Airmobile operations in Vietnam

Airmobile operations in Vietnam (Source: Boston Globe)

As the year comes to a close, discussion of America national security policy has focused on the “pivot” to Asia. Yet, while America is interested primarily in the region as a national security concern, policymakers are less interested necessarily in the divide between America and many Asian states over national security policy. As William Overholt noted in his book on the United States and the new Asian geopolitics, regional tolerance of political pluralism is one of the larger divides between the United States and Asian states. The United States tends to believe that states with a different regime type naturally pose more of a danger than others, a view not generally shared by many in Asia.

Some in the US also believe that a new globalized order demands a stronger role abroad in producing security through political and military intervention to protect vulnerable populations and build capacity in troubled regions. Lastly, a strain of American political thought since Wilson has held that exporting democracy is beneficial to American national security.

As the United States shifts its security focus back to Asia, it may benefit from a serious consideration of the national security philosophies of the other states in the region. Ten years of third-party state-building and democracy promotion later, the United States has little success other than the defeat of al-Qaeda. Genuine revolutionary change in the Middle East, in turn, occured due to endogenous rather than external dynamics. Amid the proliferation of new proposed national security doctrines, some American thinkers have turned to a admittedly old-school solution.

In their new book The Sovereignty Solution, Naval Postgraduate Institute (NPS) scholar Anna Simons and her co-authors develop an approach to global security rooted around an odd idea: every state should have the right to order itself internally under its own preferences and in turn bares responsibility for all acts of aggression that transgress the sovereignty of others. This implies tolerance for a range of governmental types, an end to expeditionary state-building (direct and indirect), and an approach to warfare built on breaking states that misbehave with conventional capabilities rather than a “whole of government” approach. While a national defense policy built around such ideas may or may not be sensible, it certainly is at variance with many cherished ideas in American and Western national security policy. To name a few, the strong and weak versions of the Responsibility to Protect and the commonly held philosophy that all foreign events are interconnected and thus of American concern.

Simons’ book, to a large extent, unintentionally describes the way that many non-Anglo Pacific governments view sovereignty and its relationship to national defense. As Amitai Etzioni noted, there is a kind of “back to the future” quality about China’s prioritization of sovereignty above all else. As the West moves away from the idea of sovereignty towards a post-Westphalian future, China has moved from a Maoist policy of sponsoring insurgencies in neighboring states to championing the idea that states should be the only legitimate force of national power within their own borders. China’s views, however, are representative of a common national security philosophy in Asia.

At the end of a mostly mediocre article about American national security policy, Timo Kivimäki looks at Asian norms of sovereignty and how they have impacted peace in the region. From World War II’s climax to the end of the Vietnam War, East Asia was the main battlefield of the Cold War. Military operations centered around efforts to impose dueling concepts of governance from the outside. However, the five founding fathers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) explicitly declared that they would not accept or offer military assistance to groups fighting fellow ASEAN states. This was codified in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. The result?

Before joining ASEAN, current members had supported insurgents in 29 Southeast Asian conflict dyads. After joining, no ASEAN country has supported a military challenge against any other member country. After the belligerent 1970s, this convention spread to the rest of Southeast and Northeast Asia. Between the end of World War II and 1980, East Asian states were engaged in 35 conflict dyads in which they supported the domestic or international enemy of another East Asian state with military troops. China’s support for various communist groups as well as allied Western opposition to communist nationalists, especially in the context of the Indochina wars and the Korean War, were the dominant forms of external interference in internal conflicts. But this stopped after 1979, and there has been no example of an East Asian state lending military support to an enemy of another East Asian state.

This does not necessarily mean that the region has been devoid of insurgencies, or that conflicts over national borders and territory do not have the potential to boil over. Indeed, some Asian states are unwilling to consider that their own claims to sovereignty may be the product of national myth rather than international law–and by pushing these claims the sovereignty-minded trample on what rightfully belongs to others. And one of the major disputes in the international relations of East Asia literature over the last 20 years has been whether the current peaceable arrangements in the region will continue if economic and military power arrangements radically shift.

But a focus on sovereignty has certainly helped the Asia-Pacific region focus on economic and political development rather than endless internal and external war. Asia is no longer a Cold War battlefield, or for that matter, a battlefield of any sort.  While some have opportunistically invoked the idea of a kind of authoritarian set of “Asian Values” as a justification for thwarting Western democracy rhetoric, it seems more likely that toleration of different regimes as a means to ending the region’s endemic warfare was a pragmatic choice above all else.

A national defense system built on an Asian conception of sovereignty–especially in a region chock full of border disputes, has focused Asian military policy. States do not  necessarily worry, as Americans do, about prioritizing capabilities for unconventional or conventional warfare. Rather, they think about what kind of capabilities can help maintain their internal and external sovereignty and maintain their growing economies. This does not mean that national defense decisions are simple–any casual reading of this site will demonstrate otherwise–but that there is a clarity about national security priorities that currently eludes the United States. As we enter 2012, perhaps we can learn an Asian lesson about our defense policy.

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Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in strategic theory. His articles on subjects ranging from grand strategy to cartel tactics in the Mexican drug war have been published in The Atlantic, Small Wars Journal, Defense Concepts, and OpenDemocracy. He is currently pursuing graduate study in Georgetown and lives in Washington D.C, is an Associate Editor at Red Team Journal, an Associate at Small Wars Journal's El Centro, a Technology Research Analyst at CrucialPoint LLC. All opinions are his own.
Adam Elkus has 5 post(s) on Asia Security Watch