American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 2000

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What other Conference 2000 Speakers had to say:

Sir Kieran Prendergast , on U.S. and UN roles in collective security:
"In an era of increasing globalization and proliferating transnational problems, the relevance and utility of the United Nations can only grow. This is not a boast, but an acknowledgment that often there is no alternative."

Prof Erik Jensen, on the objectives of the Warburg 2000 Conference:
"As the sole remaining superpower, the U.S. is faced with difficult decisions when crises arise: whether to act alone; or to tackle them in collaboration with like-minded allies, for example, through NATO; or to work for collective security principally in the United Nations Security Council. Hence the conference title: Collective Security, Posse or Global Cop."

Elizabeth Pond , on Europe's 20th Century transformation:
The cold war was not a freezer, but an incubator of European cooperation. . . . Europe is not and never will be a homogenized federation, but it is already far more than a confederation."

Amb. Frank Crigler, on U.S. interest in conflicts far from our shores:
"We cannot disengage from Africa because America’s own roots run too deep there and because we as a people are too deeply touched by the fate of Africans."

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APPEARING IN THIS AUGUST company of all my predecessors as Warburg professors. is a little intimidating. I am riding on the coattails of the mighty. It reminds me of the story about the very unusual basketball game when Michael Jordan scored sixty-five points and a newcomer to the team scored one point. Asked about the game afterwards, the new boy said it had been a great experience and a great team effort. “Mike Jordan and I put together sixty-six points to whip these guys.”

So, what can I add to the collective wisdom of this startling American line-up? After all, all of us — except for the welcome leavening provided by Elizabeth Pond — labor under the disadvantage of being (no, I’m not going to say what you think I’m going to say) former diplomats. Kaiser Wilhelm II was once discussing the possible future course of events with his advisers. The Chancellor — it couldn’t have been Bismarck as he wasn’t sufficiently modest — observed that it was difficult to see into the future. The Kaiser replied, “It is a gift that is given to sovereigns frequently, to generals sometimes, to diplomats almost never.”

Now what does a mere ex-diplomat have to offer from the bottom of the South Pacific? What are we looking for from the United States in the Asian-Pacific half of the globe? Well of course in our region — as elsewhere — what we want of the United States is that it stay the course. As we all know, in Asia and the Pacific as elsewhere, the United States is the key actor, with a range of military capabilities, economic and political strengths which dwarf any potential challenger.

Such stability as Asia has enjoyed in the past fifty year’s has been largely thanks to the continuing presence of the United States. The U.S. is the balancing power in the region and its role is crucial in relation to two of the potentially most explosive flash points in the world today — the Taiwan Straits and thee Korean peninsula. The key powers in the region — China, Japan, South Korea and, to a lesser extent now, Russia — do not contest the U.S. presence; indeed, they all, in their heart of hearts, seek to encourage it. The United States is not a destabilizing influence in the region. For all its predominance, the U.S. has no territorial ambitions of its own to pursue, no economic advantages to secure — other than its fundamental commitment to free trade. Its primary concern in the region is to uphold the delicate and potentially extremely dangerous balance in the northwest Pacific where the three next most powerful countries in the world — China, Japan, and Russia — jostle against one another. There is another, generally unspoken, concern which the United States shares with Australia and New Zealand: This is that the broadly western grouping of countries should not again be divided against the Asian realm, as happened during the Second World War. These are not negligible interests.

China looms large. Some experts have calculated that China maybe, if one makes all kinds of presumptions about its ability to maintain present growth rates and to solve internal problems of wealth distribution and conversion of decrepit state industries, could have an economy as large as that of the United States within the next, say, ten years. But one wonders whether this kind of assessment has been tested against the truly phenomenal expansion of the U.S. economy in the past few years. China moreover has noted the ease with which the United States dealt with Iraq and Serbia, both equipped with weaponry more or less equivalent to China’s own. Both China and the U.S. have been anxious to develop and expand the relationship, most notably in the area of international trade. Taiwan’s aspirations for international recognition and standing, and China’s determination to resist that aim and not deviate from the position that the island is a breakaway province which must be incorporated into the People’s Republic, could almost at any time precipitate a crisis.

For the present, active diplomacy, especially by the United States, aiming in particular at promoting the engagement of China and the Chinese in world affairs, is keeping things steady. By bringing China out of their splendid isolation and into the endless process of negotiation and conciliation — thanks to which the world continues to go ‘round — it is hoped they will increasingly become part of the solution, rather than the problem. In this regard, political points scoring in Congress and in the current Presidential election campaign over such issues as China’s admission to the World Trade Organisation is unhelpful.

The U.S. role in almost every aspect of affairs in the region is crucial. There was no better demonstration of that than President Clinton’s intervention in the East Timor crisis in September of last year. You will remember the mayhem in East Timor after the territory voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. Supporters of a continuing affiliation with Indonesia — probably including members of the Indonesian military — trashed the place and began systematic slaughter of civilians. Indonesia was resistant to pressure to allow international intervention. The President of the United States, in the air on his way to Auckland, New Zealand, to attend a regional summit meeting under the banner of APEC — the forum for collaboration on economic issues — made it clear that if Indonesia could not or would not act, the international community must do so. And so it happened. Within a few days Australian and New Zealand and other internationial forces were landing. Indonesia had assessed the importance of its relationship with the United States, especially in regard to the underpinning of World Bank and International Monetary Fund loan money, against the value of resisting foreign intervention and had decided — unsurprisingly — in favour of staying on-side with the United States.

What of the modalities of U.S. engagement in global, as in regional, affairs? Clearly the role of global cop is unattractive and unsustainable politically in the long run. Persistent unilateral intervention by the United States around the world will not only generate serious resentment, but may be directly contrary to U.S. international interests. Washington will presumably aim to preserve American pre-eminence without encouraging rival powers to gang up against U.S. interests. A solitary cop on the beat, no matter how well armed, is an invitation to the outlaws to make common cause against him.

The answer is to refine the difficult arts of collective decision making. The great power will always want things done its way. As Winston Churchill said of his relations with his Chiefs of Staff Committee, “All I wanted was compliance with my wishes — after reasonable discussion!” It is not possible to ignore that element of consultation and discussion, and continue to hold the group together. The sense of participation, even if it is in fact largely illusory, is fundamental.

Not so long ago a senior U.S. adviser in foreign and defence policy told a meeting with senior Australian officials that if the United States got into a war over the Taiwan Straits, it would expect Australia to be there. Now in one sense this remark is unexceptionable: Australia is a declared ally of the U.S. in the Pacific — unlike New Zealand, which has wandered off into some more indeterminate state. It is reasonable to expect that your allies will be with you. But the question goes a bit deeper. Is it reasonable to expect uncritical support when there may not have been the preliminary engagement in the policy process? Allies in collective security arrangements need to be brought along, engaged with the issues so that at least a sense of common commitment emerges. Collective security in other words is not achievable by proclamation, but by process. It involves a genuine interaction between partners so that all may have a sense of responsibility.

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