of “historical learning” on policymakers and policymaking is mostly un-theorized in the international relations literature. The Munich Analogy and the Vietnam Analogy have received a good deal of attention for their impact on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and some other wars. However, historical analogy making has rarely been addressed in a systematic, theoretical manner. Likewise, the effect of historical learning on U.S.-China relations is also under-theorized. This is despite the existence of the conventional wisdom that “Cold Warriors” are likely to treat a strong, authoritarian China just like the Soviet Union. The significance of this project, then, lies in both its practical and theoretical treatment of the pivot.

The policies taken now by the United States and China are undoubtedly setting the stage for their future together as superpowers. Understanding American strategy gives observers something like a crystal ball: if we know why current policy is adopted, we can predict how the United States will react to Chinese actions in the future. If war (hot or cold) is to be averted, a strategy that is conscious of itself must be adopted. This is only possible if we understand the theories on which we rely, consciously or otherwise, for political decision-making. My project presents a novel argument for a foreign policy that, while undeniably important for the future of world peace and order, has been only weakly addressed by scholars.