SINGAPORE — Speaking earlier this month to the inaugural Asian Security Conference, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggested Washington’s latest vision for a post-Cold War world. Held here under the auspices of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, the conference brought together official representatives from some 20 countries to focus on the ongoing war on terror.

American delegate Wolfowitz took full advantage of this high-level, multilateral forum to cast the war in terms that confronted Southeast Asia with the risk of a return to some of the greatest trials of its post-1945 history.

Wolfowitz outlined a pattern of American engagement with Asia and the rest of the world framed above all by the fight against terrorism. That fight, he said, was part of “larger war,” waged for “tolerance and freedom,” “pluralism and democracy” and “real economic development.”

This association of the campaign triggered by al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington with such broad, ideological ends seems bound to define the Southeast Asia policy of the U.S. President George W. Bush. It may in fact define the principal American priority in the region during many administrations to come. If so, it will represent continuity far more than change.

The years between the end of the Cold War and the attacks of last September saw the United States groping for an organizing vision of world affairs and of its role in shaping those affairs. Though the declaration of a “new world order” by Bush’s father, President George Bush, in the aftermath of the victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War proved an embarrassing false start, that setback did not dissuade the U.S. from trying again. President Bill Clinton sought to offer a vision grounded in trade liberalization, peacekeeping, and nation-building. During his first months in office, little marked Bush as much as his apparent lack of a foreign-policy vision. Nine months ago, that changed very quickly.

Those same post-Cold War, pre-9/11 years saw Southeast Asia fade from official American interest. Washington’s seemingly sluggish response to the financial crisis that struck the region in 1997 came to symbolize that reduced level of interest. The events of last September brought a renewed American focus on the region.

As during the Cold War, though, the U.S. again views Southeast Asia in terms set outside the region and with only partial relevance to regional realities. And there is much reason to wonder whether America’s current global struggle with terrorism will serve Southeast Asia any better than its global struggle with communism did a generation or two ago.

Nowhere is reason for doubt more evident than in Philippines. American forces have, since February, assisted elements of the armed forces of the Philippines in their efforts to extinguish the Abu Sayyaf group, a small gang of kidnappers with a history of al-Qaeda contacts. Due to end in July, that training mission may have won a new lease on life during Wolfowitz’s visit to Manila last week.

There is a very real chance that the eventual withdrawal of American forces will leave the southern Philippines in greater disarray than before their intervention. But broad consensus in the Philippine capital has it that, whatever the outcome of American participation in the hunt for the Abu Sayyaf, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has gained politically from her success in renewing Philippine-American military ties. This local political consideration has nothing to do with America’s global counter-terror effort. Macapagal Arroyo’s enhanced standing may well prove to be the most important result of Washington’s choice of her country as a “second front” in that effort.

Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has turned his support for Washington since last September to political advantage both domestically and internationally. At home, the global fight against terror furnishes him with an excuse to put pressure on his political opposition. Abroad, his successful visit to the U.S. last month confirmed the end of the pariah status that he has endured since the onset of the financial crisis and the imprisonment of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

As in the Philippines, so in Malaysia: the sweeping, undifferentiated nature of America’s new approach to the world suggests that unintended consequences will follow.

It is in Indonesia — Southeast Asia’s largest, most important, and most volatile country — that the Southeast Asian dimension of the war on terror risks having its most unpredictable impact. Wolfowitz served as American ambassador to Jakarta during the Reagan administration. He has frequently praised Indonesian Islam for its “moderation” and tolerance.

Frustrated by Congress in its attempts to renew cooperation with the Indonesian military, the Bush administration seeks now to offer support to the nation’s police in the battle against terrorism. But Islamic extremism in the Indonesian archipelago derives far more from local than from international concerns.

No less so than in the Philippines and Malaysia, American policy in Indonesia is likely to prove far more consequential domestically than internationally. Whom it will empower and whom it will disadvantage remains difficult to foresee, but a look back at Southeast Asia’s recent history underlines the importance of such currently neglected questions.

The decades after 1945 saw America’s global commitment to the containment of Soviet communism draw it into sponsorship of a military government in Thailand, efforts to undermine Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, and ill-fated support for an independent South Vietnam. These initiatives related in only roundabout ways to the struggle against world communism. But each altered the balance of forces within those Southeast Asian states in decisive ways. Each changed the course of a country’s history.

Now, the emergence of the region as a theater in America’s war on world terrorism raises the possibility of similar, lasting local outcomes with very little connection to the stated objectives of the new global battle.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.