Asian Democracy and American Interests

Report Asia

Asian Democracy and American Interests

September 29, 2000 22 min read
Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz

It's really a great honor to be invited to give the B. C. Lee lecture, and to give a lecture in honor of one of the titans of South Korea's incredible economic development-economic development that has led that wonderful ally of ours into a new democratic era.

That is part of what I want to talk to you about tonight. Indeed, it's one of the amazing pieces of good news that we've had and enjoyed at the end of this century, a century that was marked by so much bad news during its first 80 or so years.

The students at the School of Advanced International Studies, where I'm privileged to be dean, are all graduate students. Their average age is 24, and if you stop and do the arithmetic, most of them were barely in high school when the Berlin Wall came down. During the last 10 years, the formative period for their personal experience and knowledge of foreign affairs, they have seen the end of the Soviet Empire in Europe, the emergence of a whole new set of democratic countries in Central Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, the conclusion of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Throughout most of my lifetime, I never expected to see any of those things happen, yet in their short lifetimes, they've seen all of them. The end of the 20th century has been so full of surprises, good surprises, that we have practically ceased to be amazed. We have almost come to take this kind of good news for granted and expect it to continue.

The complacency that this engenders may be potentially dangerous, but at least its causes are understandable, particularly for a younger generation that knows of earlier times only from the history books. What is less understandable, though potentially just as dangerous, is the amnesia about the Cold War that so many in my generation seemed to suffer from, President Clinton notably among them.

Since the very beginning of his Administration, President Clinton has been heard to express the view that during the Cold War, it was so much easier to do foreign policy because the threats were so much clearer. He has been joined in his nostalgia for the supposedly less complicated world of the Cold War by others, most recently by former Senator Bill Bradley, now presidential candidate, who declared in his maiden foreign policy speech of the campaign that "for 50 years after the end of World War II, and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we were sure of one thing. We knew where we stood on foreign policy."

"Now," he said, "when it comes to foreign affairs, things are not so clear. The world's a more complicated place, and it's no longer divided like it once was, into good and evil, clear enemies, obvious friends. The choices are no longer so stark, and stark choices are always the easy ones."

It is astonishing to hear the Cold War so described, for in reality, there was a time when the country was deeply divided over issues of foreign policy, most bitterly over the war in Vietnam, but that was hardly the only thing; also over the commitment of U.S. troops to Europe and Korea, over the Strategic Defense Initiative and arms control, over Central America and nuclear weapons, and over almost every year's budget request from the Department of Defense.

Descriptions of that long conflict as being "clear-cut and simple" are particularly astounding when they come from the leaders of the party of George McGovern. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Democratic Party ceased to be the party of Harry Truman or Scoop Jackson and became instead the party that supported the Mansfield Amendment to remove U.S. troops from Europe, the party that reflexively opposed most of the weapons systems that were critical in the American competition with the Soviet Union, the party that advocated the "nuclear freeze" at a time when the Reagan Administration was trying to convince NATO to proceed with the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces.

Far from believing that the Cold War was a clear-cut struggle between good and evil, the leaders of that party attacked President Reagan as a warmonger and ideologue, because he declared that the Soviet was an evil empire.

I didn't make any of that up; it all happened.

The criticism of Reagan on Cold War policy was no less virulent than the criticism of Reagan for his human rights policy or his alleged lack of a human rights policy. I think it was worst on Latin America, and particularly on Central America, but I experienced it most directly in Asia, where I had the privilege of serving for four years as his Assistant Secretary of State.

I remember going to Korea with President Reagan in 1983. The government of then-President Chun Doo Hwan thought that the way to keep any human rights issues from infecting the visit or getting to the American press was to put all the dissidents under house arrest. Needless to say, that was the only story of our visit, and I was a poor hapless Administration official sent out to brief the traveling press corps on what was going on and to explain what was our human rights policy.

I remember trying to explain that human rights was part of this visit- indeed, a very important part of this visit-and one of President Reagan's most important goals on that trip was to get President Chun to express to him directly his commitment to honor the South Korean constitution and to step down after one term as president. I recall editorials in several newspapers-fortunately, they couldn't attack me personally because I was on background-making fun of hapless State Department officials who thought this was a substitute for human rights policy.

But it does seem to me, with the perspective of 17 years later, that it was a human rights policy: that Chun's commitment, and later carrying through on his commitment, to step down as president has indeed been far more important in resolving human rights problems in Korea than any number of lists of political prisoners that the American President might have taken to him.

I also remember going to the Hill on a regular basis, along with some of you in this room, to be beaten up for our alleged support for the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. I was asked, "Why don't we just cut off all military assistance to the Philippines; why doesn't President Reagan just call up his friend Ferdinand Marcos and tell him to step down and give up power?"

It's not that we didn't, ourselves, share enormous criticisms of Marcos. Indeed, we began increasingly a policy of private and public pressure on Marcos to reform, and I do believe that that policy-and I think it's an important lesson for the U.S. government-contributed in no small measure to emboldening the Philippine people to take their fate in their own hands and to produce what eventually became the first great democratic transformation in Asia in the 1980s. But President Reagan didn't get much credit for that.

I remember even being beaten up by, in another case, only a small minority of congressional Democrats. Most of them were supportive of Taiwan, but not infrequently, we were criticized for supporting a dictatorial regime there.

So on this issue, as on the issues of the Cold War, President Reagan has been vindicated by history. We have seen democratic transformations in the Philippines, in Korea, and in Taiwan. Transformations almost as remarkable as some of the stunning developments of more recent years.

I must say that, unlike the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, things that I never expected to see in my lifetime, I really did believe that we would see change in those countries. I really did believe the argument laid out most eloquently by Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick in her famous article, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," that these authoritarian regimes were open to change and that they would change over time, particularly if we worked on institutional change rather than revolutionary change. I believed that argument was right, and I think it has been vindicated.

But it seems to be even harder for President Reagan to get credit for these developments than for his contribution to the end of the Cold War. Too many people claim these triumphs of democracy in authoritarian regimes happened in spite of Reagan rather than because of him. So I think it's only fair to the memory of that Administration and the great contributions President Reagan made to cite a little bit of what you won't find in Edmund Morris's recent "novel" on the same subject.

In fact, President Reagan placed enormous emphasis on support for democracy, not only in the Soviet empire, but also in those authoritarian regimes that were considered friends of the United States. I remember an obscure but extremely important argument that took place in the early months of the Reagan Administration, when some of the so-called realists in our Administration wanted to do away with the Bureau of Human Rights in the State Department. They viewed it as a troublesome creation of the Carter Administration that did nothing but harass America's friends while ignoring much greater human rights abuses by the Communists and other left-wing dictatorships.

I say so-called realists because it seems to me, and it seemed at the time, that abandoning the cause of human rights in foreign policy would have been a supremely unrealistic thing to do. A policy that pursues only America's so-called interests, as opposed to American ideals-indeed, a policy which assumes that there's a sharp separation between ideals and interests-would have sacrificed an enormous base of domestic support. Even more important, it would have abandoned what was perhaps the most potent instrument the United States possessed for weakening and eventually unraveling the Soviet empire, an instrument more powerful even than our formidable ability to compete militarily.

Thanks in considerable measure to the efforts of President Reagan's old friend at the time, Judge William Clark, who was then Deputy Secretary of State, the Human Rights Bureau was preserved, and it was placed under the dynamic leadership of Elliott Abrams, someone who will probably have to wait even longer than President Reagan did for the credit he deserves in promoting democracy and human rights in places as far afield as Chile and the Philippines. I remember vividly the day that I was first named to be Assistant Secretary State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. I got a call from Elliott, who said, "I hope you're going to stop this policy of coddling Ferdinand Marcos." He was the first person, but by no means the last, who made that suggestion to me.

Perhaps most significantly, in 1982, during President Reagan's historic speech at Westminster to the House of Commons, he proclaimed the promotion of democracy as one of the central goals of American foreign policy and launched the initiative to create the National Endowment for Democracy, which along with its constituent organizations-the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and others- remains one of the most important, and pound for pound one of the most efficient, instruments of American foreign policy today.

What Reagan also understood, and those of us who worked for him understood, was the need for realism in approaching this issue. I can think of at least four things that characterized Reagan's approach to the promotion of democracy. (I prefer that term to "human rights" because it is a broader term and, indeed, the policy was broader.)

The first was this important systemic change as opposed to what I called elsewhere "international human rights casework." I don't mean to make light of international human rights casework. Indeed, President Reagan did quite a bit of important work in that regard, none of it more important, I believe, than the successful effort first to save Kim Dae Jung from prison and then to assist his return to Korea.

As a matter of fact, one of the criticisms of Reagan's human rights policy was that his first official visitor in the White House was the "bloody dictator of South Korea," Chun Doo Hwan. But one of the gains of that visit was in fact the commutation of the sentence on Kim Dae Jung. As important as individual cases are, however, it is clear that systemic change is what we need to be working for hardest, and we need to keep our eye on that.

Second, we understood the limitations of U.S. leverage and the importance of trying to achieve results rather than simply striking a posture that proved in a public way that we supported human rights. The Marcos example, to me, is a very important one. Eventually, Reagan did tell his friend, Ferdinand Marcos, to leave Manila, although he never quite had the heart to do it himself; he had Paul Laxalt do it. But he only did it at the very end when there was every reason to expect that that kind of direction would be listened to.

If we had said, "We are enemies of the Marcos regime; we want to see its demise rather than its reform," we would have lost all influence in Manila and would have created a situation highly polarized between a regime that had hunkered down and was prepared to do anything to survive and a population at loose ends. I think the United States in the Philippines had enormous leverage, much more than we may have had in Indonesia or, surely, than we will have in China. But that leverage has to be used with some recognition of its limitations.

A third thing that we understood was the danger of destabilizing regimes that were on the road to reform. Indeed, that was a limitation on the use of American leverage in the Philippines. I know President Reagan and Secretary Shultz were both intensely impressed by what they considered the very negative example of American human rights policy in Iran. This will always remain a controversy, how much the United States contributed to the demise of the Shah and what followed, but I don't think there's too much argument that as bad as the Shah was, the regime that replaced him made the Shah look like a golden age of human rights and democracy.

We did not want, by withdrawing military assistance or withdrawing general assistance to the Philippines, to create a situation in that country where Ferdinand Marcos could be replaced by the Maoist New People's Army, whose ideology and tactics suggested that their rule might be, in many respects, as bad as the Khmer Rouge had been in Cambodia. It was important to promote reform in the Philippines without destabilizing the country, and that necessarily requires some compromises.

The fourth point which I think we had in mind at all times, and which I think remains valid in those cases where it applies today, was not to use security or our friends' need for security as a pressure point to promote human rights. Instead, by assuring allies like South Korea that the United States would be with them by making them feel secure rather than uncertain of our commitment, we would have more leverage on them in the end. In any case-and South Korea is a very graphic example-it would be no advance of human rights to turn South Korea over to the much more horrible regime in the North.

In a recent and provocative article in Commentary, "Strange Bedfellows: A Guide to the New Foreign Policy Debates," Norman Podhoretz laments the fact not that the issues are no longer clear, but rather that the people with whom he used to be able to agree about foreign policy no longer even agree with one another. Or you might put it another way: Not only is there no longer an enemy like we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, there is no longer a body of opinion that is so reliably wrong as the Left was during the Cold War that one can afford the intellectual laziness of simply disagreeing with whatever they say.

The world of today is vastly different from the Cold War. Nevertheless, I believe there are still important lessons to be learned from that experience, provided we recognize that we are applying them today in very different conditions. We obviously won't learn those lessons if we don't even remember what the issues were or how difficult the decisions were then. But we also can't simply take the experience of the Cold War and apply it as though nothing has changed, or as though the only thing that has changed is that China has taken the place of the Soviet Union and that we need a foreign policy focused on a containment strategy toward China like that toward the Soviet Union.

I do think that China is probably the single most serious foreign policy challenge of the coming decades. I don't think we'll get much guidance, either from President Clinton, who once focused on not coddling the "butchers of Beijing," if you remember that demagoguery from the 1992 campaign, or from what I think is a policy, at times, of mindless engagement that seems to have difficulty placing any limits on China.

To me, the interesting debate today is between those realists who say that the United States has no interest in promoting democracy in China, and in any case has little ability to do so, and those, among whom I would put myself, who believe that we have an interest in China's democratic evolution and a limited but very important ability to support democracy in China, and particularly in Taiwan.

China is an emerging power, though it has not yet become one. It is a mistake to exaggerate China's present strength, but it would be equally a mistake to underestimate China's future potential. Persuading an emerging power that the status quo should change only peacefully has always been a challenge historically. If you think back on the early history of the 20th century, the failure to properly handle the emergence of Germany and Japan as major powers had catastrophic consequences. That is a reminder of the stakes involved, though I do not believe we need to be so pessimistic about the outcome in China's case.

As China's strength grows, it will become increasingly important whether China comes to see that a continuation of a peaceful status quo in the Western Pacific best serves China's own interest or whether it instead seeks to impose its will on the region by threats and intimidation. On balance, I believe it is better to face the challenges of a strong China than a weak one. I think it would be a mistake to treat China like the old Soviet Union during the Cold War, restricting trade in order to deliberately weaken it or to use its human rights leverage. A weaker China might take somewhat longer to become a military competitor, but what we might gain in time we would lose in enmity.

The most important reason, however, for treating China differently than the old Soviet Union is because, unlike the Soviet Union, and unlike the China of Mao Tse-tung, today's China is no longer a completely closed society where the Communist Party and government dominate everything. Like Korea and Taiwan in earlier periods of dictatorial rule, China has a substantial private sector whose scope and sphere is growing. It is in the interest of the United States, and of Taiwan and Hong Kong, to encourage that growth, which is very dependent on trade with the West. To me, that is the most fundamental and most important reason for continuing normal trade relations with China and encouraging Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization.

The American interest in supporting democratic trends in China is more than just a humanitarian one, more than just another case of foreign policy and social work, as my colleague Michael Mandelbaum mischaracterized certain endeavors of the Clinton Administration. A China that governs its own people by force, I think, is much more likely to try to impose its will on its neighbors. Conversely, a China that is democratic is more likely to respect the choice of its neighbors, and its neighbors-including the United States, its neighbor across the Pacific-are more likely to trust a democratic China and accept its growing influence.

There are other reasons why democratic change in China has strategic as well as humanitarian significance. The Chinese Communists already claim the right to govern more than a billion people on the basis of Marxism- Leninism, a doctrine that seems to have about as much legitimacy in China today as the divine right of kings had in England in the early 19th century. That leaves them only with economic growth and nationalism as alternative claims for legitimacy. A government whose legitimacy instead rested on valid claims to be representative would have much less need to make dangerous appeals to nationalism of the kind that we saw last summer after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia.

Finally, and not insignificantly, a democratic China would have a far better chance of coming to terms peacefully with Taiwan. Until then, Taiwan's own success at democracy will be a disturbing example for Beijing's rulers. I was even told a few years ago by a Chinese Communist Party member that what terrifies those old men in Beijing "is the demonstration by Taiwan that Chinese can manage democracy successfully."

In my view, we should stop viewing Taiwan as an obstacle in U.S.-China relations and start viewing it more as an opportunity. If we're going to continue pursuing a one-China policy, as I believe we should, then we should stop saying that we have little ability to support democracy in China when the fate of Taiwan's democracy may very well be in our hands.

For the last 25 years, U.S.-China differences over the Taiwan issue have been successfully managed within a framework that has two essential premises: first, that these differences must be addressed peacefully; second, that they must be resolved by the agreement of both parties, which is to say without any unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan.

That is called the one-China policy, although the policy rests on a fundamental ambiguity concerning the very meaning of "one-China." Both sides have different views of what one-China means, and the United States used to scrupulously avoid advancing any view of its own. One-China is supposed to be open to any interpretation that the two sides can agree on.

Although today's circumstances are vastly different from those that prevailed when the Shanghai Communiqué was signed in 1972, the one-China policy remains the best available framework for handling a difficult and sensitive issue. It is a framework that preserves freedom, democracy, and prosperity in Taiwan, although it denies the island the formal independence that many of its citizens understandably desire. At the same time, by avoiding a direct affront to mainland China's sovereignty, it helps to avoid military conflict.

But it will be more difficult to sustain this framework in the post-Cold War period because of enormous changes that have taken place on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Of these changes, the most important has been the establishment of genuine democracy in Taiwan. As welcome as that development is, democratization complicates Taiwan's dealings with the mainland. The government in Taiwan must now answer to its people, the great majority of whom are native Taiwanese, with little attachment to China.

From the PRC side, fear that pro-independence sentiment might lead to a de jure assertion of independence by Taiwan has apparently strengthened the view in some quarters that the aim of unification must be pressed more rapidly. This stiffening of China's approach to Taiwan probably also reflects the changed geopolitical situation since the end of the Cold War. But China no longer needs the United States to balance a threatening neighbor that may instead revel in the prospect of its own growing power, and one suspects that they sense weakness in the posture of the Clinton Administration.

Even when China had much to fear from the Soviet Union, the United States didn't use its leverage terribly well. All our talk about China as a card to be played in U.S.-Soviet relations obviously increased China's own sense of its bargaining power with the United States. George Shultz, who described his own attitude correctly as a marked departure from the so-called China card policy, observed that at the time he became Secretary of State, "When the geo-strategic importance of China became the conceptual prism through which Sino-American relations were viewed it was almost inevitable that American policymakers would become overly solicitous of Chinese interests, concerns, and sensitivities."

"On the basis of my own experience," Shultz wrote, "I knew it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on a relationship for its own sake. A good relationship must emerge from the ability to solve substantive problems of interest to both countries."

In one negotiating session with Henry Kissinger in 1974, Deng Xiaoping, referring to the American use of the China card and its dealings with Moscow, said, "You owe us a debt." Yet, in that case as in so many others, China managed to convince the United States-or to help Americans to convince themselves-that we somehow needed the relationship more than they did when, in my view, the situation was more nearly the reverse.

To me, it remains a mystery why the United States needed any help from China to reach two strategic arms limitation agreements that conceded large strategic advantages to the Soviet Union, the second of which, indeed, was so deeply flawed that it never gained Senate ratification. It is much more obvious what China gained from the relationship during a time when the Soviet Union was threatening preventive war.

Most amazingly of all, it seems to be we Americans who sought a hasty conclusion of the normalization negotiations in late 1978. If any side needed normalization then, it was China: a China that was preparing to invade Vietnam, a country that had just signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union.

But again, the United States, acting as though the U.S.-China relationship was more important to us than to them, produced an easily predictable result and lost an opportunity to achieve clarity on the crucial issue of arms sales to Taiwan. This led just a few years later to the crisis that culminated in the August 1982 communiqué on arms sales, an ambiguous resolution of that issue that rests on conflicting interpretations by the two sides.

Clarity is not always a virtue, and often ambiguity is a practical way to achieve an agreement with which each side can live. The very term "one-China" is ambiguous, and the United States should leave any attempts at clarification to the parties themselves. In fact, by adopting the PRC's "three no's" when he was in Shanghai in 1998, I believe President Clinton foreclosed some possible avenues of agreement. More dangerously, he undermined the confidence of the Taiwanese in earlier assurances that we would not pressure them to negotiate.

We have no interest in prolonging their disagreements, but the more the United States seems to be pressing Taiwan to negotiate with China, the more fearful Taiwan becomes and the more we encourage the PRC to intensify its pressure. We need to encourage maximum patience on this issue. Serious movement will only come if the PRC offers inducements to Taiwan, not pressure.

Indeed, the record strongly suggests that the PRC and Taiwan, not unlike the Arab states and Israel, deal best with one another when they have to take responsibility for their own negotiating positions, with U.S. encouragement but without U.S. pressure. Under those conditions, they negotiated a joint membership in the Asian Development Bank in 1985 and in APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) in 1991.

Ambiguity on the definition of one-China is desirable, and ambiguity on the subject of arms sales is probably unavoidable, but there are two areas involving American intentions where I believe ambiguity no longer serves a useful purpose. The first concerns the U.S. attitude toward the use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue, and the second concerns our attitude toward Taiwanese independence.

A senior Clinton defense official reportedly told the Chinese a few years ago that America's response to the use of force against Taiwan would "depend on the circumstances." The implication was that if a crisis was provoked somehow by Taiwan, we would do nothing. At the same time, many in Taiwan believe that U.S. support remains unconditional. We seem to have indulged misleading impressions on both sides.

I think it would be a strategic as well as a moral mistake for the United States to ever let China use force to have its way with Taiwan. At the same time, while making it clear to Taiwan that we will not abandon it or force it to negotiate under pressure, I think we should also convey that we expect reasonable behavior in return, which includes most certainly avoiding any unilateral declaration of independence.

There are some who wish that the Chinese civil war had ended with a more complete Communist victory so that we wouldn't have to deal with what they, along with the leadership in Beijing, call this "Taiwan obstacle." I read that one of my predecessors as Assistant Secretary of State is reported once to have wished, in jest and in frustration, that a tidal wave might literally wash this problem away, but that view is as unrealistic as it is morally blind.

Once we accept the hand that we have been dealt, obstacles can be turned into opportunities. We will not have peace in the Taiwan Strait if this promising democracy is made to disappear. We will only have peace when it is accepted as a fact of life. When that happens, the friends of Taiwan should also be able to see why it is genuinely better for Taiwan to be joined with China, pointing a way to the kind of government that the great Chinese people deserve.

Let me conclude with a final word about the notion that democracy has no place in Asia, that democratic values are somehow inconsistent with Asian values. I was very moved by a passage in Shultz's memoirs describing an incident that took place at the May 1985 economic summit in Bonn. At one point, Shultz writes, President François Mitterrand of France expressed his skepticism about economic summits and said that he might not come anymore because they were worthless.

No one took him all that seriously, feeling that it was a bit of an act and a way of expressing his frustration; but after a while, Prime Minister Nakasone asked for the floor. Basically, what he said was: "Here you are, Mitterrand, living in a country that has been democratic for a long time, surrounded by other democracies. You meet with your peers all the time, so it's one thing for you to be cavalier about these meetings. Look at my situation. What other major country in Asia can you really call a democracy? This is 1985. Japan is struggling with this Western concept; we're making it work, but there is no peer group around us. We have to go all the way to Australia or New Zealand to find a clear-cut democratic counterpart. So these annual economic summits of the major countries that are free and democratic are of tremendous importance, of tremendous symbolic significance in Japan. They mean a great deal to me and to us, and they should mean a great deal to you, because Japan is a country that is part of this democratic system."

Indeed, it does mean a great deal to us that Japan is part of this democratic system. It means a great deal to us that in the 15 years since Prime Minister Nakasone spoke those words, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan have joined the ranks of Asian democracies. It will mean a great deal to us and to the whole region, and to me personally, if Indonesia can overcome the enormous problems it is struggling with today and establish a stable democracy in that part of the world.

Japanese democracy is different from American democracy, and Asian democracy in general may emerge with characteristics that are distinctly Asian. Perhaps Asian democracy will come up with a different answer, maybe a better answer than we have come up with for balancing individualism and social responsibility.

But Asian democracy, like American democracy, will reflect the superior strength of governments that are based on the will of the governed. And it will reflect the powerful desire of people to be free from the tyranny of others: a desire that is neither an Asian value nor a Western value, but a universal one.


Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz