New Words, Old Policy: Bush’s Second-Term Approach to Asia
by Herschel Hartz
The foreign policy analysts debated what a Bush reelection victory would mean for US policy toward Asian countries. The answer: more of the same, but in a different rhetoric than when President Bush first took the Presidency. Four years ago, Bush assumed leadership of a nation that was at relative peace with the world, without acts of international terrorism on its own soil and an election that had deeply divided the nation. The President spoke humbly about the world, declaring a tendency to avoid becoming entangled with other countries’ affairs.
Now, in a post-September 11th world, the President spoke boldly about democracy in his first two major addresses since assuming the Presidency for a second term. In his second Inaugural Address, President Bush spoke of an overtly idealistic approach to foreign policy that was based on spreading democracy and liberty around the globe. But even with the bold words, the Address changed nothing when it came to America’s policy toward Asia. The Address never mentioned a single country or continent, let alone the current crises in Asia. It mentioned nothing about the nuclear crisis in North Korea, nor did it speak to the constantly burgeoning trade deficit between the United States and China, which has been raising much interest from both the Left and the Right. The tsunami relief effort was not mentioned, either.
In many Inaugural Addresses, Presidents-elect speak to the core values of America and its foreign policies around the world. In his Address, the President reiterated an American foreign policy that had, for decades, been trying to make the world safe for democracy. How would this apply to Asia, especially when so many leaders before President Bush had spoken about democracy in similarly flattering terms?
From his speech, many of the President’s more active critics pulled out one of the more general statements as an indication that the President would be engaging the United States in more military conflicts down the road. Some Democrats asked whether the President would invade North Korea or seek a more aggressive line with the communists in China. The quotation that created such an uproar was a line that insinuated a new aggressive US role to achieve the end of dictatorships through whatever means possible: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
However, the next line of the speech served to prove his critics wrong, establishing that the attempts to bring democracy to Asia were merely words and thereby not constituting real and significant action. Bush said, “This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.”
What, then, did the Bush Inaugural Address have to say concerning China and North Korea? Throughout the decades, America has always spoken harshly about Chinese human rights violations or North Korean dictatorship, but this has certainly never impeded larger American concerns of a stable relationship with an Asian power like China or national security concerns with North Korea’s nuclear program.
In the President’s 2005 Inaugural Address, he mentioned the word “freedom” twenty-four times. The word “liberty” was used ten times. In contrast, the word “tyranny” was mentioned only five times.
Inaugural Address, President George W. Bush, www.whitehouse.gov
Will the President’s repudiation of past American policy, which supported dictators as the lesser of two evils, prove to be a new aggressive approach to Asia to rid it of tyranny? Probably not, because, in the end, the President has to contend with larger forces, beyond his control, including a nuclear program in North Korea that threatens American security. More likely, American security will always take precedence over any support of democratic movements. As lofty as they sound, if democratic movements do not bring security to America, they are not needed. The large problem with the President’s speech is not with its goal. Few can disagree with the goal of spreading freedom. But how can the President seek to aggressively seek democracy when it conflicts with his administration’s attempts to keep China in check from becoming a larger and growing threat? How can the President seek to promote the development of those Southeast Asian countries when his country is overstretched elsewhere in the world? From the perspective of the Bush administration, disengagement is not the solution. But because American presence is stretched so thin, words must take its place.
President Bush’s Inaugural Address talked about so much but specified absolutely nothing. The analysts could not be surprised by a country that, for years, spoke in high platitudes about Asia but did little to stop human rights abuses. Rhetoric may inspire noble ideals, but it hardly translates to policy.
Just days later, the President surprised few onlookers of US-Asian relations when he put forward a State of the Union address that made no mention of China and only made one short and overlooked reference to North Korea. Normally, a State of the Union Address is a perfect opportunity to specify broad policy approaches. From the State of the Union, foreign policy analysts were struck with how the President failed to match his ideals with definitive policy proposals.
It now seems that saying little, or nothing at all, is the Bush administration’s policy. After four years in which the President traded words with the North Korean regime and raised eyebrows with his declaration that his administration would defend Taiwan by any means necessary, easing tensions is now the new policy. Few public pronouncements are ever made about the nuclear standoff in the Pacific. It seems that the hands-off approach will now take precedence over the former policy of a hands-on approach during the President’s first four years.
President Bush’s Inaugural Address might have given some the impression that American policy in Asia would change. He had no intention of reversing American policy; instead, his goal was to embody years of American policy that had preceded him. One should not expect the marching of freedom into Beijing, where free elections are non-existent, and it would be hard to foresee any military invasion of Pyongyang any time soon. From the President’s perspective, rhetoric serves the purpose. The question for the rest of us is how rhetoric will translate into any difference in US-Asian policy.
Herschel Hartz (2007) is a second-year student at Brandeis University majoring in Politics and History and minoring in African and Afro-American Studies.