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Review: 'By More Than Providence', by Michael Green

A magisterial volume, destined to be the authoritative work on US strategy toward Asia for many years to come.

Review: 'By More Than Providence', by Michael Green
Published 23 May 2017 

Michael Green has produced a masterful and much-needed book. Elegantly written and lucidly argued, By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 is the first book in more than 90 years to tell the story of America’s strategic engagement in Asia over the past two-and-a-half centuries. A sweeping historical work, it is also keenly analytical and at times sharply critical of American Asia policy. Having absorbed the book’s overarching themes and compelling conclusions, one cannot help coming away deeply troubled by America’s approach to Asia under the Trump Administration.

Green stands out as both an accomplished scholar and practitioner. He has a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and was senior Asia hand in the White House during the presidency of George W Bush. Now heading the Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and holding a chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at Georgetown University, Green says his experience in government and the academy compelled him to write this history of American strategic thought on Asia and 'construct an enduring American grand strategy for the Asian century and the rise of China'. His readership will be glad of that decision.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is its cogency. Green identifies a 'central theme' in America’s strategic culture toward Asia: '[F]or over two centuries', Green writes, American leaders have sought to ensure 'that the Pacific Ocean remains a conduit for American ideas and goods to flow westward, and not for threats to flow eastward toward the homeland'.  

But, as Green points out, this overarching concern with Asia must be mediated through 'five tensions in the American strategic approach toward Asia that reappear with striking predictability'. These are: prioritising American interests in Europe versus Asia; pursuing a continental versus maritime strategy (which Green further boils down to a question of China versus Japan); determining the line of forward defence in the Pacific; debating self-determination versus universal values in the ideational dimension of US foreign policy in the region; and striking the balance between protectionism and free trade.

Beginning with George Washington and leading the reader through the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries, the book assesses American policy in Asia against the backdrop of those five critical strategic drivers. The core chapters are similarly structured, first providing an historical depiction, followed by an analysis of the 'legacy' left behind by the Asia strategy of successive US administrations.

Along the way we learn of the crucial roles played by key figures of American politics. Green pays tribute to early American leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and William Henry Seward in pursuing their vision of America as a Pacific power. But in Green’s view, it was the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan and his influence on the thinking of Theodore Roosevelt which marked a pivotal era for American statecraft toward Asia. 'Roosevelt’s grand strategy', he writes, 'merits a central place — perhaps the central place — in establishing the core tenets that guide American strategy toward Asia today' (emphasis in original).

On the other hand, Green is far less sympathetic to presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Jimmy Carter, who, in his view, did not have a clear understanding of Asia Pacific geopolitics and failed to strike the right balance between the ways and means to achieve US strategic interests in the region.  Perhaps not surprisingly, of the George W Bush Administration (in which he served), Green finds it 'brought far more discipline and consistency to great-power relations' than the preceding administration, advanced a regional balance of power which favoured democracies, and set the stage for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He praises Barack Obama for being the first president 'to declare Asia as the highest priority in U.S. foreign policy' — a strategy which became known as the 'pivot' — but also finds the 'conceptualization and implementation of the pivot were piecemeal, inconsistent and poorly coordinated'.

Some readers (though not this reviewer) will disagree with Green’s strong bias favouring relations with Japan over China and his recommendation that the US further deepen relations with other like-minded countries around China’s periphery such as India, Indonesia, Australia and South Korea, in order to maintain 'strategic equilibrium'. Green argues this is not a matter of containment but rather a question of balance of power in the face of a rising China. Many will find that merely a matter of semantics, not least in China. However, the ambitions of Xi Jinping and concerns of American friends and allies in the region appear to bear out Green's view.  

Some will also find fault with Green’s argument that democracy and human rights should be upheld as key pillars of American strategy in the region. Advocates of realpolitik will find this naive. Others will find it hypocritical, as it sits uneasily alongside examples of when such values were willfully ignored in the country’s quest to become a Pacific power.

But these would be comparatively minor flaws in what is otherwise a magisterial volume, destined to be the authoritative work on US strategy toward Asia for many, many years to come. Meticulously researched — some 140 of the book’s 700-plus pages are devoted to endnotes — it is a weighty tome, but in the very best sense of the term.

In his concluding chapter, Green returns to the 'five tensions' to make the historical case for an American grand strategy in Asia. His recommendations include 'working with Europe to reinforce support for a rules-based systems within Asia'; getting the balance right between continental and maritime priorities in Asia by establishing a 'favourable strategic equilibrium' vis-à-vis China through deepened partnerships with Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and others; defining the US forward defence line as far west as possible; continuing US 'engagement and support for improved governance and democratic institutions' in Asia; and advancing a more liberal economic order in Asia, including through free trade, for its strategic as well as economic benefit to the US.

Given China’s rise, Green concludes, a 'clear and consistent demonstration of American strategic intent is...more important than ever in Asia'.

Written in 2016, these conclusions are compelling. But read in 2017, they are also unavoidably sobering. Thus far the Trump Administration has given no clear signal of such strategic intent, and certainly little in the way of taking up the five strategic recommendations Green puts forward. Indeed, for some of those recommendations — working with European allies, advancing a more liberal economic order, and advocating human rights and democracy — the White House seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

As Green puts it, President Trump and his team would do well to carry forward the vision of the many American strategic thinkers 'who, over the course of history, understood that the United States would have to secure its position in the Asia Pacific by more than providence'.

Photo by Flickr user Stuart Rankin.

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