The Inaugural Spitzer Lecture: What's Behind America's "Asia Pivot"

Walter Russell Mead at the Spitzer Gallery. Photo by Joshua KristalBy Maura Christopher, Director of Publications

With North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un playing hard at nuclear brinksmanship, the question is not only to what end, but also what are the potential long-term destabilizing impacts in the region. These are among the issues Walter Russell Mead addressed on Monday, April 15, 2013, during the first annual Anne and Bernard Spitzer Lecture, “America’s ‘Asia Pivot’ at a Time of Upheaval: The Pacific Isn’t Looking Pacifistic.” Speaking at the Spitzer Gallery in the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, Mead outlined reasons for America’s recent “Asia Pivot,” a largely symbolic shift that signals a reorientation in U.S. policy emphasis.

Prosperity and Commerce Among the causes, Mead noted the incalculable difference in possible outcomes between the best case scenario for the region and the worse case. As described by Mead, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College, in the best case scenario: Americans, Asians, and people throughout the world could enjoy humanity's most peaceful and most prosperous century. “We’ll continue to see hundreds of millions and billions of people leaving poverty, and countries like China, India, and Indonesia forming the kind of deep peace among themselves that developed in Europe after the Second World War,” Mead said. “The prosperity and commerce that would flow out of this region would be immense. And from an environmental point of view, a prosperous Asia can clean up pollution and move away from unsustainable forms of energy use.”

That scenario, stressed Mead, the former Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for Foreign Relations at the Council on Foreign Relations,  relies on a region in which power is balanced between countries such as China, India, and Japan and fundamentally stable.

Bitter Disputes Set against this benign scenario are forces leading to the eruption of “bitter, bitter disputes," such as those between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea, and of “deep religious, ethnic, historic, and nationalist tensions.” The outcome, Mead noted, could be a caldron of conflict, ideological dictatorships, and even mass killings.

Most important, these forces include North Korea’s nuclear aggression, which could drive other countries to pursue their own nuclear arsenals. “South Korea isn’t going to sit there forever with threats being hurled at them every day without wanting a nuke of their own,” Mead said. “And Japan isn’t going to sit by and if one or two Koreas have nuclear weapons, and if there is a nuclear bazaar in the region, Taiwan is going to get one. So China doesn’t want this proliferation; they don’t want North Korea to have weapons, but they don’t know what to do about it.“  In fact, South Korea has now asked the U.S. to approve a deal for it to begin to enrich uranium, which would begin its process of attaining  nuclear weapons capability.  Set against this, the U.S. is in discussions with South Korea to re-establish its nuclear nonproliferation pact, which expires in 2014.

North Korean military officers. Some rights reserved by NOS Nieuws. Behind the Threats As for North Korea, Mead said, it probably doesn’t want to push the red button. Instead, its officials use nuclear threats to get what they want—from development rights to famine aid. “Their goal is to keep up the threats without going over the threshold,” Mead said. Their recent pronouncement outlining North Korea’s conditions for talks with the U.S. and South Korea—as unacceptable as the demands were—are at least theoretically a step away from the corner Kim Jong Un has been busy painting himself into.

No wonder John Kerry, the administration's new Secretary of State is emphasizing the United States' commitment in the region and has made travel to the region a priority. As Mead stressed, “If you want to know what kind of century the 21st century is going to be, watch Asia, and if you want to affect the kind of century the 21st century will be, you have to try to do what you can to promote the positive scenario in Asia.”

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