Dougal Robinson is a Fulbright Scholar and MA candidate at SAIS in Strategic Studies and International Economics. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and has served in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade.
Review of Michael Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press 2017)
The United States will not tolerate any other power establishing “exclusive hegemonic control” over Asia or the Pacific, according to renowned Asia scholar Michael Green. In a magisterial work, Green argues persuasively that this anti-hegemonic impulse has been the central driver of American grand strategy toward the Asia-Pacific for over two centuries.
By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (2017) could not have been timelier, given the range of challenges facing U.S. strategy in Asia. China seeks to displace the United States as the pre-eminent regional power. President Trump is ill-disciplined, at best, in implementing his administration’s national security and defense strategies. More broadly, domestic polarization, growing income inequality, and the ballooning national debt threaten to undermine domestic political support for American leadership in Asia.
But as Green reminds readers, a rising regional power and uncertainty over American commitment to Asia are not new. He provides in-depth analysis of the United States and its allies’ response to the rise of Japan (1909-1941) and the Soviet Union (1945-1989) before the rise of China. Yet the narrative spans over two centuries of statecraft, in which the implementation of American grand strategy in Asia has been “episodic and inefficient,” but “in the aggregate it has been effective.” This is a bold conclusion, every bit as ambitious as the 550-page narrative.
There are many excellent books on bilateral relations with regional powers such as China and Japan, and American foreign policy in Asia since 1945, but, Green says, a comprehensive historical study of American statecraft in Asia has not been published since Tyler Dennett’s Americans in Eastern Asia in 1922. By More Than Providence fills a significant gap, informed by the author’s distinguished career as a scholar and policymaker in the George W. Bush Administration. It is the product of a decade of research, published by Columbia University Press with some 140 pages of footnotes.
Green is evidently eager to remind readers of the long-standing foundations of American engagement in Asia. The narrative begins in 1783, “in the cradle of the republic and the first American encounters with the vast Pacific Ocean and the Far East.” However, most of the book focuses on the twentieth century. Each chapter begins with a historical depiction of Asia policy during a presidency or slightly longer time-frame, before an assessment of the legacy of that era or presidency on the United States’ long-term Asia strategy.
The most important analytical contribution is Green’s identification of five tensions in the American strategic approach to Asia that reappear with surprising predictability throughout over two hundred years of American statecraft: Europe versus Asia, continental versus maritime, defining the forward defense line, self-determination versus universal values, and protectionism versus free trade. These themes are masterfully woven throughout the book and provide a valuable template for evaluating any administration’s Asia strategy.
Green uses a very wide array of material to inform the narrative, including those less-used by Asia scholars such as opinion polls, declassified diplomatic cables, and frequent references to interventions by Congress. Most notably, he examines debates among the key figures in different administrations; not just the President, National Security Council (NSC) Director, Secretaries of State, and Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff, but also those in less senior but wholly Asia-focused positions such as the Assistant Secretaries of State and Defense, the NSC Senior Director for East Asia, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), and ambassadors who held posts in key capitals such as Beijing and Tokyo. Importantly, he charts the relative ascendance and marginalization of different actors and parts of the bureaucracy, and the subsequent impact of these interagency disagreements on policy.
The reader emerges with deep understanding of the significant and sometimes irreconcilable differences among these key policymakers, who often clash over the second theme of the book: continental versus maritime. This is alternately framed as whether the United States should prioritize engagement with China or Japan. At times, Green is sharply critical of those who believed that the ‘right’ China relationship was the highest objective of Asia strategy. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Japan expert, he argues that the foremost objective of American strategy is to work with Japan and other like-minded allies and partners to achieve a favorable balance of power from the United States’ perspective.
But, as Green acknowledges, this framework will come under more pressure as China challenges America’s current forward defense line along the first island chain. This line – the book’s third theme – has fluctuated over the last two centuries, from the minimalist position of defending territory stretching from Alaska through the continental west coast, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal (the position before Pearl Harbor), to the maximalist position of fighting continental wars in Asia. Green argues that more maximalist positions are too costly, but a minimalist posture cedes ground to a potential rival hegemon. In coming years, the United States’ definition of the forward defense line will be critical to the success or otherwise of its Asia strategy.
The book’s main weaknesses arise, perhaps unavoidably, from two of the great strengths that Green brings to the study of American statecraft in Asia: his expertise on North-East Asia, especially Japan, and experience in the Bush Administration. To this reader, Green focuses too much on China and Japan, often at the expense of important regional players such as India and Australia, as well as much of Southeast Asia (with notable exceptions such as the United States’ colonial role in the Philippines and the Vietnam War). Though Northeast Asia remains by far the most important sub-region of the Asia-Pacific, some chapters offer precious few references to Southeast Asia.
Similarly, Green’s role on the National Security Council staff in the Bush Administration helps inform his evaluation of the challenges faced by policymakers and presidents, but his analysis of the 43rd President’s Asia policy is too favorable. As he acknowledges at the outset of the relevant chapter, “the historian… becomes the inside chronicler, with the advantages of added insight but the pitfalls of subjectivity.” The tone is different compared to the rest of the book, but far from sycophantic; Green is probably more favorable in his appraisal of President Theodore Roosevelt. He offers powerful evidence of President Bush’s successes in Asia, and though he recognizes that his Asia policy was “not without flaws,” these failures are largely identified as occurring in the final two years of the Administration, after the author had left the NSC.
Most disappointing is the absence of deeper discussion of the effects of Bush’s focus on the Middle East for American strategy in Asia. Green asserts that Asia is the most important theater for the United States (and praises President Obama for making this explicit declaration), yet he neglects serious discussion of the distraction effect of the Iraq War or its long-term consequences. For example, Iraq drove the United States to optimize its defense capabilities for counterinsurgency rather than high-end great power competition with China, a competition for which Green clearly wants the United States to be in the strongest possible position. In the subsequent chapter on President Obama, Green laments declining defense budgets, yet these were caused in no small part by the anti-war sentiment that helped elect Obama, budgetary issues stemming from the costs of the Iraq War, and the Bush Administration’s near-doubling of the national debt during a period of strong economic growth before the 2008 financial crisis.
Despite these caveats, By More Than Providence is a superb book: eminently readable, impeccably researched, and sure to remain an indispensable template for students, scholars, and policymakers examining the history of American strategy in Asia.