The Duck of Minerva

What I Learned Teaching IR in Asia (1): Learning to Love US Hegemony

23 January 2012

I’d like to thank Duck contributors/editor, especially Vikash, for soliciting my contribution. The Duck is a great site, one I link to a lot on my own blog, so I am happy to come aboard. Thank you.

I have been teaching IR in Korea for almost 4 years. Generally, it’s a lot like teaching it in the West. The same theories get circulated, and we read the same journals. My university, a big state school, is organized a lot like any Big U in the US – dozens of departments, huge faculty, growing administration, a large middle class student body (but no student athletics). As at home, my department has theorists, internationalists, comparativists, and Koreanists. In fact, given how far away the Western system is geographically, it is almost a little too easy, too seamless. I guess this means political science really is a globalizing discipline.

So here are a few macro-lessons I have picked up teaching and conferencing IR in Asia:

1. Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the American Empire, young PhD. Ron Paul voters and retrenchers beware. If you think America is an empire, bullying hegemon, overbearing interventionist, or otherwise enjoy Steve Walt’s blog, you’ll be a lot more struck by the obviousness of the US presence than in Europe. I lived in Germany in the 90s, but the US footprint here is a lot more outstanding. Korea is pretty much ground zero for the ‘empire of bases’ argument of Chalmers Johnson, and the State Department couldn’t care less about your hotshot PhD from the People’s Republic of Berkeley. At conference after conference, you see the American influence everywhere. I meet people from Heritage, CSIS, Brookings, the US State Department, and the US military on the rubber chicken circuit regularly, and the party-line on the American presence in Asia is enforced pretty vigorously. Even though there’s a deep IR consensus now that the US uses too much force and faces retrenchment due to overstretch, the US community here studiously avoids mention of things like the implications of the staggering US debt on its alliances. There is real collision between what I read as an IR guy, and what I hear on the policy conference circuit.

My own feelings are mixed: I worry a lot about overstretch and the growing excesses of the national security state, but I can think of few uses of US force more noble than defending a democracy like SK against the worst country on earth. Still, the commitment to forward basing and extended deterrence is all but universal, and don’t dare call it empire (as, ironically, do neocons when they’re candid, as well as a lot of my students). You can ask why the US should spend 5% of GDP on defense (actually its closer to 8%) when Japan spends less than 1%. You can ask if perhaps we should be ‘nation-building at home’ (Obama) with 9% unemployment, instead of semi-encircling China.You can ask if the massive US global footprint, including 28k warfighters plus another 100kcontractors and family members in Korea, might chain-gang the US into an unwanted Asian war even though SK’s GDP is 26x NK’s. But you’ll get no good answer other than suspicion that you like Neville Chamberlain. The think tank-industrial complex ‘fusion’ around endless engagement is deeply entrenched
2. English, English ueber alles. Cultural imperialism abets my laziness, or, as a professor in grad school once told me, ‘you don’t need to learn languages, because it all gets translated anyway.’ Ah, yes, luxuriate in your Anglo-American social science supremacy, because thankfully Asians actually tolerate your linguistic lameness on your behalf! My colleagues’ patience with my atrocious Korean is legend, but English is everywhere – conferences are offered with simultaneous translation (try to imagine that at APSA), journals will double-print with translations, Korean colleagues all speak English and don’t even bother to expect you to try anymore (so embarrassing that), support staff too speak fluently, and, perhaps my favorite, you can watch Korean, Chinese, and Japanese scholars duke it out among each other in English at the conferences (that was a real shock the first time I saw it – I guess I had a vague sense they would all speak Chinese). So if you think that culture is a tiresome linguistic quirk blocking your equations and Verstehen is ‘soft,’ Asian IR is here to vindicate your monolinguistic laziness masquerading as universalist rationalism!
3. One American IR ring to rule them all. Somewhere in grad school, I remember that whole discussion about IR as an American social science. Once again, you can really see that here. Korean PS journals are filled with regular laments about how little indigenous Korean political theory there is, and how concepts simply get pulled over from the US and maybe they don’t fit. IR here is most definitely that way. I’m 12 time zones away, but everyone around me still reads IO, IS, ISQ, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, OUP, etc., etc. In the same way I am uncomfortable with the cultural imperialist undertones of the ubiquity of English, I find the overwhelming dominance of US IR somewhat disheartening (as do many of my colleagues). In what had to be the most surreal and disturbing moment in this vein, I was in Beijing for a conference on China’s rise. A Chinese IR grad student was walking me around (showing me the Forbidden City and such). When the conversation turned to her training, there I was recommending to her what to read (Friedberg, Kang, Ross, and Hui), in English, on her own country! All I could think of was how much more this woman would ever know about China than me, and here I was telling her what to read – and it was a bunch of Americans. So embarrassing.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.
Part two will go up in a few days.