Hard interests, soft illusions: Southeast Asia and American power
By NATASHA HAMILTON-HART
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 243. Appendix, Bibliography, Index.
Natasha Hamilton-Hart explores the relationship between 'interests' and 'illusions' in shaping the foreign policies (towards the United States) of the governments of Southeast Asia. In a book that is both concise and thorough, she focuses on the period from the Cold War to the present and includes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam in her analysis. She emphasises that in all of these cases 'beliefs about American power' flow from specific 'illusions' and 'interests' that are not necessarily explained by what she describes as 'common understandings of the sources of foreign policy'. In the case of 'interests' that shape different approaches to the United States on the part of politically divergent governments in the region, she emphasises the interests of particular regimes, an established ruling elite or the governing political party of the nation-states concerned. More specifically, she draws attention to the 'interests' of political leaders 'in securing power' and 'rewarding supporters'. She also draws attention to the 'career interests' of those who are involved in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy towards the United States and the fact that professional or personal considerations may become tied up in various ways with the conduct of diplomacy. Hamilton Hart emphasises that, despite their differences, the region's 'non-communist political elites' have by and large regarded America 'as a benign power over the last sixty years' (pp. 9-10). However, if there is a continued relative decline in the 'economic capacity' of the United States (a trend that has been at the centre of the Great Recession that began in December 2007 and may or may not have ended, depending on your point of view) its image as a 'benign hegemon' could 'fade' (p. 191). But, for the moment, despite its changing role since the end of the Cold War until the bombings of September 11 and since, Hamilton-Hart emphasises that there remains a strongly grounded and generally positive view of American power that informs the thinking and actions of the foreign policy elites in Southeast Asia.
Following a short Introduction, which maps out her overall approach, the second chapter focuses on how the various 'beliefs' of the political actors and diplomats concerned have interacted with the 'hard interests' and 'soft illusions' to which she refers in the book's title. Chapter 3 examines in more detail the political economy of 'interests', while chapter 4 examines the question of beliefs (assumptions) that feed into the 'soft illusions' via an examination of the writing and rewriting of the various national histories in Southeast Asia and of the history of the United States in the region. She makes clear that in all cases there is a mainstream and widely accepted version of history, which has been debated to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the nation-state concerned. At the same, these 'mainstream national histories' remain selective and uncritical: they all involve a 'sanitisation of history' producing 'one-sided and confident narratives' that celebrate the overall historical trajectory of particular polities in Southeast Asia in a fashion that is to a lesser or greater degree inclusive depending on the contemporary character of the regime concerned. In this regard, as with 'interests', the foreign policy elites in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia articulate a less overtly contested version of their histories, while Thailand and the Philippines have been characterised by greater debate since the end of the Cold War (if not well before). Not surprisingly, the foreign-policymakers and the political elite in Vietnam hold to a celebratory account of the country's long struggle from nationalist-communist insurgency to national unification and Communist Party rule. …