Review of the Realist Paradigm

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The Return of the United States to East Asia?

A Theoretical Review of the Realist Paradigm

Byoung Won Min

Ewha Womans University

Over the two decades since the end of the Cold War, international policies in East Asia has experienced paradigm changes more than twice. The first big threshold in history for most East Asian states was the abrupt breakdown of the bipolar system that had overshadowed the region with a half-century confrontation between two superpowers. Not just small and middle-sized countries such as the two Koreas and Taiwan, great powers such as China and Japan had to adjust themselves to the dramatic changes of surrounding political configurations. The change must have been an opportunity as well as a challenge for East Asia. In a sense, the end of the long Cold War might have been a blessing for the region as it allowed a more open and diversified options available for them to get out of the previous ideological trap imposed by superpowers. Although East Asia had to deal with some pressure from the only superpower in this era, most countries in the region might have expected a new breakthrough toward a multipolar, more peaceful, and more cooperative space among themselves.

The second paradigmatic change was impinging on East Asia in a more silent way, while it was a clamorous event at the global level, particularly to the United States. The 9/11 terror targeted at the heart of the unipolar world overturned the existing power configurations so much that the United States, as the only superpower, had stepped up its plan to overhaul grand strategies and foreign policy as well as domestic institutions against any further terrorist attacks. The repercussions from America had left long tails in East Asia, a region which is far away from the American Continent. Military operations by the United States in the Middle East have had noticeable impacts on its security commitments to East Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea. The United States Forces deployed in these allied countries have also been realigned along with the new foreign policy initiative by the Bush Administration. While East Asian counties had to watch, or involuntarily support, the American fight against the new enemy group and felt misgivings about any possible “abandonment” by this old patron, the first decade of the 21st century have not generated any other revolutionary changes in the relationship between the United States and East Asian allies.1 Anyhow, the United States seemed to have distanced itself from East Asia for almost a decade.

As a decade-long mission has been dragged on without any definite victory in the Middle East, however it was evaluated for its effectiveness and efficiency, the new Obama Administration decided to wrap up his national missions over there soon. He ordered his army to retreat from Iraq in the end of 2011 and was planning to finalize the bloodshed in Afghanistan by 2016. Then East Asia had to face another paradigmatic change in its power dynamics again, this time with the re-entry of the United States in a more active way. The lost decade for the United States in East Asia, due to its War on Terror, has embraced China as a challenger to the traditional role of America in the region. China, while self-constraining itself for economic development and national redeployment against adversarial environments, has project itself in a more confident and assertive way toward neighbors. Although economic interdependence and cooperation between China and Asian countries have doubled every year, the rise of China and its military threats have caused the United States and its allies in East Asia more uncomfortable. This is the political background for the Obama Administration to return to East Asia with its emphasis on the catchphrase “pivot” and “rebalancing.”

Now is the time for East Asian countries to think about this return of America to the region, whether it has been welcomed or not. Many scholars in international relations have started to discuss about the implications of the American “pivot” in East Asia and any probable scenarios around many issues such as hegemonic confrontations, balance of power, realignment of allies, territorial disputes, and cooperative and competitive regionalism in the region. This paper joins in the discourse of American foreign policy in East Asia in a critical perspective. The return of America in the region has been dominated by many conventional theories and concepts, mostly developed within the realist paradigm. I would like to review these realist-induced explanations of the return of the United States in East Asia in order to show their biases and loopholes. In the next section, I will review the paradigmatic change of American foreign policy in the Obama Administration in East Asia. The third section is devoted to the explication of the bias of great power politics by the realist paradigm applied to East Asian international politics. In the fourth section, upon the critical review of the realist paradigm in the previous section, I am going to illuminate three realist myths that have been frequently used in the discourse of East Asian international politics. Theoretical add-ons will be discussed in order to supplement the gaps within the realist paradigm for each myth.

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