When I joined Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think tank, in 2001, the transition to a tripolar world was finally gaining traction. Some far-sighted individuals envisioned the rise of Asia (and not merely a few countries within the region) in the 1970s and ’80s, but serious discussions of power and politics remained focused on the trans-Atlantic space. Asia was largely viewed as a secondary theater.

When George W. Bush became the U.S. president in 2001, some strategists grasped the implications of China’s rise. Attention almost shifted following the April 2001 EP3 crisis, in which a U.S. surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter, was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan island, and the plane and its crew were detained. (The Chinese jet was lost and its pilot was killed.) That could have crystallized U.S. antagonism toward China and moved forward the confrontation that is now unfolding, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States refocused attention and Beijing seized the opportunity to find new common ground with Washington.

Until then, interactions between U.S. experts and officials and their Asian counterparts were limited, focused on identifying shared concerns, which tended to be security-oriented (and security as traditionally defined), although economics was of increasing importance given the spread of Japanese production networks. A lack of commonality between interlocutors — the U.S. and whichever country it was talking to — meant that discussions sought broad principles of agreement which would then be used to craft action agendas.

Pacific Forum was ahead of many organizations when it came to engaging Asia. It was established in 1975 by Lloyd Vasey, a retired navy admiral, to ensure that the U.S. did not forget the region in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Given the relative indifference and ignorance in the U.S. about Asia (compared to understanding of and engagement with Europe), think tanks like Pacific Forum played a vital role in establishing networks and frameworks for dialogue, building trust and confidence, and laying the foundation for the official conversations that followed.

When I joined, the organization held bilateral dialogues with Japan, South Korea and China, a trilateral dialogue with Japan and China, and multinational initiatives that brought in Southeast Asian and European counterparts.

A staple of bilateral dialogues was “Wise Men,” senior experts — often ex-officials — who tackled the “big” issues of a relationship. These were almost invariably men and they took a 10,000-meter perspective: They framed the big picture and did not dig into ground-level details. Sometimes, this was because the big picture had yet to be drawn and the nitty gritty didn’t exist; cooperation on specific issues had not yet materialized. Sometimes, the big picture was all those experts could speak about: Details were below their pay grade.

Asia’s rise demanded a new and different kind of conversation. Relationships evolved, broadening and deepening. As terms of engagement between countries were established, there was less need for that high-level discourse. We moved on. Dialogues became more specialized and participants dug deeper. So, for example, broad discussions of “security” gave way to nuanced assessments of missile capabilities and defenses, export controls or rules for maritime encounters.

Economic conversations took up more granular topics: coordination of development aid, protection of intellectual property and more recently an array of digital concerns (to name a few issues). Some topics remained unshaped: For example, U.S.-China strategic nuclear discussions, which I worked on for over a decade, continue to this day to hunt for a mutually agreed-upon framework. This is both a cause and an effect of the failure of the two governments to commence an official dialogue on this issue.

It is increasingly clear, however, that the premises of the conversations have changed. Initial agreements on terms of discussions, shared concerns, rules of the game, have eroded. We no longer have common ground and we are returning to debates about first principles. It is time to resume the 10,000-meter discussions.

Those conversations should start by trying to agree on a common conception of the “great power competition” that almost everyone believes characterizes the current era. Who are those “great powers”? What are they competing over, i.e., what are their intentions and what are the stakes? In which domains are they competing? Everyone has an answer to those questions, but it quickly emerges that there is no consensus view within countries, much less among allies and partners. (I am assuming that there is agreement that this is an era of “great power competition”; that too might be debatable.)

Equally uncertain is the U.S. role in this world. U.S. thinking about its place in the global order has changed, and Donald Trump is a symptom, as well as a cause, of that shift. While much attention has been paid to the narrowing gap between U.S. capabilities and those of its adversaries, the gap between what the U.S. and its allies has narrowed as well. This is reflected in demands for greater contributions of allies to mutual defense efforts, but that is the crudest and most limited application of this evolution.

This is a wide-reaching project that few if any analysts truly understand. There is a tendency to try to shoehorn old relationships and processes into new situations. That won’t work. We need to re-examine and reconstruct them. This may require new institutions and mechanisms; at a minimum, it demands new thinking about cooperation and coordination and new forms of leadership.

Much has been and will continue to be written on these questions. Real and enduring answers will be the product of sustained, robust discussion and sometimes turbulent compromise, a process that is always difficult but is even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical churn that should have been anticipated.

Weirdly, governments don’t have time for this stuff. In-boxes are already overflowing, which makes open-ended conversation and long-term planning problematic, if not impossible. Moreover, the first rule of bureaucracies is make the boss look good; to that end, functionaries make sure that there are no surprises in their day-to-day operations. That produces minutely scripted events that leave no room for the uncertainties that accompany any real discussion of issues. In the foreign policy world, the result is sterile encounters that don’t venture beyond the schedule produced by the protocol office.

This is the logic that led to “track 2 processes,” in which experts and officials (in their personal capacities) have frank exchanges of views and float ideas without committing their countries. A successful track-2 project produces ideas for governments to pursue, and helps build networks of trust and confidence that encourage consensus building. I like to think that the dialogues that Pacific Forum sponsored produced those ideas; I know that they created long-lasting friendships and facilitated understanding between countries as participants moved in and out of their respective governments. Other institutions had similar successes.

It’s time to return to that 10,000-meter perspective, reassess basic questions of international politics and policy and re-establish a consensus for coordinated action. There must be changes, too, however. As always, participants must be able to speak to and for governments, without being bound by existing policy. Candid, frank and cant-free discussions are needed; there is no room for empty rhetoric and talking points.

But there is a premium now on a readiness to explore new ground. While all participants must be committed to finding and forging consensus — there is no point in a meeting when some at the table don’t believe there can be agreement — it is vital to engage a wider swath of the political spectrum as old common ground dissolves. In particular, a younger generation of scholars and experts must be heard, and gender balance is essential.

A bedrock belief of mine is that for all the changes, and even because of them, the Japan-U.S. alliance remains central to these deliberations and our two countries should lead the way. Once Tokyo and Washington reach agreement on answers to my first question — the nature of the “great power competition” — they can assess and assay the best way to deal with them and the appropriate contributions of each. We must be more critical in our assessments of the world in which we live and more open to change. After all, you’re either part of the steamroller or part of the road.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”


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