The Demise of the American Model
Michael Davis (Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong)
This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
Are Asian views on America at a crisis stage? Are Europeans and Arabs alone in their popular disgust with the Bush administration? There appears to be a growing Asian concern with American belligerence and unilateralist tendencies.
While this is most evident among an emerging peace movement in several countries, a look at the popular Asian press shows such views are not in the minority. Asians, from the Middle East to the Philippines and up to South Korea, have been venting their concerns about the duplicity of the Bush administration in precipitating crises across the Asian region. At the same time, the recent aggressive tactics of the US administration offer a worrying validation for the long-criticised human rights violations of the hardline regimes in the region.
Reports of popular US support for these policies lead to profound worries in Asia that Americans have been misled and that the American system has run off the tracks. This is a matter of grave concern in Asia because America, through the many ups and downs in its relationships with the region, has steadfastly provided a somewhat idealised model for democracy and human rights. Is this model now in doubt?
In the US view, the crises in the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Korea and Iraq are tragic events that only America and its allies are prepared to address. The US will also be the saviour in the "war on terrorism". In a commonly held Asian view, America has its fingerprints all over these problems. Former US administrations are credited with earlier interventions that have set the stage for the current crises. But the current Bush administration gets most of the credit.
It is well remembered that when the Bush administration came to the White House, the first move was to disengage from the festering problems of the continent. In both North Korea and the Middle East, a decade of engagement was abandoned. The explosive response was quick in coming. Even South Korea, the North's erstwhile enemy, resisted this abandonment and is now stuck with the consequences. Why the US administration abandoned the Middle East problem to fester was a mystery to all. Giving Israel a free hand destroyed all perceptions of America as an honest broker. In Afghanistan, support for US policy was at its greatest after September 11. That, too, was squandered. The Bush administration's aversion to "nation-building" seems set to precipitate the next big crises in Asia - ones that may bring expanding problems in hot spots such as Pakistan and the Middle East.
But Iraq is the proverbial straw that may break the camel's back. The Bush administration is also not to be trusted over the cleanup act that must follow. If the past is any guide, that will ultimately be left to Iraq and its neighbours. And Asians might wonder what other conflicts are being brewed. Will the next crisis be across the Taiwan Strait, in India, Myanmar or Afghanistan?
But the largest source of bewilderment in Asia relates to the US administration's abandonment of much of what America stands for. Multilateral institutions have long been admired, but are difficult to form in Asia. The passion for joining the World Trade Organisation, for trade agreements in Southeast Asia, even international human rights treaties and security arrangements, are all efforts to join the global club that America has long fostered. Just at a time when Asians are figuring out how to join in the enterprise, its chief benefactor is seemingly pulling the plug.
This abandonment is taking on a character familiar to Asians who have experienced authoritarian rule. The new Bush version of multilateralism looks a lot like the Asian brand of authoritarianism, where an all-knowing leader acts unilaterally "in the greater public interest". An Asian friend recently asked me if this was just authoritarianism gone global. If you support the US president, you will be protected. If you do not, you are the enemy.
The other trappings of authoritarianism are also visible. Why does America feel the need to hold a few hundred prisoners in Cuba without trial or the promise of open trials? Worse yet, why are even American citizens treated like this? Does protecting human rights so undermine or burden stable government? This kind of justice and these kind of questions are all too familiar in Asia.