Liberal Internationalism and Southeast Asia.

            “Liberal internationalism” arose as a response to “great power politics.”[1]  Liberal internationalism asserted that nations pursuing their individual advantage, with war as the final arbiter, need not offer the only form of international relations.  Instead, international co-operation could provide benefits for all; and international institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could address problems that nation-states find it difficult to overcome.  In terms of operating principles, liberal nationalism has sought to develop the United Nations specifically as a means of discovering non-violent solutions to problems; the growth of international trade, partly in the belief that economic interdependence hampers political conflict; and the spread of democracy partly in the belief that democracies don’t go to war with one another.[2]  The most common buzz-term is “rules-based order.” 

            In recent years, the “rules-based order” has seemed to be collapsing.  Zi Jinping’s China has vigorously pursued its national interests at the expense of other countries near and far.[3]  Putinist Russia wants what it wants and will use military power to try to get it.  The European Union has suffered from severe internal tensions, with Britain bolting for national sovereignty.  President Donald Trump broke with common platitudes, and the Biden Administration has continued some of his new approaches.  A new age of great power politics may have begun. 

            During the early Cold War, the United States arrayed regional alliances against the Soviet Union (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO) and the Peoples Republic of China (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN).  Burned by the Vietnam War and buoyed by the results of Richard Nixon’s opening to China, American interest in ASEAN drifted a good bit.  Now President Biden trying to rally the members of ASEAN to contain China once more.  It looks to be rough sailing.[4] 

            Mostly, the ASEAN countries are pre-occupied with rapid economic development to feed, house, clothe, and employ large populations.  They are not or not-very democratic.  They are more open to some Western ideas (nationalism, laissez-faire capitalism) than to others (climate change, standard labor practices).[5]  Both Covid and the Ukraine war sent economic shock waves through the region by choking off tourism, disrupting the global supply chains to which they contribute and upon which they depend, and now pushing up interest rates.  Most of all, they don’t want to be chained to either the Chinese or the American chariot, but hope to exploit from some form of neutralism. 

            It remains to be seen if the Democrats’ liberal internationalism can find ways of accommodating necessary partners who don’t share most of their beliefs. 

[1] The alternative term is “Realism,” but who wants to self-identify as “Unrealistic”?  Ends the argument before you even start making your case. 

[2] See:  Key scholars include Robert Keohane and John Ikenberry, but John Mearsheimer offers challenges. 

[3] The “Belt and Road Initiative,” the claims to every little reef and islet in the South China Sea, and its hollow commitments to the Paris Climate Accord can serve as examples. 

[4] Walter Russell Mead, “What Does Southeast Asia Want?” WSJ, 17 May 2022. 

[5] Americans pushing rights for labor onto still-industrializing countries seems like just another round of imperialism.  America’s turn away from free-trade endangers their plans.  Climate change may be real, but they’ll just live with the consequences unless Western countries pay the whole bill for adaptation

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