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Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005


Views from Asia suggest that 'Team Bush' is playing poorly for all sides

CONFRONTING THE BUSH DOCTRINE: Critical Views From the Asia-Pacific, edited by Mel Gurtov and Peter Van Ness. London: Routledge Curzon, 2004, 277 pp., £20.99 (cloth).

Characterizing the Bush administration's foreign policy of zigzagging, dysfunctional initiatives and self-inflicted wounds a "doctrine" seems a bit of a stretch. Sadly, aggressive rhetoric, hegemonic delusions and clumsy handling of allies have decisively trumped national interests in the region.

Good relations with South Korea and Japan have grown frayed, North Korea has grown bolder and more dangerous, China is more alienated while Indonesia represents a missed opportunity for building better relations with the world's largest Muslim nation.

This is not a book for those seeking a balanced assessment of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific under President George W. Bush. Here readers encounter a no-holds barred critical assessment that makes for grim reading precisely because the contributors from around the region demonstrate just how much U.S. interests have been imperiled now and in the future by Team Bush. There is general agreement among the authors that the Bush Doctrine's reliance on military options, preemptive war and unilateralism is destabilizing the global order.

The editors set the tone: "President Bush projects a naive, dangerously childlike view of the world: a fundamentalist vision of black and white, good and evil . . . . His characteristic one-liners fail completely to capture the complex realities of our 21st-century world."

Richard Tanter reminds us that Bush can't be blamed for everything, citing Japan's retreat from pacifism. He asserts that "The Japanese government response to the Bush Doctrine was essentially an acceleration and amplification of changes already under way before Bush came to power, and which have increasingly been the result of Japanese as much as American political initiatives."

In assessing how the Team Bush has bungled the North Korean nuclear crisis, two South Korean scholars condemn "the Bush Doctrine, which signals a major paradigmatic change in American foreign and defense policy. Its moral absolutism, hegemonic unilateralism, [and] offensive realism" have become part of the problem. They argue that these inclinations not only serve to define the problem but also unhelpfully limit options in trying to address it. They emphasize: "A nuclear North Korea is unthinkable. It would debilitate South Korea and trigger nuclear proliferation in the region."

Their critique is on target, but their policy suggestions are uninspiring. Like Team Bush, they call for inspections and verifiable, irreversible dismantling of nuclear facilities and see no other option than reviving the stalled six-party talks that they spend a good deal of space trashing. Essentially they want the United States to take a more conciliatory line, arguing that "While containment forces the North Korean leadership to continue to rely on the status quo and erratic responses of blackmail and brinkmanship, engagement can induce it to deliberate on more practical options."

Whether one agrees with this hopeful analysis or not, it is a succinct expression of prevailing views in South Korea and goes a long way in explaining why bilateral ties have become so frosty. Clearly, some South Koreans believe a breakthrough depends on regime change in Washington, D.C.

Where is the congruence of strategic interest that once underpinned the U.S.-ROK alliance? Is this merely a result of DPRK manipulation, as apologists would have it? Or, has Team Bush squandered this valuable asset and thus betrayed the national interest by engaging in unproductive saber rattling and treating South Korean concerns as little more than a nuisance?

Peter van Ness proposes a four-member (U.S., Russia, China and Japan) plus two (South and North Korea) security consortium as a way out of the current deadlock. The framework would call on the major powers to guarantee the security of the region and promote peaceful reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. He writes that "The failure of the U.S. to consolidate its victories in either country [Iraq and Afghanistan] means that the military option for the U.S. against North Korea has become increasingly untenable." This is welcome news to all of the countries likely to experience the anticipated collateral damage; South Korea's 10 nuclear-power plants figure in this Armageddon scenario.

So why would the U.S. suddenly abandon unilateralism? Van Ness argues that the "Bush administration is seeking some sort of face-saving multilateral format for resolving the crisis to avoid being charged with caving in to North Korean nuclear blackmail." He also argues that the U.S. is militarily overextended and is thus increasingly drawn to the merits of diplomatic solutions. However, Team Bush is unlikely to embrace the formal institutions proposed by Van Ness precisely because of the constraints they impose.

In addition, how do leaders reconcile national interests with the process? If North Korea is determined to acquire nuclear weapons because it places no trust in either the framework or the U.S., the question remains as to why any U.S. administration would see this as an attractive option.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.

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