Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Asia's Rise Should Be Our Sputnik Moment

By Eric LeePublished May 6, 2018

As the Asia-Pacific region becomes the world's next geopolitical and economic center, America must forge new agreements and strive for more engagement and integration through shrewd diplomacy while making necessary investments in its workforce and capabilities at home.

From new factories sprawling up every other day on the coasts of Vietnam to startup culture burgeoning in the streets of Singapore to the reestablishment of millennia-old Silk Road trade routes, Asia is poised to turn out over 40% of world economic output by 2030. And with over 60% of world economic growth today already coming from the Asia-Pacific region, it goes beyond a doubt that any country willing to prosper in this new era must get its foreign policy in this region right by shifting its focus eastward.

But alas, America is failing in this regard, as conservatives kowtow to newfound Trumpian isolationism and aimless arms spending increases and liberals preach political correctness and safe spaces on college campuses. There does not seem to be any sense of urgency nor strategic pragmatism for dealing with the challenges that lie ahead, as other powers grow, invest, and invent to challenge what up until recently seemed like a unipolar Pax Americana. Neither faction in American government today has an answer to this growing challenge, and their disaccord and general ineptitude grow worse every day, as the world's epicenter slowly shifts to the Asia-Pacific.

As the economic might and geopolitical position of China strengthen, the middle kingdom increasingly contests American supremacy in this region. In response, many of those in government today (especially those on the right) cry out for more defense spending—more missiles and aircraft carriers, tanks and fighters. While such concerns are duly noted, their focus on military spending is utterly misguided. If America is poised to succeed in Asia going forward, it will not simply be by the sword or the threat thereof but shrewd diplomacy and engagement. As we've seen with recent successes such as the Iran deal, the prowess and skill of the diplomatic corps—the foreign service and lifetime functionaries—matter more than anything else.

As renowned author, Robert D. Kaplan, wrote right after the release of last year's budget by the Trump administration, giving the armed forces and mere hard power a disproportionate foreign policy role while hollowing out civilian agencies like the State Department will jeopardize any chance America has at staying relevant as a world superpower. The US did not win the Cold War by outspending the Soviets on guns and missiles, but we did so primarily by strategically cooperating with our allies and partners to bring unparalleled prosperity by funding the Marshall Plan and establishing the liberal economic order through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and subsequently the World Trade Organization (WTO). We will not get anywhere by simply boosting the military budget by another $50 billion while we leave such agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

While Americans of all political leanings must agree that many have been left behind by the rapid changes brought upon by technological progress, regional integration, and globalization, as CEO and entrepreneur Jack Ma says, this is not simply a fault attributable to America's openness vis-a-vis trade and economic integration in the past several decades. As Ma asserts, "in the past 30 years, America has had 13 wars at a cost of $14.2 trillion." By squandering our wealth in endless foreign military quagmires and defunding long-standing systems of public education and infrastructure, America has failed to make the necessary investments internally on its own citizens. Staying competitive economically and technologically is as crucial as it ever has been today, and America can only achieve such competitiveness by investing in itself. Moreover, in tandem with such national investment, it needs to complete the "Pivot to Asia" that the Obama administration began almost a decade ago.

So, while the anger of the white working class is more than warranted, there is nobody else but America's past leaders to blame. The resurgent protectionism and isolationism that the Trump presidency has triumphed can only hurt the country's long-term standing in the world. As China inches towards expanding its own zone of influence, the United States must remain engaged from the Straits of Malacca to the ports of Incheon, not only for the survival of liberal democratic values that only it can defend but because it is crucial for its own survival as well.