For Americans, the Pacific has always been an object of fascination.
by Michael J. Green (Columbia University Press, 760 pp., $49.96)
From the beginning of the Republic, the Pacific never seemed that far off. By the time Madison and his fellow Founders were debating the fundamentals of U.S. constitutional government, the Boston merchant Samuel Shaw had sailed his merchant ship Empress of China to Canton and made contact with the Qing dynasty. Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to the edge of the Pacific not long afterward.
Today, the Pacific has never seemed closer. China is challenging America with an imperial-scale fleet build-up, and naval planners have told Congress that Beijing has made the U.S. territory of Guam a target. America and China appear to be on a crash course, headed for destruction of great consequence. The underlying question is a difficult one: how to answer an authoritarian regime that is so deeply enmeshed in American life.
How did the two countries come to this relationship? Michael Green, in his book By More Than Providence, reminds us that the U.S. fascination with China is as old as America’s Founding and offers tools to aid the strategist in thinking about China’s challenge.
A Star in the East
Despite the longstanding nature of the U.S.-China connection, Green tells us, we did not cast our gaze fully westward for most of our history. Instead, for a long time American statecraft was preoccupied with our direct interests in the Western Hemisphere, court intrigues in Napoleonic Europe, and occasional border disputes with imperial nations like Russia and Britain.
Our consuls in Asia, unlike their European counterparts, were often patronage appointees without much experience; but they laid the foundations for our later entry in earnest into Pacific affairs. During the Second Opium War, in the late 1850s, Washington tried to maintain strict neutrality: It wanted to preserve collegiality with the European nations conducting their own commerce in China but to be seen as more sympathetic to the Chinese government. This needle-threading did not succeed: In 1856, the U.S. war sloop Levant came under Chinese fire. Its commander, Andrew Foote, promptly neutralized four Chinese forts on the Pearl River.
Peter Parker, then U.S. commissioner plenipotentiary, had originally been envisaged as a bridge-builder between America and China through his evangelizing, construction of hospitals, and economic agreements. But he was radicalized by the conflict, cheering Foote’s action as necessary to demonstrate American strength to a “haughty” Chinese government. America’s relations with China stopped being just a matter of commerce. From now on, the flag would precede trade, not just follow it.
After the Civil War, America showed little appetite for foreign adventurism in Asia or elsewhere. The country turned inward to repair its own civic bonds. In foreign affairs, the consequence was three decades of “defensive realism.” Still, there was William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and the first clear U.S. thinker about a Pacific system. Seward, a New York Republican in the tradition of the Northeastern commercialism beginning with Alexander Hamilton, pursued a Pacific policy of protecting sovereignty through financial and diplomatic muscle. Seward and his deputy, the staunch Unionist lawyer Anson Burlingame, secured an 1868 treaty that put American commercial interests on an equal footing with those of the Chinese. In a stroke of eccentric genius, Seward also approached Russia and Denmark to acquire forward posts for America in the north. Today, Alaska is one of America’s critical deterrents and listening stations in our interactions with Pacific rivals. As for Greenland, the country has become a flashpoint in great-power politics due to its proximity to critical defense technologies.
America built on its natural strengths to create a favorable position in Asia—and, along the way, avoided disasters that could have arisen from more powerful European traders or a hostile Chinese commercial class. U.S. diplomats shepherded the progress of the Pacific region from a backwater to something more important.
The American Century
Green makes perhaps his most important contribution in expanding our understanding of the change in Theodore Roosevelt’s Asia strategy, from an inward-looking realism to advocacy of American world power. Roosevelt resuscitated the U.S. Navy as his famed “Great White Fleet” and won victories over Spain in Manila Bay and Puerto Rico. He practiced gunboat diplomacy but paired it with demonstrations of a higher purpose: The supposed warmonger won a Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the bloody conflict between Japan and Russia.
More important, for Green, was Roosevelt’s association with naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan—who, influenced by his study of the classics and of British grand strategy, was focused on America’s need to protect the “great highways” of the sea with a large naval fleet. Roosevelt, influenced by the writings of Mahan and others, put these principles into practice and made America a world naval power, as detailed by Walter Zimmerman in his 2002 book, First Great Triumph.
Yet in the 1920s, Green makes clear, American strategic thinking went into a long tailspin. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover allowed the Navy to deteriorate and subordinated the Washington Treaty system, established in 1922 to sideline Republicans sympathetic to China, to the growth of a booming—and, it turned out, dangerous—Japan.
When America next rediscovered the Pacific, Green says, it was not by choice but out of necessity. Something similar may be happening now.
The Cold War’s Second Theatre
Moving forward to the Cold War, Green offers elements of the Eisenhower and Reagan presidencies as examples of high statesmanship. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, has become known as an anti-communist fire-eater; but this was not the whole story. Dulles feared Maoist ambitions as he feared those of Stalin. He also feared the possible consequences of prematurely releasing Japan from occupation. He decided to deal with all these dangers through a regional strategy.
Dulles’ great achievement in this area was the San Francisco treaty system of 1951, which ended the Allied occupation of Japan and established peaceful relations among the former combatants. Dulles declined to include China or North Korea in it; instead, he appealed to America’s World War II-era allies to help build the foundations of Japanese reconstruction. In addition, the treaty system provided critical support for Taiwan, with strategic ambiguity that gave Washington a freedom of movement that could be based on geopolitics. Most important, the Soviet Union refused to sign, clearly signaling the values and objectives at stake in the Pacific.
Three decades later, America found itself in a very different position with China. The presidencies of Nixon and Carter brought Communist China back from the international wilderness, exploiting its growing rift with the Soviet Union. As a result, China’s economy exploded out of the cage of its failed five-year plans; and Reagan found himself face-to-face with a transformed Pacific power.
In the hands of Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, the Reagan Administration undertook a considered series of moves to direct the peaceful rise of a growing rival power. As Reagan pushed on with the race against the Soviet Union, he also empowered Japan’s expanding military and technology regimes. In those years, the famed Strategic Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars,” enlisted the help of allies in Tokyo. East Asian democracies enjoyed upswings.
Waiting on Our Mahan
So, how have our most recent administrations applied Green’s framework of regional integration, navalism, international systems, and overarching consistency?
Green describes America’s post-Cold War China policy as incoherent. Such a policy calls for a balance among trade policy, human rights policy, collaboration with allies, and a credible military deterrent. Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all failed, each in his own way, to achieve this balance.
Then came the coronavirus, and China unleashed its plans to overtake America in world politics. To manage China—or, as blunt critics would put it, “politely manage American decline”—is no longer sufficient. Instead, we need the more muscular elements of Parker, Seward, Mahan, Shultz, and others.
In the final year of the Trump Administration, various officials showed an awareness of this need. Under the National Security Council, led by Robert O’Brien and Matt Pottinger, new strategies took shape for regional action, integrating allies and questioning our postwar foundations. Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper channeled Mahan in his proposal for a 500-ship fleet to confront Beijing on the high seas. The State Department Policy Planning Staff, led by Peter Berkowitz, offered its own assessment of a long-term strategic approach to China in its revisiting of Kennan’s study of the Soviet Union.
As for the military deterrence piece of the puzzle, America’s power in the Pacific likely reached its nadir during times of military downsizing, like the 1920s or the Carter years. Its apex arguably occurred during the Reagan years, in which defense spending shot up at a 7 or 8 percent clip annually. That was a far cry from what we will probably see in the way of “flat” budgets from the Biden Administration.
The last element emphasized by Green is continuity in Asia policy. One way for us to judge whether President Biden is serious about challenging China is to see whether he depoliticizes and professionalizes the enterprise, maintaining the post-covid foreign policy framework operationalized by some of the aforementioned officials.
Green notes that our most successful Pacific Presidents approached the region with a historical and integrated perspective rather than a blinkered compilation of differing mental tendencies. The present twilight struggle requires similar historical and regional thinking. Green cites Trotsky repeatedly to encapsulate his essential truth: You might not be interested in grand strategy, but grand strategy is interested in you.
Indeed, it is. So, America waits on its next strategist in the mold of Kennan and Mahan.
Jack Beyrer reports on foreign policy and national security matters for the Washington Free Beacon and is a Public Interest fellow.
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