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Jeju Forum Alumni Newsletter
Titles [Jeju Forum Alumni Newsletter] (No.10 | December 2018) Power, Geopolitics and Hegemonic Rivalry in Northeast Asia: Making Sense of the Challenges to Regional and Global Order
Writer JPI  (admin)
2018-12-24 오후 1:46:03

Power, Geopolitics and Hegemonic Rivalry in Northeast Asia: Making Sense of the Challenges to Regional and Global Order





Dr. John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Lecturer, University of Cambridge & Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Chatham House



The surprise announcement on December 20 of the resignation of U.S. Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis has created a profound sense of uncertainty regarding the global role of the United States. In Washington, DC, for politicians – both Democrats and Republicans – long inured to dealing with a uniquely unpredictable and volatile Trump Presidency, the shock of this news has been especially acute. It has been echoed and amplified around the world, both in Europe and Asia, where national leaders and policy-makers are worried that a United States that seemed already ambivalent about its global role, might be retreating into full-blown isolationism.  President Trump’s decision to pull some 2000 US troops out of Syria and begin to withdraw nearly half of the 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan is further evidence, now that the stabilizing role of General Mattis is destined to end in February, that global politics is entering a far more uncertain and unpredictable stage.


Unsettling as these latest developments undoubtedly are, they are the symptoms rather than the cause of a fundamental and more deep-seated and long-term set of challenges to international order.  

The first of these challenges, to paraphrase the US historian, Stephen Ambrose has been America’s “retreat from globalism”.  For much of the Cold War era and in its immediate aftermath following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, successive US presidents accepted the critical stabilizing role of the US as the guarantor of international order, whether through Washington’s support for the Bretton Woods economic system, the commitment to a network of US-led alliances in Europe and Asia, or US willingness to shoulder the economic, political and military burden of containment of the Soviet and its ideological allies. Trump’s unilateralism and his capricious foreign policy, defined in narrow zero-sum terms, is confirmation that the US no longer sees itself as “bound to lead”.  The President’s sympathy for authoritarian leaders, whether in China, Russia, the Philippines, or Saudi Arabia, is evidence of a transactional leadership that has little regard for the values and ethos that underpinned America’s post-1945 foreign policy, even if, to its critics, those values have all too often been supported at best rhetorically rather than substantively.

The second challenge, thrown into relief by the emergence of a de facto nuclear North Korea, has been the erosion of the stabilizing role provided by nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that prevailed throughout most of the Cold War. As the US historian, John Lewis Gaddis has argued, the threat of cataclysmic global destruction ensured a “Long Peace” between the superpowers,  even if it failed to prevent proxy wars on the periphery of the Cold War that all too often had devastating consequences for the local protagonists, whether on the Korean peninsula, in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East. The reliability of nuclear deterrence has been steadily undercut by the spread of nuclear weapons and the emergence of new nuclear powers (including India and Pakistan in the mid-1990s). North Korea’s new nuclear status has added further instability, not only because of Pyongyang’s ability to threaten its immediate neighbours and countries further afield, thanks to its acquisition of long-range ballistic missiles, but also because it has raised profound anxieties on the part of both Japan and South Korea about the reliability of US-led extended deterrence and the willingness of Donald Trump to give due weight and attention to the interests of America’s junior allies.

The third challenge to international order is separate from the material factors and power dynamics associated with the issue of whether the US will remain engaged in international affairs and committed to the mutual interests of alliance partners. Change is happening at the grass-roots, rather than at the commanding heights of national and international government. The rise of populism and identity politics is a rebuff to the conventional assumptions that emerged at the end of the Cold War surrounding the durability of liberal democracy (an overconfident attitude epitomized by Frances Fukuyama’s triumphalist 1989 proclamation of the “End of History” ). In its place has emerged a virulent and sometimes violent form of xenophobia and intolerance expressed in opposition to immigration, governing elites and the traditional conventions of parliamentary politics. Animating this phenomenon has been an apparent rejection of rationality and a preference for emotionally-driven behavior and a politics of nostalgia that looks backwards rather than embracing a confident and optimistic vision of the future.


This new environment of uncertainty begs the question of whether there are any other international actors equipped or willing to step into the leadership vacuum arising from the US retreat? China under Xi Jinping, via its Belt and Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), clearly aspires to play a more high profile and leading international role.  It would be wrong to see this as a bid for global dominance, but given the authoritarian character of the government, its rapid military expansion and its territorial encroachments in the South China Sea, China lacks the legitimacy to generate the international confidence that would allow it to assume such a role.


Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has articulated its own strategy (now re-formulated as a “vision”) for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific that hints as more high-profile role for Tokyo in international politics. However, it is unclear that Japan has either the material capacity, or the constitutional flexibility, or the depth of public support at home, to transform this ambitious rhetorical proposal into a concrete reality.

Europe, mired in its own internal economic and social challenges, confronts – at least for the foreseeable future - its own potential leadership deficit, as once strong leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel have signaled their prospective retirement or, in the case of France’s Emmanuel Macron, confront plummeting approval ratings and re-invigorated populist street protests in the form of the Gilets Jaunes. Britain continues to weather the post-2016 Brexit storm and with the May government facing decision-making deadlock in the UK parliament, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future that the UK will be able to deliver on its bold “Global Britain” agenda.

In this context, the Jeju Peace Forum can offer some critical potential solutions for the future. As a Korean site for the gathering of global leaders, scholars, journalists and corporate leaders, it is valuable location for showcasing the efforts of middle powers such as the Republic of Korea (ROK) to present innovative solutions to the most pressing international challenges. The 2018 gathering was a critical opportunity to highlight the work of the administration of President Moon Jae-in and builds on the work of past progressive presidents, such as the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who had a powerful vision of the benefits of regional cooperation and dialogue in confronting critical security challenges. This attitude is exemplified by the efforts of the Moon administration to devise a local set of solutions to the nuclear crisis with North Korea - an approach which also shrewdly and adeptly acknowledges the importance of working with larger powers, such as the United States in ensuring that they remained engaged in the complex and long-term process of fostering long-term engagement with Pyongyang.


Progress in diffusing the threats associated with hegemonic rivalry in East Asia and further afield also depends on bridging the gap between ordinary citizens and their elected representatives and resolving the sense of disaffection and detachment from mainstream politics that underpins the populist phenomenon. The danger of identity politics and the politics of nostalgia is that it will reinforce historically-framed tensions between nation-states and amplify the risk of conflict precisely at a time when it is important to foster a new sense of collective cooperation.

To do this, we need to find a way of widening the discussion between different national constituencies to encompass a range of politically aware actors at all levels of society. This should be done in a manner that is less about judging and compensating for the excesses of the past and more about listening with tolerance and empathetic mutual respect for the testimonies of a wide range of actors. Jeju, with its tragic history of protest and repression, is well aware of the importance of non-judgmental dialogue. Future forums should continue to capitalize on this experience and use the unique convening role of the forum to a new space for citizens and their leaders to engage directly. Minimizing the democratic deficit between voters and their representatives is key to sustaining the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and for helping to offset the retreat into narrow, unilateral nationalism that has become a worrying feature of the contemporary era.