by Matt Raab
Professor Michael Green takes a comprehensive, ground-breaking look at U.S. strategy in Asia in his recently published book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783. The work was presented to the Georgetown community at the Mortara Center on Friday, March 31, with an introduction by Professor Victor Cha and a discussion moderated by Professor Robert Lieber.
“This is a magisterial work. It’s really the work of a lifetime–no book of this kind has been done, as Mike notes, on American policy towards the region in nearly a hundred years,” Lieber said. “The last time was 1922. He’s talking about more than two centuries of strategy.”
Green approached this intimidating expanse of history initially through his experience on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff.
“I wrote this book because I spent almost five years on the NSC staff, and before that I worked in the Pentagon,” Green said. After working on documents in the Pentagon and White House related to the National Security Strategy and reviewing presidential speeches, Green left the NSC wondering about the origins of America’s grand strategy toward Asia.
After coming to Georgetown to teach, Green discovered there was no book covering the overarching themes in U.S. grand strategy towards Asia.
“I thought I would write a kind of intellectual history, probably starting in 1945,” Green said, describing his approach to the book, “because people teach and write that we basically developed our strategy in Asia after the Second World War.” “What I found was that an intellectual history just tracing these concepts would not do justice to the topic and would not be helpful for people who want to think about American grand strategy in Asia going forward.”
As a result, Green chose to begin his timeframe as early as he could, arguing for dynamics that span the entirety of U.S. history.
“The book actually goes back to 1783,” Green explained. “The first archival piece of evidence of strategic thought is a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Colonel George Rogers Clark, who was on the American frontier fighting the British.”
From there, Green traces critical themes that reflect both the ideology guiding American interests and the evolving power structures in America and Asia that made decisions reflecting those interests.
Green identified five key challenges that have continually defined the U.S. presence in Asia and the Pacific. The first is a bias towards Europe and a commitment towards Britain, specifically, as the center of the neoliberal world order that attracts U.S. attention and concern before anywhere else. This was seen in World War II, where American efforts first focused on the European theater.
Other challenges reflect upon the struggles of the U.S. to find a balance with Asian power. Specifically, this means the tension that historically lies between the United States as a naval power and an Asian power structure centered on continental China.
“Asia historically is a region that has centered on China geographically and ‘civilizationally,’ but we are a maritime power.” Green alludes that this led “many historians and many strategists going back to 1815 to argue that we need to anchor our strategy on Japan.”
On a similar note, the United States has also had difficulty defining its forward defensive line in the Pacific, which often evolves to reflect active conflicts (e.g. Korea, Vietnam), and must also contend with a complex economic history featuring tension between trade and protectionism.
Finally, human rights and democracy continue to stand as a major concern in the region.
“Thomas Jefferson when he thought about the Pacific Northwest wrote that we don’t do empire, we don’t do colonies, we don’t know if there will be states that can be admitted in the union, so we should encourage the establishment of like-minded republics,” Green said. “In 1945, there were two democracies on the other side of the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. Today, most of the major powers other than China and Russia are some form of liberal democracy.”
Thus, taken all together, both the United States and Asia have evolved in the 240 years Green covers in his book, but the history of U.S. engagement in Asia continues to revolve around similar concerns. Green, thus, paints a picture of U.S. grand strategy that pushes back against the idea of a disorganized, obscure U.S. interest in Asia. Instead, he expands the perspective to reveal clear, critical themes.
“These [five issues] are challenges for us when dealing with Asia and maintaining an open Pacific that gives us an advantage, but doesn’t become a threat from a continental Eurasian hegemon, and they are enduring,” Green said.
Professor Michael Green’s By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, published March 2017, is available through the Columbia University Press. For more information, click here.