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America as the Constant Gardener in the Pacific

By Tom Plate

Has this ugly American presidential election gotten on your nerves? It has on mine. 

I used to have as much faith as anyone in Western-style democracy. For a time the inspiring thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin was my Einstein, and I read his work almost religiously. His mind was a library of such books that his essays almost whispered to you with wisdom. He sought to rally his readers around the idea that liberalism required an emphatic emphasis on individuality and pluralism—norms we might well consider pressingly relevant today.

Berlin, the Oxford-based political philosopher and historian of ideas, died in 1997—the same year as did Deng Xiaoping, China’s epochal great innovator who represented the radically different political faith of communism. Then, a much different thinker, Lee Kuan Yew, emerged who insisted that excessive individualism would, paradoxically, block any major advancement of individuals. Planting himself somewhere between Berlin and Deng, the late leader of the People’s Action Party that founded modern Singapore was anything but a fan of a one-citizen, one-vote electoral system. 

Democracy was a risky system, the late Lee warned, that left on its own would yield “erratic results.” And so it is in a way fortunate that this historic figure, who left us last year, is no longer around to have to witness the juvenile misogyny of one U.S. candidate and the hubristic duplicity of the other. 

I’ll never forget the anxious face of Lee Kuan Yew in 2007 inquiring about Hillary Clinton when he was told by a American professor visiting him in Singapore that she would probably prove “good enough.” That caused him to pause. “Good enough?” he said. “Whomever you elect, we’ll have to live with.”

In China, a number of Communist Party members, media leaders, academics, and graduate students are trying to predict which one of the current campaigning duo would prove better for the country. This mental exercise is a waste of time; the U.S. presidential campaign is based on emotions, not on ideas or policies. One candidate poses as the bearer of some vague kind of major change, the other as the steady flag of continuing reform. 

Donald Trump mentions China mainly when he is fishing for votes from the unemployed or job-rattled. Clinton says little about China, but is said to be “tougher on Beijing”—though the meaning of these words is never fully explained. 

Unaddressed is the challenge of how to make the bilateral relationship better, or at least not worse. The fate of the 21st century will depend on this. Long after the Islamic State is in the dustbin of history, China and America will be bumping into one another. This pair will never contentedly couple but the forced intimacy of the 21st century global order will not permit too many degrees of separation. 

China is further along in fashioning what it wants for its Asian future. We in the U.S., more often relying on our warrior instinct than our diplomatic DNA, have not thought through our position in the region. George Schultz, the former secretary of state and secretary of the treasury, has likened the U.S. role in Asia in the 20th century to that of the attentive and well-equipped gardener. 

It is a striking image. Americans were to tend to the honorable if pedestrian chore of pulling out destructive weeds, ministering to our allies’ spatial and nutrient requirements, and sprinkling around nutrient-rich plant food—though napalm or Agent Orange were sometimes all too freely administered, too. Rather than emphasizing the uprooting of entrenched regimes, a constant gardener policy would seek to maintain and even cultivate the existing political order.  

But with the withering of the Soviet empire, more than a “vegetarian” approach was needed … something grander, bolder, and meatier. For the 21st century, former U.S. diplomat Kurt Campbell conjured up an image of Asia that cannot possibly proceed apace without the undergirding of American wisdom and power. America’s 21st century role, he insists, will be that of the orchestra conductor—a geopolitical maestro that “coordinates the increasingly independent efforts of Asian states and multinational institutions in common cause to shape Asia’s future,” as he writes in his provocative new book The Pivot.

The problem with this approach is that there are 48 countries comprising Asia and many will organize their own concerts. China and America may wrestle each other to lead, but neither will get to monopolize the baton, as other countries will play one superpower against the other. Cacophony is as likely to fill the huge concert of hall of Asia as harmony. For this reason, America in Asia needs to stick to gardening. It worked once, and it is the only role that can ever work, regardless of who the next U.S. president is. Being the constant gardener is an honorable and healthy role, and we can flourish in no other. 

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Tom Plate is a professor at Loyola Marymount University, vice president of the Pacific Century Institute, a South China Morning Post columnist, author of the 'Giants of Asia' series, and founder of Asia Media International. 

[Photo courtesy of RogDel]

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