The unpopularity of the United States is rising around the world, not excluding Northeast Asia. Donald Trump is seen as a loose cannon, arousing distrust in allies and anxiety among potential adversaries that are uncertain of his intentions. Yet, his impact is not a total departure from earlier skepticism and even animosity against the US role in Asia. To grasp it, we need to delve into critical attitudes against US foreign policy that have been shaped over decades, if not longer. This Special Forum focuses on perceptions of the United States, concentrating on its policies in four countries: China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. The first two are recent enemies rife with adversarial thinking. The next two are US allies, supportive of the alliance but nursing some grievances. The goal is not to achieve a balanced assessment of attitudes in one country or another, but pinpoint sources of blame, which could be reinforced in a period of increasing distrust and demonization of US leadership.
This Special Forum is not an historical exercise to trace the evolution of critical views against US policies. Rather, the focus is on how past critiques remain alive in our time, with the prospect of further aggravation under new circumstances. Whether attention turns to the dangerous situation in North Korea, the legacy of WWII, the outcome of the end of the Cold War, or other matters of regional consequence, the way the US role is currently depicted in official statements, the mass media, and academic analyses warrants our attention as we prepare ourselves for further flare-ups of anti-Americanism ahead.
One can blame the United States for its historical narrative, which diminishes the honor and glory of other countries’ past. One can blame it too for standing in the way of the hopes for forging—or perhaps, reviving—a region that truly reflects its rising stature and aspirations: Asianism for Japan, a united Korean peninsula on which the Northeast Asia is centered for South Korea, a Sinocentric region—“China Dream”—for China, and a Eurasian integration for Russia. These criticisms are centered less on what the US role in Asia has so far been, and more on the way US-led internationalism shapes the regional environment. Of course, blame can be directed at recent and ongoing US behavior as well. Many possibilities exist for finding serious fault with US policies and attitudes.
The four countries in our purview each consider themselves distinct civilizations. As they rapidly rose in global stature—Japan in the 1920s-40s and then the 1960s-80s, Russia (the Soviet Union) in the 1950s-80s and then the 2000s-2010s, China in the 1950s-70s and then the 1990s-2010s, and South Korea in the 1980s-2000s—their leaders grew increasingly enamored with the idea that they could assert civilizational pride. Yet, one fundamental obstacle and multiple secondary barriers stood in the way. The US conception of the international community proved problematic to the reassertion of one’s own civilization, and neighboring states’ suspicions of the purposes of this new cultural assertiveness posed an added complication. While the charges against the United States often cited cultural arrogance, and suggested that its economic or military policies were problematic, they can arguably be traced back to frustrations with struggling to revive and venerate one’s own civilization.
Another line of criticism is populist particularism in opposition to US-led universalism. The United States has been perceived as a threat to regime legitimation through its cultural hegemony in diverse guises: 1) treating national cultures as exotic with no staying power; 2) trumpeting modernization theory as a universal solvent, leading to convergence in social structure; 3) judging variations in political systems from a “narrow” set of assumptions about democracy and human rights; 4) applauding at least some movements and demonstrations indicative of an upsurge in civil society; and 5) defending its foreign policy adventures as if realpolitik matters little, as they serve the spread of “universal values” even when this seems hypocritical to many.
Communists and their successors in Russia, apart from short stretches in the late 1980s and early 1990s, treated the US challenge to their regimes as serious, even existential. The battle over ideology and national identity intensified, even if there were no sharp differences over security. As Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin grew more assertive in forging their own civilizational narratives, the natural corollary has been to demonize the United States more aggressively. This blame game is readily seen in writings in Chinese and Russian in recent years. Our coverage begins with Danielle Cohen’s analysis of how Chinese national identity is driving recent criticism of the United States and its role in Asia. It then turns to the analysis of Chris Miller on how Russian views have turned more negative toward the United States. We can see parallels in perceptions from these two countries.
South Koreans and Japanese were emboldened to challenge the United States more openly, too. The democratic movement of the 1980s, the NGOs’ struggles to turn South Korea away from the negative legacies from its dictatorial era, and the recurrent opportunities to blow up events associated with US “arrogance” allowed progressives in South Korea to advance narratives critical of US thinking. In contrast, Japanese conservatives, since the 1980s, steered discussion of the United States with more ambivalence, especially as their foreign policy objectives increasingly counted on a close alliance. Despite the difference in who has been driving the narrative, striking parallels can be found between these two cases.
The deepest grievances held by some in Japan against the United States center on the war period, but they have been kept at a low level of intensity. This contrasts with the harsh critiques of the US impact on their history in China and Russia. The anger of South Korean progressives toward the United States exceeds that of either end of the political spectrum in Japan, but falls far short of the animosity verbalized by the authorities and widely accepted in China. The degree to which the existing world order is attacked correlates well with the intensity of the blame placed on the US role.
The coverage of South Korea by Mark Tokola concentrates on refuting views held largely by Korean progressives, which implicate the United States in supporting the country’s authoritarian past. Drawing extensively on US intelligence reports of the Cold War era, Tokola demonstrates the persistent struggle of officials to steer South Korea on a democratic track. How negative views of the US historical role are presented in Korean sources is not explained, but most readers should be familiar with this recurrent theme. The coverage of Japan by Gilbert Rozman faces the challenge of uncovering just what is negative about Japanese writings about the United States—differentiating progressive and conservative blaming of an ally while generally accepting the necessity of the alliance. This leads to the airing of doubts about US leadership—building in 2007-08 toward Bush and toward Obama at various stages of his presidency—beyond what would seem justified.
The Chinese Case: Danielle Cohen
Even when Sino–US relations are at their best, many in China tend to “blame” the United States—or, at a minimum, distrust it—for reasons that Cohen observes are basic divergences between the two countries’ national identities. Chinese identity will continue to drive its perceptions of national interests and shape its views of Sino–US relations, the Asia–Pacific region, and its position in the international system. The blame game is unlikely to end anytime soon. Given that the United States perceives itself to be competing with China, analysts believe that the United States is determined to preserve its hegemonic position and prevent China from exercising its hard-earned rule-making power. From this perspective, the United States seeks to perpetuate the existing world order, which it designed to advance US national interests and institutionalize Western values. In the Chinese view, however, some aspects of the current world order are “inequitable” and “irrational,” requiring reform because they prioritize the values and interests of Western great powers. Cohen finds that many in China view the US rebalance as the source of increasing regional Sino–US competition and blame the United States for “meddling and provoking conflict.” They perceive US efforts to shore up relations with South Korea and Japan in an effort to maintain regional hegemony by containing and encircling China—tactics inspired during the Cold War.
Chinese analysts argue that North Korea’s decision to develop and test nuclear weapons is a rational response to the security threat posed by the United States (and its ally, South Korea). The unwillingness of the United States to cancel its joint military exercises with South Korea as a precondition to halting North Korea’s nuclear tests hardens the North Korean position. An alternative view refrains from blaming the United States directly, but argues that North Korea pursues nuclear weapons due to an insecure international environment, and that it should not have to abandon its nuclear program until it acquires a security guarantee. Blaming the United States for the North Korean impasse—in which Washington has a strong case for defensive behavior—is indicative of China’s deeply embedded hostility.
Chinese observers blame the United States for engaging in cultural imperialism by pushing “universal values,” based on Western liberal democracy and free market capitalism. They believe that the United States interpreted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of Eastern Europe as an ideological triumph of Western values over socialist principles. Some argue that US leaders concluded they had a “responsibility” to spread the values of liberal democracy and market economy to more “backward” states, through cultural exchanges, embedding American values in global political and economic structures, and explicitly exporting the American value system. They are cynical about US motives, spouting lofty sounding principles to justify strategic interests grounded in realist power politics.
Widespread Chinese skepticism over the universality of Western values and the view that Chinese and US/Western concepts are at odds strengthen the perception of competition between China and the United States for the future world order. However, tactical cooperation may still bear fruit, as appeared to be the case in the recent Trump-Xi summit. At the same time, the fundamental dismissal of US thinking and behavior as wrong-headed and contradictory to China’s interests makes wholesale reconciliation unimaginable and opens door to a more antagonistic approach as China grows more confident and opportunities for its assertiveness arise.
The Russian Case: Chris Miller
Chris Miller first notes Sergey Lavrov’s argument that the United States is at least partially to blame for the persistence of disagreements between Russia and its Asian neighbors: Since the establishment of the US alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region after World War II, many Russian analysts and political leaders have blamed the United States for Moscow’s inability to establish deeper relations with Asian neighbors. Lately, Miller notes, some Russian analysts interpret Japan’s willingness to participate in anti-Russian sanctions as further evidence of Japan’s subservience to US foreign policy interests. They focus not on the distance between the two parties’ negotiating positions but on what they see as Tokyo’s fixation on retaining close ties to the United States. Blaming Washington proved easier for Russians than candidly exploring what might be advisable for a compromise that might work with Tokyo.
In the case of the Korean Peninsula, the pattern is similar. Russian analysts criticize Washington for pursuing policies that heighten confrontation while downplaying differences that Seoul and Tokyo have with Pyongyang. The true source of the dilemma, many suggest, is not the Kim family, but the refusal of the United States to recognize their right to rule. Given US policy of regime change, analysts believe that the continuation of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is understandable. Whenever negotiations between North Korea and the other members of the Six-Party Talks have helped to reduce tension, they have credited the improvement to a softening US policy rather than changes in North Korea. Pyongyang’s interests are seen as immutable and even legitimate, whereas Washington’s are susceptible to change. Interpreting the North Korean question solely through the lens of its ties with Washington, however, fails to account for Pyongyang’s terrible relations with other neighbors.
US efforts to “contain” China pose two dilemmas for Russia. First, the United States is seeking to strengthen an economic order in which China is forced to play by Washington’s rules. In such a system, Russia plays at best a secondary and contingent role. Second, US efforts to bolster its military presence in Asia, especially its missile defense systems, are interpreted as threatening Russia’s interests and regional stability. Moscow fears a US military buildup in Asia more than Chinese rearmament. The United States maintains a technological edge over Russian forces, while China’s defense spending surge has benefitted Russian arms producers. Further, the US buildup in the Asia-Pacific to “contain” China could be easily deployed against Russia. The recent deployment of THAAD in South Korea is seen as upsetting the regional balance.
Russia’s “turn to the East” has been stymied, to a considerable extent, by factors blamed on the United States. According to Russia, Japan and South Korea have yielded to US pressure, rather than acting in accord with their national interests. The US containment of China and drive for “regime change” in North Korea are causing tensions that undermine Russian aims for a multilateral security framework and geoeconomic realignment. Thus, casting blame on the post-Cold War policies of the United States is in many ways reminiscent of the earlier Soviet accusations. As Miller clearly conveys, Russia’s “Cold War” thinking led it astray in the 1970s-80s as East Asia grew more diverse, and it is narrowing its options again just when many states are seeking new cooperation.
The South Korean Case: Mark Tokola
US and Korean attitudes towards one another are largely based on the understanding of their shared past. Particularly among the older generations in South Korea, gratitude remains for the US sacrifices during the Korean War; but there is a belief, largely among progressives, that postwar US support for authoritarian figures including presidents Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan at the expense of the country’s democratic transition still matters. This distrust could make policy cooperation more difficult between the US government and a future Korean government, particularly a progressive one. This is a warning that few heed at present.
Based on his research into previously classified documents, Tokola concludes that the US government, although primarily interested in short-term political stability, was also committed to Korea’s long-term democratic development, and more interested in the overall welfare of Korea than propping up any individual leader or party. The findings tell us about long-term US attitudes and can serve as an antidote to both deep-seated misunderstandings and short-term political moods. When the US government decided it had to act, it sided with Korean students and protesters, not their leader with whom the US had worked with for decades. This was even the case under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, anti-communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and the Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles—a team rarely accused of harboring leftist sympathies. Contrary to claims that the US government orchestrated Park Chung-hee’s military coup, documentary evidence shows that it intended to side with the Korean government and military in putting down the coup.
The 2010 Wikileaks release of over 200,000 State Department cables revealed that there is remarkably little difference between what the US Government says publicly and what it says privately, Tokola adds. Referring to Chun Doo-hwan as a “strongman,” US classified documents blamed him for mismanaging the situation in the mid-80s.
South Koreans in their 40s remember Park’s assassination, Chun’s rule, and the Gwangju massacre. They may be prone to misunderstandings based on public sources. Tokola draws closely on documented history to reveal that, despite US government’s misjudgments and errors, those who look for evidence of US support for authoritarian regimes in South Korea will find compelling evidence showing that the United States generally favored democracy over rule by individuals, even when they claimed to be US allies. This was a pragmatic as well as an ethical choice. US officials consistently believed that authoritarianism in Korea would lead to political instability. The evidence shows that it dealt with authoritarian regimes out of necessity, not out of choice. Blaming past US behavior and using it as an excuse for current distrust is unjustified, Tokola insists.
The Japanese Case: Gilbert Rozman
Japan has never been so closely attached to the United States as it is today. Despite ongoing challenges to the US-led international community, Japan is unlikely to express its dissent when the alternative is a community hostile to its interests and identity. Yet, Rozman finds that Japanese misgivings about US national identity and its impact on their bilateral relations should not be overlooked. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the shadow of “Asian values” hung over relations. Subsequently, the shadow of “revisionism” has proven difficult fully to shake. While the ideal of the “East Asian Community” or Asianism may no longer be realizable, the quest for a “normal Japan” keeps blaming the past US role.
Many in Japan call for an independent state with self-respect and a self-confident people. This means replacing the world history narrative composed of the US occupation of Japan, the impact of which lingers to this day—from recalling the legacies of anti-Japan racism, recognizing the self-defensive nature of Japan’s war behavior, replacing a masochistic outlook on Japan’s history, setting aside US illusions about the righteousness of its own history, faulting Japan’s mass media, to awakening to the reality that Japan is an isolated country.
Why should the Japanese blame the United States? The progressive movement guided by pacifist ideology has kept decrying the military thinking in Washington. The revisionist conservative forces have split with Washington in recollecting history, gaining more clout since the 1990s even as they have grown more appreciative of the Japan-US alliance. The conservatives’ quest for a resurgent Japanese civilization identity is keeping afloat old suspicions.
Conservative thinking about US views of the past makes the following criticisms. US narratives about Japan fail to appreciate the positive contribution it made to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. In contrast to US interpretations that the US anti-imperialism and victory against Japan made the region stable, free, and prosperous after 1945, Japanese insist on taking credit in this period for national liberation, founding of modernization, and regional integration. A persistent theme is that Japan was left with no option but to enter the war.
The left is more concerned about entrapment. The assumption that US policies toward Japan are zero-sum, obliging Japan to pay a heavy price, has persisted to today, casting doubt on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and on collective self-defense. For progressives, the US model is obscured by distrust—for instance, of the security state. To the extent that conservatives idolize the kokutai or a strong state, the US model is disavowed and even blamed for damaging the essence of Japan’s own national identity, which must be reasserted.
With the surge of Japan’s “bubble economy,” its claims of uniqueness and superiority appeared on both sides of the political spectrum. This included critiques of US culture, which warned that it endangered Japanese society and caused social pathologies—including lack of harmony—and that Japan had to be more vigilant. The Japanese held on to notions of state-society harmony, which many saw as threatened by the US model of capitalism. Pressure to change economic policies was perceived as a threat to the domestic social order, and for conservatives, to rebuilding the kokutai. Notions of a unique social organization fueled belief in a singular outlook on history, Asia, and other identity themes, serving as fertile soil for blaming its ally. Rozman argues that Japan is struggling to assert a distinctive civilization in contrast to that of the United States.
The past decade has witnessed waves of discomfort with the United States against the background of three other lingering concerns: misgivings about the war against Iraq generally buried in the context of Koizumi’s embrace of Bush; a feeling of comeuppance over the global financial crash caused by the United States, following more than a decade of US condescension over Japan’s inability to extricate itself from economic stagnation; and, more recently, disbelief over the election of Donald Trump despite Abe’s quick attempts to establish necessary rapport. The most recent wave was directed at the Obama administration, doubting not only its role as an Asian power but also its commitment to realist principles in policies toward Beijing, Seoul, and Moscow. A groundswell of misgivings about US policies suggested a dearth of internationalism, weakening the force of centrist and globalized ideals. In searching for an explanation, Rozman turns to unease about Japan’s own national identity and its lack of trust in a shared identity with the one country of overriding importance.
How have Japanese distanced themselves from the United States? At least six ways are notable: 1) insisting on cultural distinctiveness often tinged with its own superiority; 2) pursuing East Asian regionalism with an ambiguous US role; 3) blaming the United States’ arrogance or hegemonic approach in bilateral relations; 4) not accepting US ideals at face value for the international community; 5) resenting US intervention in Japan’s bilateral relationships as unbalanced; and 6) suspecting that the US objective in criticisms of Japan is hostile to its autonomy and national identity. The Japanese are searching for a sense of national identity that makes them proud of their history, gives them confidence as an active contributor to the regional order, and succeeds in the long-elusive goal of equalizing relations with the United States.