Full Interview with Michael Auslin

Full Transcript:

ZY: Thank you, Dr. Auslin, for joining us. We are really pleased to be able to interview you for The Beacon. Just to start off, you taught in Yale’s History Department for 7 years. What was that experience like?

MA: Well, it was my first job so a lot of it was a learning experience. It was a learning experience in an incredibly fast-paced, intellectually demanding environment. When you’re young, and this is your first opportunity to be on the other side of the desk, everything is new. What made it very easy was the quality of the students—the ability of students to not only handle hard material but to grapple with it. From a political perspective, I was here on 9/11. In the succeeding years, there was a lot of campus ferment. There were a lot of things that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise, including the growth of some conservative student organizations and a greater acceptance on the part of a number of people of America’s role in the world. At the same time, there was incredible dissent against that. Campus was pretty riven and conservatives in the History Department, as probably in any department, were in the decided minority and probably did not do as good a job as they could have of really presenting alternative views on these significant nationally historic questions. From that perspective, it always felt like a bit of a missed opportunity and a disappointment that we were here at this moment when we should have used Yale and the classroom and all of our discussions to have a serious debate about America’s role in the world. Instead, we missed out on a lot of that.

ZY: Sure. You are a currently Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. What led you to make the switch from a university environment to a DC think tank?

MA: I had gone to college in DC at Georgetown, so I was always predisposed towards policy issues. Most students who decide to go to Georgetown will stay in Washington. They want to be part of the political, or policy, world. I took a detour into academia. The type of academia I really wanted to do at Yale was liberal arts. After 9/11 and as the decade wore on, the pull and the sirens of policy and the importance of it started pulling me back towards DC. And so, I had to decide if I wanted to stay in academia, if I wanted to continue teaching history, if I wanted to join the government, if I wanted to be a voice in policy. I began exploring it and had a couple of job offers in DC. I decided to make the jump, which is not a particularly common thing to do at many Ivy League, liberal arts schools. I think it was the right thing for me, and everything I learned at Yale and understood about argumentation and using history, I bring to the job in DC. I think of them for me as actually complimentary and not oppositional.

ZY: So you have had several dozen columns published in the Wall Street Journal on Asian affairs. Which are you most proud of?

MA: First of all, I am probably more proud of my non-Asian columns, such as columns I have written on Augustus, baseball, and Dante. I wrote a piece on the Reagan ranch after visiting a few months ago. I think it was Leon Uris, a famous midcentury author, who wrote a piece he called “The Sunday Gentleman.” That was back in England in the 18th to 19th century. If you were in debtors’ prison, you couldn’t come out except for one day each week on Sunday when you were not held liable for any of your debts. So these men, who otherwise were locked up, were Sunday gentlemen. They could walk free on Sundays. He said writing the columns and pieces he really loved–which were not his novels–were his Sunday gentlemen work. That’s how I feel. Asia is the job that I do, but I love writing the other stuff. However, you asked which columns on Asia have I liked the most. There was actually one very recent one I wrote called “The Twilight of the Chinese Communist Party,” which I think is something pretty ahead of the curve. It is not something a lot of people talk about, but it reflects a slowly spreading consensus that China and its political system are in for some serious times ahead. That generated an enormous amount of interest and a lot of responses. That’s one I am proud of. There was another one that I wrote on Japan and the problems the Obama administration was having with the Japanese government. I called it “Japan Dissing” because there was a period of what we call “Japan passing,” where we ignored Japan. This was one where the Obama administration was going out of its way to dismiss and almost shame in a way the Japanese government in a way that was unhelpful. A couple of the ones that I probably liked the most, which weren’t always in the Journal, were the ones that wrapped up history with Asia. I wrote a piece when I visited Calcutta on a tour of India. The history of colonialism there is so deep because it is the home of the Raj. It lives in certain ways because of Calcutta’s own choices not to modernize. You’re going into this 1970s-style city, which has colonial remnants all around it. It really gives you a sense of this attempt of the West, in some ways very bad and some ways admirable too, to try to spread modernity. Most people think of Bombay, but I found it very distinct in Calcutta. I liked that piece a lot. There was a piece on Indian women I wrote for our journal at AEI that looked at Indian women and their status in India today—very educated women who often don’t have a lot of opportunities. I liked that one. I think it is this combination of what’s happening at the moment and then being able to step back and paint a big picture, or colorful picture, to present a side of Asia that people don’t usually see. Those are the columns I like the most.

ZY: Turning towards your research, one of your most significant areas of expertise is the climate in Japan. I believe I read that you actually lived in Japan at one point. What do you make of Japan’s positioning under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?

MA: So I lived in Japan for four years at the end of what was known as the Bubble Period. Nobody really knew things would get as bad as they did. People thought Japan would just bounce back. Then I lived in Japan during the depths of the bubble, and everyone was full with despair, feeling things would never get better. Now, you see a country that is still in the midst of twenty years of relative economic stagnation, relative to what it was growing at before, and a long period of political paralysis that seems to have ended. On the one hand, it is a country that has weathered these storms and has come through them. In a sense, it recognizes its strengths even though it hasn’t necessarily fixed its problems. It knows it’s not the end of the world—it’s not going to collapse. On the other hand, you have this very energetic leader. It’s his second time being Prime Minister. His first time was a disaster, but his second time is actually going quite well. He has made a lot of enemies and garnered a create degree of criticism. But he’s the only Japanese politician in decades, to be honest, who has articulated a coherent plan for where he wants Japan to go: where he wants to go economically, his plan called Abenomics, and where he wants it to go politically, and the role he wants it to play in the world. He’s moving it in those directions. He is trying to revitalize the economy, which is a big challenge. He is also creating new partnerships and giving Japan a new role in Asia. I think that’s all to the good. Japan is a democracy, a liberal state, an ally of the United States, and it should be the country that really plays the leadership role in Asia because it represents the future. China represents an autocratic past that a lot of Asia has tried to get beyond. China doesn’t represent the future, China represents a technocratic and decreasing efficiency that has made extraordinary gains but has not developed. Japan represents that eternal struggle to embrace liberalism, to embrace democracy, to create a vibrant civil society, and to do so in balancing the different competing demands of elements of society. It has ensured through an open and democratic process that the country picks the best policies. That’s very hard. Because of that, that’s the exemplar we should be looking at. I think other countries in the region still look at it. It is not a time to take our eyes off Japan. It’s a time to look even more closely at Japan because it’s going to help determine in the long run the degree to which democracy actually is suitable in an Asian context. I think it is, but China argues that it’s not, and other countries argue that it is not. So will Japan win out, or will China win out? That is actually the long-run competition in Asia—not between China and the US but between China and Japan.

ZY: So on the topic of China—China recently announced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral development-finance institution. What does this move represent? How should the U.S. be reacting to it?
MA: We have reacted very poorly. What it represents is China’s attempt to create its own and dominate its own mechanisms for structuring Asian financial architecture, and to some degree, political architecture because of the importance of the development bank in political issues that different countries face. It is in part because the United States was not sophisticated enough to find a way to give China more of a role in either the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank that it wanted without giving it everything that it wanted. The Chinese decided to go their own way, and the response of the Obama administration was an undignified and rather immature attempt to simply pressure if not bully other nations including our allies into not participating. That failed spectacularly because 46 nations have signed on. China is giving 50 billion dollars to the bank, and is trying to raise another 50 billion dollars. Every single nation in Asia except Japan has joined, and most of America’s allies in Europe have joined. The U.S. finds itself utterly isolated. Democratic former leaders such as Madeline Albright have criticized the Obama administration’s inability to prevent the bank from being formed and then to stop others from joining. It’s a diplomatic debacle. We’ll see how much it reshapes Asia’s financial architecture. It is a clear sign from China that it is going to do what it can to change the pattern of relations through all of Asia. If this is the best response the U.S. can come up with, then we better resign ourselves to increasingly losing our influence in the region. That is exactly what has happened.


ZY: I thought I would end with a big, overarching question about your work. What do you think is the greatest threat to East Asian security? How should the U.S. seek to manage it?

  1. The greatest threat to East Asian security today is probably the legitimization of the idea that liberalism and democracy are not necessarily the future of Asia. This means states that are illiberal, that act oppressively at home, and quite often act assertively abroad, are likely to determine the contours of Asia in the future. That means primarily China, but it also means North Korea. It means sometimes an alliance of nations that wish to move away from liberal precepts. It is not of course that North Korea is going to become the leading nation of Asia, but that it will increasingly become a disruptive actor in the region. This is because liberal nations are not willing to uphold the post-World War II system that benefited them and the region so much—the idea of an open architecture of an increased political liberalization, a move towards free markets and open trade, is something that people are willing to sacrifice for more immediate gains. They are not willing to think about building the kind of stable, liberal, civil society, rule-of-law Asian architecture that would carry the region into the future. Instead, they wish to become very zero-sum, very presentist in their attempt to garner market share for example, build up their militaries, not come together to solve problems, but instead to intentionally create cross-cutting alliance systems. It is a little bit like what we have seen at Europe at times in the past. It is worrisome. We have a rising power that clearly wants to become the dominant power and shape these relations. You have a lot of countries that are sitting on the fence, and you have liberal countries that aren’t quite sure if they can carry the baton. All of that wrapped together is the biggest challenge to Asian security and stability in the future. What the US should be doing is very forthrightly working with its liberal allies in Asia to create a community of interests based on liberal principles to uphold those standards. We have to deal with China, but we shouldn’t confuse ourselves into thinking that China is a partner because it’s not. We shouldn’t be willing to overlook what it does, or what other countries that are illiberal do, in the hopes that that will just keep things calm because that will inevitably lead to a more unstable Asia. We have to be standard bearers, and we have to be a nation that’s willing to take risks explicitly to support liberalism—not simply to be there to keep the peace. This is because keeping the peace can be keeping the peace for reasons that will not add to long-term stability. Let’s uphold liberalism. Let’s uphold the values that we know are best for all people. Let’s support those that are struggling for it and fighting for it. Let’s do our best not to confuse ourselves that accommodation with illiberal regimes is the best way to keep peace because I don’t think it is.

ZY: Thank you, Dr. Auslin. We really appreciated getting the chance to hear your thoughts. To any listeners out there on the Internet, we hope you enjoyed.

MA: Thank you very much.