Declaring Makes It So: What it Means that the U.S. Now Thinks it is a Pacific Nation

 

Note: this article was originally published on Fox & Hedgehog.

In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region [the Asia Pacific] reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” His phrasing belied a rather circular logic: if the United States has always been a Pacific nation, how can it suddenly take a new notice of the region it believes marks its own identity? And if the United States must now declare itself to be a Pacific nation in order to be one, doesn’t its absence of prior declarations show how new this understanding of itself as a nation is?

A declaration of national identity in terms of geography is very different from a declaration in terms of ideology or creed. The latter, I believe, are internally focused declarations. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is the declaration that speaks to Americans as a people about what as a nation they stand for. It describes the markers of difference between Americans and the British. But declarations of geographic identity are not like this. Declarations of geographic identity speak externally, giving those outside the nation an idea of what that nation believes its interests to be.

The United States of America pre-1916 was just that—it defined itself on its own, consciously rejecting external labels of association. It stood for itself, and in its isolationism made no declarations of what external geographies it saw itself as part of. But 1916 meant that security required looking across the Atlantic to Europe, to events there that threatened American interests within its own borders. The Atlantic commitment grew and grew as U.S. interests were threatened for a second time by Germany, and then became seemingly irrevocable with the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as U.S. grand strategy came to embody the response to the Soviet threat.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: an organization, focused on the Atlantic, that counts as members nations that share no border with that ocean, and which exists to respond to threats nowhere near the Atlantic. The Atlantic here is simply a construction used to declare externally where ideology and interests lie, without necessarily remaining faithful to geographic truth.

Even as U.S. territory in the Pacific was attacked in 1941, the response seemed not to require declarations of Pacific identity, but only an immediate military response. The focus of U.S. identity remained across the Atlantic, in Europe, where the U.S. saw itself fighting for its own values, rather than solely its territorial defence.

There were tepid attempts by the United States to look westwards following WWII—the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), for instance—but these did not extend to definitions of identity, even as the U.S. became embroiled in Vietnam. Christopher Hemmer and Peter Katzenstein have explained how following the Second World War the United States tried to secure itself both from the west and the east, but the approaches it took to doing so demonstrated the relative importance of each region. The U.S. preference for multilateral institutions in Europe and bilateralism in the Asia Pacific, argue Hemmer and Katzenstein, shows clearly where the United States’ self-identity lay during the latter half of the twentieth century. Because U.S. identity lay so strongly in Europe, it was willing to give up a larger degree of control to European partners through multilateralism than to those in the Asia Pacific. Existentially threatened by the Soviet Union, the U.S. was defined by the Atlantic connection.

The United States indeed shares a long coastline with the Pacific ocean. But geographic features do not define a nation’s identity. New Zealand, a country with no geographic markers other than the Pacific, nevertheless defined itself as a European country until forced to focus anew on the Pacific following the fall of Singapore. That a country geographically as far from another as is physically possible can still align itself ideologically to the other side of the world demonstrates the constructed nature of geographic identities. It seems disingenuous for the U.S. to claim long-standing identity as a Pacific nation merely because of its Pacific coastline, or its territories in that ocean.

But if the world’s superpower declares something to be so, it most often is. “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” It matters not whether the historical record supports this; that the United States now believes it is enough to change the record, to change the commitments of nations, to make it a fact that must be taken into account when calculating responses. It is a fact that is now incorporated into the international political security market.

All this is to say: geographic identity descriptors are the strongest statements that can be made by a nation to demonstrate a commitment to a part of the world. In other words, these types of statements are the broadest conception of a grand strategy, where all other components within a nation must then adhere to that broadest commitment made. Those who question the commitment should not do so easily, because such a descriptor has proven historically to be long-lasting and meaningful.

The United States’ “pivot to Asia” seems itself a component of its newfound Pacific identity. Without being a Pacific nation, it is a stretch of imperial power for the United States to claim interests in the East and South China Seas. Only through believing itself to be a Pacific nation can the United States justify its re-alignment of military and economic structures to focus on Asia.

It is also interesting to reflect on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in light of the new U.S. commitment to the Pacific. Discussion has been strong over the purported benefits of the TPP to signatories’ economies. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimates real income benefits to the United States of approximately $77bn annually; other sources put it at up to $131bn. At its best this represents a 0.5 percent increase in annual GDP resulting from the TPP—a not insignificant material benefit, but nonetheless not the sort of world-changing trade deal that the TPP has been billed as by governments. The fervour of the Obama administration in getting the TPP through represents, I think, the recognition that the deal would cement the U.S. de facto as a Pacific nation, as the major partner in the Pacific’s trade deal. To anyone who then questions the U.S.’ Pacific identity and commitment, the U.S. can simply point to the TPP and ask what all the fuss is about. Trade benefits are important, but pale in comparison to the effect that the deal may have on the U.S.’ grand strategy contra China.

There seem to be two further points of interest in relation to the TPP. First, there are signatories to the TPP that do not even touch that ocean, showing, just as with NATO, the necessity of constructed geographic groupings. Second, China is expected to lose approximately $35bn annually through a successful TPP implementation. If the deal was just about increasing incomes through increased trade, China would have been included in the deal. For the deal’s major partner it is about much more than that.

There are, I think, two things that can be taken away from this brief history of the U.S. as a Pacific nation and of the uses of geographic identity descriptors. The first is that U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific should be reassured of the United States’ commitment to the region. As a Pacific nation the United States cannot let other countries it believes not to be Pacific states fundamentally destabilise the region. Second, and more broadly, is the way that other nations themselves may use geographic identity descriptors to align themselves more deeply with allies. This is an important lesson for countries like New Zealand, Australia, and even those nations that do not lie in the Pacific but believe their national interests to be fundamentally affected by stability in the region.

What Is Our Time Here For?: The Meaning of Yale-NUS College and the Liberal Arts

 

Note: This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Octant, Yale-NUS College’s student newspaper. 

This semester at Yale University I’m taking a class called Successful Global Leadership with New York Times columnist and author David Brooks. In class David frequently refers to what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. As he described them in his most recent book, “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed”.

It struck me that how we think about these two virtues will to a large extent determine the way we approach our time at college—the major and classes we choose, how we think about grades, and which student organisations we choose to commit to. Not only that: the way that Yale-NUS College, or any institution for that matter, thinks about these two virtues will determine how it views its mission, and how it educates generations of students after us. Daily life, with its classes, meeting and events, loomed over by exams and papers, can make it all too easy to forget why we are here in the first place. I think that is true not only for us students, but also for faculty and college leadership.

The resume virtues are ever-present in discourse, to the extent that it can be hard to realise there is anything else. As David describes, “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” Juniors are in the midst of applying for penultimate year internships: the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) and our advisers are stressing the things we need to do to land our desired internship, to in turn get the job we want after graduation. The major and classes we choose, the student organizations we join, and the amount of effort we decide to put into different aspects of student life—I would be disingenuous not to admit that my decisions are at least in part determined by how these things may appear on my resume. And the resume virtues are inculcated in us from the top, by our CIPE and major advisers, some of our professors, and even by the thought that Yale-NUS’ long-term impact depends on our own post-graduation professional success.

I think that if we fall into the trap of viewing this institution as a unique fast-track to impressive resume virtues then we will have missed an incredible opportunity to shape our own lives, and to “redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world.” The question asked by Yale-NUS’ inaugural curriculum committee was “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” It was not, let’s be clear, “What must a young person learn in order to get their desired job?”

The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom, in our case—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations, with “inner character”. I’ve come to think that college is, at its core, about beginning to build a wide and sturdy foundation of eulogy virtues, upon which we can build our external and professional lives. I learned this the risky way. With just over a year left before graduating from high school, I left to work at a technology company. I returned not long after, once I’d learned what education seemed to really be about. It took leaving school to show me that there was a difference between “an education” and “becoming educated”, to highlight the parts of school that seemed fundamentally meaningful, and to show me why it was worth devoting four years to college. To put it another way, in the words of Bill Deresiewicz, who visited Yale-NUS earlier this semester: “College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake that work of self-discovery… There’s nothing “academic” about it.”

I am not saying that resume virtues are unimportant; they are. But I believe we are here for something more than that, and that the decisions we make during college should be about those larger ideals first, resumes second. Resumes can be built upon a sturdy understanding of yourself, but I don’t think the reverse is true.

I’m fearful that in the relentless focus on how our time at college will serve our resumes and our careers we will end up wasting the chance to expand our opportunities, and to create the foundations for meaningful lives. Not only that, but I’m fearful that Yale-NUS will forget its mission, falling back on the easy and externally satisfying pursuit of resume virtues for itself as an institution, and for its students. We all play a role in Yale-NUS’ mission, and in setting its tone for decades to come. So, at the very least, let us think about the tone that we want, and whether the decisions we make today are ones we would be proud of when we gather at Yale-NUS in three decades’ time.