Security, Democracy, and Economic Liberilization: Competing Priorities in U.S. Asia Policy
NBR Analysis vol. 7 , no. 2

Security, Democracy, and Economic Liberilization
Competing Priorities in U.S. Asia Policy

by Donald K. Emmerson and Sheldon W. Simon
September 1, 1996

Sheldon Simon of Arizona State University and Donald Emmerson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison address the relationship between security, democracy, and economic liberalization in U.S. policy toward Asia. Professor Simon, summarizing dozens of interviews with East Asian foreign policy elites conducted in 1995–96, contends that they are ambivalent about current U.S. policy. While welcoming the continued American military presence and U.S. support for multilateral security efforts, Asian governments resent U.S. pressure to liberalize their domestic political and economic policies. Professor Simon cautions that a U.S. policy that places too much emphasis on democracy and human rights could exasperate Asian leaders and undercut current positive trends in multilateral security cooperation. Moreover, if sanctions were applied to countries such as Burma or China, as has been threatened, the generally positive liberalizing effects of their participation in the global economic system would be reduced.

In a similar vein, Professor Emmerson challenges the common conception that greater democratization will necessarily lead to increased security in East Asia. He observes that the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy strategy has been powerfully motivated by the school of thought that teaches that democracies rarely make war on one another. However, Emmerson continues, the United States needs to recognize that under unfavorable conditions a democratically elected government can become “too representative”—its power to rule too fragmented or unstable—to ensure the personal security of its citizenry. Conversely, a government brought to power by majority vote can use its authority to threaten the security of individuals and groups in opposition to it. Emmerson suggests, therefore, that democratization can, ironically, increase disorder or repression through the empowerment of antidemocratic or nationalist forces. U.S. policymakers, therefore, need to consider indigenous values and conditions when asserting the immediate applicability of American-style liberal democracy in Asia.