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Strategic Culture, National Strategy, and Policymaking in the Asia-Pacific

An Interview with Ashley J. Tellis

By Mike Dyer
October 27, 2016

This year’s edition of Strategic Asia is the second volume in a three-year project to assess power in the Asia-Pacific. Whereas last year’s volume studied the foundations of national power in key regional states, Strategic Asia 2016–17: Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific examines the same seven states in order to better understand how each country’s distinctive strategic culture affects the pursuit of strategic objectives and national power.

Ahead of the release of Strategic Asia 2016–17 in November, NBR spoke with Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and research director of the Strategic Asia Program. Dr. Tellis explains the importance of strategic culture for understanding international relations, discusses the volume’s main findings, and assesses some of the implications for U.S. policy in Asia.

How do you define strategic culture for the purposes of this volume, and how does this view complement the realist perspective of international relations?

This volume looks at strategic culture as the totality of the ideational deposit that affects national strategy and policymaking. We have focused on the inherited conceptions and the shared beliefs that shape the identity of countries, how they evaluate their interests in terms of their values, and what norms countries believe are critical for shaping their choices in the international system. So strategic culture, as we think about it, is about ideas and the impact that ideas have on the choices of countries with respect to competitive international politics.

Consequently, the relationship between ideas and material factors immediately becomes relevant. This is an issue that is highly contested and constitutes the core of the academic debates about strategic culture over the last several decades. There are two extremes here: One, is that ideas matter fundamentally, to the point that material variables are shaped entirely by ideational choices. The other is that ideas are completely epiphenomenal and that material variables by themselves account for all the outcomes.

This volume has taken a middling position, but its account of strategic culture is still grounded in an acknowledgment of the fundamental primacy of material elements, in particular, the distribution of power in international politics, which has the most important impact on international outcomes. Ideas nevertheless matter because how material factors come to affect outcomes is very much a function of how nations interpret their strategic situation and how they think about their strategic choices.

If I were to put it crudely, material factors tell you why certain outcomes occurred the way they did, and strategic culture tells you how countries thought about their circumstances, their choices, and their decisions. This volume regards the two methods as complementary rather than competitive in the sense that strategic culture can supplement realist explanations even though it cannot displace them.

How does this volume on strategic culture build on and relate to last year’s edition of Strategic Asia, which focused on how countries develop their resources, both material and human, into national power? How will next year’s volume round out the three-part series?

Last year’s volume sought to understand the resource base that countries possess and how it affects their roles in the international system. Our contributors assessed these material foundations in terms of tangible assets, such as natural resources, population, and capital. But they also investigated the character of state-society relations, because an important component of the 2015–16 edition was the assertion that many of the material factors that undergird national power are not natural in the sense that they preexist in nature; rather, they are created as a result of human choices, and that creation is a function of, among other things, the relationship between states and their own societies.

This year’s volume explores how countries think about their strategic environment. What are the key challenges that they face? And how are the perceptions of those challenges linked to their histories, belief systems, and institutions that populate the collectivities that we call countries? Last year’s volume analyzed the material components as a foundation, and we are now looking at the overlay and assessing how ideas shape the choices that countries make.

The third year will look at the very concrete strategic problems that these countries face and examine how capabilities and worldviews combine to explain the specific approaches that each country takes in addressing its particular problems. Each successive volume in the series builds on the previous one as we head into the third and final year.

The current U.S. election has exposed fissures in the consensus that the United States should continue to underwrite global security through a preponderance of power. Do those who argue for a more restrained foreign policy represent a dissident strategic culture?

Right now, the United States is the most fascinating case study for strategic culture in action. We tend to talk about strategic cultures as if they are unchanging within a country, but what we are really referring to is the dominant strategic culture which represents certain attributes that are sometimes treated as universal and invariant within that country.

If you look at each of the countries examined in the volume more closely you realize that there are dominant strategic cultures, but that does not imply that there is a singular strategic culture. The dominant strategic culture often becomes dominant as the result of certain social processes, and that dominance can be explained as a function of the interests of key actors in that society and may change over time. Again, you can have a purely idealistic explanation, which is that the culture changes as different ideas become more or less fashionable. Or you can have a materialist story of cultural change as different elites with different interests rise to the top of the decision-making structures in a state or society.

The United States is a fascinating story, because even though there is a broad culture that is liberal or liberal internationalist, the fact is that there have been other competing but subaltern cultures, such as an isolationist culture that emphasizes the value of being left alone, a realist culture that focuses on calculations of national interests, and a progressive culture that is focused very much on changing either the world or the United States for the better. Each of these competing strategic cultures has interacted constantly with the dominant liberal culture and on occasion challenged it.

In this election season, we are seeing a challenge from one of these subordinate strategic cultures, which is a nationalist/realist strategic culture. By nationalist, I mean an inward-looking culture that is very much focused on the United States first and less interested in the country’s international obligations. This election may turn out to be a stage in a more permanent transformation of the dominant U.S. strategic culture, or it may be just a flash in the pan depending on how this election turns out and the choices that are made by the national leadership after this election.

I think the same can be said for each of the countries examined in this volume—each has multiple strategic cultures. Some have very obvious dominant strategic cultures, while in other cases the dominant strategic culture is less obvious. But the important point is that there is a plurality of belief systems in each of these countries, and watching how one particular belief system became ascendant or predominate is really a fascinating analysis in its own right.

Are any of those strategic cultures on the cusp of a change similar to the United States?

There are two other chapters in the volume that describe very clear possibilities of change: Japan and India. In Japan, the struggle is between a more nationalist culture and a more cosmopolitan culture that is vying for advantage. That really underlies much of contestation surrounding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to amend the constitution and reconstruct the Japanese economy and polity.

There is a similar story in India, where the Nehruvian strategic culture that has been dominant for many decades is now being challenged by the nativist strategic culture of the right. We don’t quite know if this new challenger will be able to displace the previous culture, or if it will simply end up modifying it.

China’s rise is arguably the most significant development unfolding in Asia. How does this volume interpret China’s strategic culture? What are the implications for U.S. policy in the region?

The volume does not have a good news story about China’s strategic culture. The volume reads Chinese strategic culture as very strongly an assertive culture, that it accords primacy to the protection of the state and the exercise of power and influence by the state, and that it is willing to use power in various forceful ways to protect its own national interests.

Christopher Ford, who wrote the chapter on China, makes the point that its strategic culture can be captured by the aphorism, “Confucian flesh covering realist bones.” By this, he means that the public manifestations of Chinese strategic culture are expressed in terms of rectitude, a search for a desirable moral order, but that only shrouds what is a very thoroughgoing quest for power, which is the realist bones. He argues that the Confucian flesh, the symbolism that is expressed in terms of rectitude, is not simply a symbolism that is focused on ordering Chinese society alone, but actually is used as a form of coercion with respect to other countries.

The consequences are very sobering. This analysis suggests that China is a relentless, power-maximizing entity that is willing to use force quite readily to achieve its national aims. However, both its pursuit of power and its use of force are often packaged in a highly moralistic garb framed in very ethical terms.

That can be quite problematic for stability if you have a country that is constantly seeking to maximize its advantage vis-à-vis the others and even argues—and maybe even deeply believes—that this is some sort of righteous moral action. That really creates a very problematic security environment.

Promoting closer relations between Japan and South Korea has been a goal of U.S. policy for decades. What can the studies of their strategic cultures tell us about bringing the two countries closer together or about managing U.S. alliances?

This is actually a fascinating question to be asked from the perspective of strategic culture. The chapter on South Korea, written by David Kang and Jiun Bang, basically makes the argument that the country’s strategic culture is really a conscious construction on the part of South Korean elites designed to overcome the brute reality that South Korea is the smallest of the three major entities in Northeast Asia. This culture attempts to compensate for that material inferiority by creating a historical narrative that posits a past defined essentially by masculinity and virility.

South Korea has this imagined past where it has been a very powerful state and that power actually permitted it to enjoy a measure of strategic independence. The extrapolation from this proposition is that South Korea even today, despite being the weakest of the three players, can and should pursue policies that are characterized by a quest for strategic independence despite its relative infirmity.

This is a very interesting insight because it provides a justification for avoiding alliances of any kind with other Northeast Asian states—either an alliance with China, which would be possible only because of the strong cultural affinity that the Koreans see with the Chinese, or an alliance with Japan because of the historical experience that Korea had when Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula. The bottom line in the case of South Korea is that its strategic culture essentially underlies the importance of both autonomy and independence despite its material weaknesses.

On the Japanese end, the impact of strategic culture is somewhat different. If Japan’s cosmopolitan culture survives, then the prospects for Japanese-Korean amity are in fact greater, because Japanese cosmopolitanism, as defined by Alexis Dudden in the volume, is a culture that is very open to the world and is not nationalist or insular. However, that kind of strategic culture does not help South Korea address its strategic problems, because a cosmopolitan Japan is also a Japan that does not emphasize the use of force or the accumulation of national power for military purposes.

So, you get a paradox: the Japan that could actually build a viable relationship with South Korea must out of necessity, because of its strategic culture, be a weaker Japan. But the Japan that is muscular, that is nationalist, is a Japan that threatens South Korea and actually makes the prospects of an alliance more difficult to cement. Of course, these paradoxes may be attenuated if factors other than culture are introduced into the analysis.

Having now examined both the strategic cultures and the foundations of power of these important states in the Asia-Pacific, what are some of the trends that will have implications for U.S. foreign policy?

If we believe that the major strategic challenge for the United States in Asia is going to be managing the rise of China, then the volume has very sobering conclusions for the United States. It suggests that China has an ideational inheritance that is quite focused on maximizing its own power and on exercising this power to create a hierarchical ordering pattern in Asia.

Even apart from China’s material capabilities, which are growing, its worldview is one grounded in notions of hierarchy. It is a worldview that justifies the accumulation and the exercise of power almost as the right thing to do. If this is the kind of China the United States has to deal with, then it is going to be a big strategic challenge.

On the flip side, the countries that are most capable of dealing with this kind of China—Russia, Japan, and India—are also countries that have strategic cultures that would not make for an easy set of balancing arrangements.

Russia’s strategic culture is overly defensive and overly militarist at the same time, which creates problems for the United States. Japan’s culture, as discussed earlier, is struggling now between two alternatives, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitanism may preserve the Japan that the United States tried to build after World War II but may not make Japan the best partner for balancing a rising China. On the other hand, nationalism may make Japan a good partner for dealing with China but could actually undermine the Japanese democratic achievement. Indian strategic culture, for its part, is characterized by a great deal of ambivalence and restraint, which may raise questions about India’s willingness and even ability to balance China.

The bottom line is that the cultures of the three major powers that could be partners in a U.S. balancing effort against China are not particularly conducive to a strategy of balancing. Thankfully, strategic culture is only one factor among many (and it is important to avoid claims of inevitability or determinism). But to the degree that ideas matter, I think the volume concludes that these countries would have to overcome their own ideational inheritances before they could be effective partners in the U.S. strategy of balancing China.

Mike Dyer is an Intern with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.

Strategic Asia 2016–17: Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific, the sixteenth volume in the Strategic Asia series, examines how the region's major powers view international politics and the use of military force. Learn more.

Please join us on November 16 for a discussion of "U.S. Strategic Priorities in the Asia-Pacific" marking the release of Strategic Asia 2016–17. Ashley J. Tellis will moderate a panel of select Strategic Asia authors and NBR President Richard J. Ellings will lead a timely discussion on implications for U.S. policy in the region. Learn more and RSVP.