American foreign policy is abandoning its successful historical roots. Since the late nineteenth century the United States has pursued expansionist policies in Asia. American businessmen have sought markets for their products. American missionaries have looked for souls to save. American strategists have reached for bases they could use to project the nation's military power. Historians generally agree that American imperialism has deep roots in the Pacific, and the peoples of the region frequently describe the United States in precisely these terms.
But the United States has also distinguished itself from other actors. More than any other nation in the twentieth century, the United States has promoted, defended, and sometimes imposed multilateral institutions for free trade and collective security in Asia. In 1899 American Secretary of State John Hay called for all the major powers in the region to limit their territorial acquisition, affirm local governance, and establish an "Open Door" for trade. In 1900 the United States joined an eight-nation military coalition that repressed the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in China, and restored the Open Door on the mainland, including the continuance of the Chinese imperial dynasty.
During the next three decades the United States promoted a system of arbitration for political disputes in the region and a network of cooperative agreements for managing trade and development. American president William Howard Taft (1909-1913) popularized the term "dollar diplomacy" – the United States used loans and legal agreements to encourage economic development throughout the region. Washington also pushed for naval disarmament, especially after the First World War, and other efforts to limit warfare in the Pacific. Americans wanted to make Asia part of what they envisioned as a global "civilized" system of increased trade and stable national borders. The United States would become a leading economic power in Asia, working with many partners from the region, preventing efforts at militaristic dominance and economic autarchy, especially from the old European empires.
After the Second World War the United States followed a similar pattern, with more direct force and investment capital. Washington nurtured a regional system of industrial production and free trade built around key hubs in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. In the late 1970s the People's Republic of China became a part of this system as well, and by the 1990s it began to replace the United States as the leading producer, trader, and financier for many parts of the Pacific. The postwar "Asian miracle" was an American-sponsored policy designed to increase U.S. power and consumption by fostering cooperation, openness, and production among diverse countries. Washington provided a military shield, cheap capital, and political legitimacy. Democracy was a frequent by-product, after periods of strong-man rule designed to embed basic institutions of capitalism, particularly protections for private property and business profit-seeking.
The mix of capitalism and collective security that the United States promoted in Asia for a century was not perfect, and it disproportionately benefited Americans and their closest allies. Nonetheless, it worked in many key strategic areas. It contained the spread of communism, and after 1953 it limited major wars. It raised living standards across the region and it provided the resources for countries like Japan, South Korea, and especially China to rise as vibrant economic competitors to the United States. Most impressive, the American mix of support for capitalism and collective security eradicated the nineteenth century system of foreign empires and replaced it with a collection of independent, empowered nation-states. The contemporary actors in Asia are very unequal in wealth and power, but from Vietnam and Indonesia to Taiwan and South Korea they are stubbornly sovereign in their decision-making. Asia is run by Asians in a way that has powerfully helped Americans too.
That history has come to a decisive end. And it is not because of President Donald Trump alone. His policies toward the Asia-Pacific region are a consequence of rising popular discontent with the costs of maintaining America's foreign commitments. Voters throughout the United States falsely perceive a zero-sum trade-off between American and Asian prosperity; if citizens in China and South Korea live better, Americans fear they will live worse. They fear their jobs will be lost to "outsourcing" in Asia, despite an American economy that is operating at full employment (the most recent national unemployment rate is below four percent.)
Racial fears, long present in American history, have also risen to accompany economic anxiety. White Americans, who will become a minority of the national population in the next two decades, have revolted against alleged anti-White and anti-Christian policies. These xenophobic attitudes manifest themselves in broad support for stricter immigration restrictions and limitations on diversity in education and social policy. Accusations that Asian countries, including loyal allies like South Korea and Japan, have "conned" the United States with unfair trade practices play to these attitudes. The same is true for popular claims that these countries should "defend themselves."
Americans assume that if they construct walls against immigration, initiate trade wars, and reduce their military commitments they will continue to reap the benefits of the system they are undermining. That is the paradox of the current moment. Americans want the historic benefits of their internationalism in Asia, while they defect from the commitments that have seeded these conditions. Americans have shifted from multilateral institution-builders to free riders on those same institutions. President Trump echoes self-serving popular attitudes when he expects allies, like South Korea, to change their trade policies without reciprocal U.S. concessions. He embodies the self-centeredness of Americans when expects North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons for the simple benefit of a hastily arranged meeting with the American leader.
Current U.S. policy in Asia is a response to domestic populist impulses, and it largely abandons the historical framework for U.S. activities in the region. Americans have not yet felt the costs of this shift in lost allies, closed markets, trade wars, and rising military conflict. In the future, with a new presidential administration, we can expect a reversion to more historical internationalist policies, which serve U.S. interests much better.
Severed relationships with former allies will be very difficult to repair. The future for U.S. foreign policy in Asia will lie between the nativism of today, and the multilateralism of yesterday, with far less effective outcomes for the United States. The relative peace and prosperity of the region over the last half-century will not be repeated in a more unstable, competitive, and economically difficult future. The United States will remain a major Asian power, with less dominance and fewer friends.