US Asia Policy: Straight From the 1930s

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It’s no secret that Asia is obsessed with history. From the centuries-old maps that undergird China’s “nine-dash line” claim to Japan’s WWII-era aggression to the now daily comparisons between pre-WWI and pre-WWII Europe and Asia today, the most important geopolitical discussions of this century increasingly sound like they come from a different century altogether. This affliction isn’t limited to any one or even a few countries; rather, it seems to run amok throughout the region.

One notable exception to this is United States, which seems generally exasperated with all this talk of history, as much so with strong allies like Japan as with potential adversaries like China. This should come as no surprise. Just as China places a nearly unequaled importance on history as a guide to contemporary and future times, the U.S. is about as ahistorical a nation as exists anywhere in the world today.

Part of this is merely due to America’s relative youth as a nation, which leaves it without much of a history to reflect upon. More importantly, however, one of the more deeply ingrained values in the American psyche is that individuals, nations, and mankind as a whole are inherently capable of progress. From this comes the widespread (if largely unconscious) viewpoint of most Americans that it is best to look toward the future than to dwell upon the past.

The Pacific Realist thinks this is a generally admirable trait. It’s no coincidence that individuals and nations that are stuck on the past tend to be excessively bitter. That being said, one byproduct of this forward looking approach is that most Americans aren’t very well versed in history, including — in many cases — their own. Consider that the century in which the U.S. conquered an entire continent is known in America as the “isolationist era.”

One danger of not being a student of history, of course, is that you are more likely to unknowingly repeat it — for better or for worse. And so it is with America’s current policy to Asia, which is strikingly similar to a time period in which the U.S. had to contend with another rapidly rising Asian power — Imperial Japan.

In his path-breaking book on the Pacific War during WWII, Eagle Against the Sun, Ronald Spector describes U.S. policy toward Japan in the run-up to Pearl Harbor as follows:

“The policy of the American government towards Japan, ever since the ‘China Incident’ began, had been ‘firm but conciliatory.’ The United States would not willingly agree to an abridgement of any of its rights and interests in China and would refuse to recognize Japan’s conquests in the Far East. On the other hand, it would do nothing which might provoke Japan or cause an incident. The United States would neither condone nor actively oppose Japan’s actions.

“This ‘policy of inaction and nonprovocation,’ conceived by President Roosevelt and carried out mainly by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, was designed to avoid serious crisis with Japan. In practice, the policy usually took the form of Hull’s lecturing the Japanese on the ‘principles of good behavior’ and deploring Japan’s frequent lapses from them, while avoiding any positive action. Such a course seemed satisfactory to Roosevelt and his advisers.”

This describes U.S. policy toward China to a tee. Of course, China is not Imperial Japan and this is not the 1930s. This time the policy could succeed. Then again, it could not.

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