Hamilton-Hart, Natasha. Hard Interests, Soft Illusion: Southeast Asia and American Power

Article excerpt

Hamilton-Hart, Natasha. Hard Interests, Soft Illusion: Southeast Asia and American Power. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2012. 243 pp.

In her revealing study, Natasha Hamilton-Hart details the impact of America's "soft" power on the foreign policy decision-makers of the developing or Third World states. She does so by using six states in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam) as a convenient laboratory. Specifically, she applies the evidentiary weight of psychological studies of small group decision-making, value formation and maintenance, and cognitive processes to trace the assumptions, perceptions and beliefs of Southeast Asian foreign policy elites in the six countries. In her examination, she is interested in how policy-makers have come to the positive perceptions about the United States that they do with very few exceptions.

Despite the study's emphasis on the beliefs of foreign professionals, Hamilton-Hart does not ignore the hard realities that concern traditional international relations specialists who focus on issues of national interest. She notes, for example, that when national interests of Southeast Asian states are endangered by American policy, regional actors will be critical of the United States. As examples, she specifically cites Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir's criticisms of the US dominated International Monetary Fund during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew Singapore who promoted Asian Values in response to American human rights criticisms. As well, in chapter three the author presents a well-argued summary of Southeast Asia's post-World War II national histories to illustrate how the region's current political leadership, with the notable exception of Vietnam, have directly benefited from their close ties to America and its international political, military, and economic policies during the cold War down to the post-2011 present.

In chapter four Hamilton-Hart presents an insightful analysis of the accepted historiographical theses of the five non-communist states--official accounts, textbooks, and others that have received "political blessing." She posits that the histories present clear bias in favor of the ruling elite and also cast the United States in a favorable light by positive narratives of commission, omission, and implication. She then describes three aspects of these national histories that pertain in some way to the United States; the specter of communism in the national past, the US role of protector against external threat, and by downplaying the human cost of past conflicts. While Thailand and the Philippines are noted for having traditions of alternative historical interpretation, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are characterized as having high levels of elite dominance in their historical interpretations. It is only Vietnam that offers an alternative to the non-communist dominant narrative, but even here recent Vietnamese historiography is not as biased against the United States as might be expected. …