Below is the first instalment of my interview series with renowned US foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large for The American Interest and author of Special Providence and God and Gold. He also runs the lively Via Meadia blog. Walter has been kind to the Lowy Institute and The Interpreter over the years, and it's a thrill to get his contribution to our Asian Century feature.
Q. Walter, judging by your commentary on Via Meadia, it's hard to pin you down or categorise you when it comes to what many in Australia have taken to calling 'the Asian century'. There's some realpolitik there, a sneaking regard for multilateral institutions such as ASEAN, encouragement for leaders who hold China's feet to the fire on human rights, and scepticism toward the idea of American decline.
Another thing I've noticed on your blog recently is your recurring use of the popular TV series 'Game of thrones' as an analogy for the rivalries and power plays now occurring in the region.
With all that in mind, can you say something about the analytical framework you apply when you wrestle intellectually with the rise of China and the Asian century? Do you prefer theoretical models, historical analogies or draw inspiration from fiction? What's the most useful and revealing prism through which to view this phenomenon?
A. Well, there's no one theoretical model that captures reality. My view is more eclectic; I check many sources to help understand what's going on in Asia today. International relations theory, historical analogies, popular fiction — each plays a role in my thinking.
I don't think that we're witnessing the emergence of a liberal multilateral order in Asia today, but it's not impossible that over time something like that would emerge.
There is no single 'prism' through which to view the Asian century. It's a mistake to think of Asia narrowly. If you look only at East Asia, the temptation is to analyse events as binary competition between China and the US, but if you look more broadly at the region from India to Korea and including Australia and New Zealand, it looks less like any two-way competition will determine the collective future of this very complex region.
But the Game of Thrones is my favourite way of talking about Asia. We use it on the blog firstly because we want readers to be excited, to read our posts. The Game of Thrones books and TV show are popular (for good reason), and at its heart, the series is really about foreign policy.
It's about the mix of foreign and domestic concerns that influence policy abroad. I don't actually think that much of international life is as cut-throat as it is in Game of Thrones. And most diplomats I know aren't as good looking as the show's characters. But in helping people understand the importance of power and influence in international life, this is not a bad example. There are lots of different autonomous power centres. It's not a binary competition between two superpowers. It's a world in which smaller states are pursuing their own goals and interests. Asia is like that — polycentric. The Asian political system is not bilateral or unipolar.
On American decline: I don't see much evidence. In the '90s it seemed to me that people were overestimating the unipolar moment. But it wasn't unipolar in the '90s. In the next decade, people swung too far the other way, hyping America's decline. These are mood swings among the commentariat rather than changes in American power.
In Asia and the Pacific, the situation is broadly favourable for key American concerns. Rising prosperity is not a zero sum game. A richer Asia is a richer America. The US goal in Asia, as in Europe, is not to dominate a region but to promote the emergence of a peaceful order which meets the needs of the people in the region but offers good economic opportunities to the US and keeps security threats from emerging. Though Asia is very complicated, difficult and dangerous, it looks to me like all those objectives are reachable.