Last week I facilitated a class debate on U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia for a class I teach at NYU called "Rise of East Asia." (Click here to read the summary of the class's debate last summer.) On April 9, 2010, 15 of my students hailing from ten different countries gathered in the Woolworth Building in New York City to hash out a new U.S. National Security Strategy just weeks before the Obama Administration was about to unveil its document. I hope our friends in Washington DC will note the tone of the students' recommendations. This time around, my students favored somewhat more feminine words such as "nurture," "embrace," and "cultivate." They placed emphasis on soft power, moral legitimacy, cultural exchange, and the link between domestic policy and foreign policy. I felt this direction was appropriate given the apparent direction of the Obama administration, which highlights mutual interests and mutual respect, and the high stature of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Below are the impressions of student Victoria Brewer, who participated in the debate.
"Rise of East Asia" Class Debate on April 9, 2010
There was hearty and at times, heartfelt debate throughout the "Rise of East Asia" class penultimate session. On April 9, 2010 approximately 15 NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies students gathered in the Woolworth building to discuss and outline three central U.S. foreign documents toward East Asia as if we were members of the Obama administration. Considered the most engaging class of the semester, the students first tackled the National Security Strategy (NSS).
To give us a sense of direction and reference, Professor Devin Stewart distributed copies of the 2006 NSS (written by then President Bush's administration). Noted for its grand approach advancing the spread of "freedom," we felt the 2010 NSS should also be grand, yet practical, in light of current global social, political, economic events. The class quickly identified two important strategies: Security through cooperation and mutual responsibilities. When braided together and more finely parsed we arrived at: Nurture mutual responsibilities through cooperation. "Nurture" was initially thought to lend too feminine a tone, but deemed acceptable as it helped to reinforce the strategy's implied moral relationship and contract between countries.
With our prime directive settled, we moved onto clarifying the essential goals of the strategy. The class looked at those listed in Bush's NSS for reference. Immediately, the point of "strengthening alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends" jumped out as the top objective. Our version was as follows: Strengthen alliances to maintain peace and stability in the 21st century.
With thoughts of the recent financial meltdown on everyone's mind, global economic cultivation was identified as the second most important goal. Should we use "balance" or perhaps "strengthen?" (One student felt that given continued U.S. economic woes, we required a word that properly conveyed the notion of a return to strength.) With that noted, "restore" was an easy choice. Hence goal number two: Restore U.S. economic leadership in order to help drive global prosperity.
With security and economic objectives defined, an interesting, albeit less measurable point was advanced. America is often seen as pushing its experience, power, and objectives onto weaker countries. How about we soften our attitude and engage other countries to utilize their strengths? We all stopped for a moment at this thought. It's true that no one country can lead forever. Isn't it better to improve relationships by respectfully acknowledging ally differences and strengths so to work toward a common goal? Hence, goal number three: Cultivate multilateral dialogues and institutions toward fostering mutual understanding and cooperation.
The fourth goal is one that does not even appear among Bush's list of objectives, yet is a hugely important issue--the environment. We struggled to find the right phrasing, in part because the U.S. lags far behind other countries in cultivating green technology and talent. But with some tinkering a very nearly poetic, certainly moral, fourth goal emerged: Embrace a sustainable approach to environment and a responsible stewardship to the natural world.
As often happens in the world of politics, a good debate arose from this goal. One student questioned why would we make this a goal if the U.S. refused to sign the Kyoto treaty? Another student concurred, stating the NSS is worth very little if actual policy does not emerge from it. Others felt that goals require broad language so that later on one has room to cultivate specific policy for specific issues. Prof. Stewart made the case that the military distinction between strategy, operations, and tactics are somewhat analogous to strategy, policy, and political tactics in foreign policymaking. He reminded us that the NSS was a document that outlined strategy.
Were we finished with only four goals? When Prof. Stewart pointed out that the number four is thought to be unlucky in some Asian cultures we knew we needed a fifth. A student put forth a hope to see something about education. Another championed aspirations for human dignity. Both points were welcomed as it was pointed out that education is a key part of fostering human dignity. Thus, our fifth and final goal was simply: Advance education for all.
With the National Security Strategy settled in a mere hour, we moved onto building on the recently released 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which is a review of Department of Defense strategy and priorities. For our purposes, we focused on ranking the East Asian countries (and ensuing issues) of greatest importance to the U.S. It was noted this list is "an expression of fealty" and interestingly, the top slot is always given to Japan, partly to quell their anxieties about stable U.S.-Japan relations.
Japan's strategic importance to the U.S. is indeed high and we expressed it with the following statement: It is an important time to reaffirm the mutual benefits in the U.S.-Japan relationship and our common perspectives and vision.
Spot number two went to South Korea: We continue to support peninsula security and the Republic of Korea and promote cultural exchange. The cultural exchange part was included as it was not clear if the next generation of South Koreans feel close to the U.S. With that uncertainty, it is imperative to reach out to that generation and foster better understanding.
Australia was ranked third. It was felt they deserved recognition for their self-sufficiency, continued shouldering of regional security (Indonesia) and provision of military support to U.S. operations. Thus: Acknowledgment of Australia's positive contribution to regional security.
The number four spot was given to ASEAN. This is a group with little commonality among its members and whose success depends on intra-regional cooperation and dialogue. Hence: Elevate the profile of the ASEAN institution and provide support to eliminate political oppression.
The fifth spot was (unsurprisingly) assigned to China – our most enigmatic relationship. With thoughts of its continued economic growth and murky military aspirations we put forth: Quietly leverage alliances (with India for example) to lessen and mitigate Chinese assertiveness.
Time was ticking and with only a few class minutes left, we tackled the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Would a simple "Nukes: We Hate 'Em!" suffice? No, we decided we needed something with more heft. We agreed that the goals stated in Obama's 2010 NPR were on point. (The top objective: preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.) In fact, the class felt that the document at large was strategically sound, particularly the objective to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and consider the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances.
In less than two hours, the class made fast work of three vitally important strategic documents. It is clear that, for now, the Obama administration must continue to lead in East Asia. The U.S. is eager to share responsibility for regional policing with allies and associations when they are prepared to do so. To achieve this goal, the U.S. must cultivate key relationships in East Asia and give thoughtful consideration to the many issues that crowd for attention.
- Victoria Brewer
Photo "Woolworth Building" by laverrue.