Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power  by Natasha Hamilton-Hart Hamilton-Hart - Hard interests

The disciplines that study international affairs generally start with a baseline assumption of a rational actor who looks out to the world and coldly calculates national interests, objectives, identifies threats and in turn, fashions a strategy. This picture of a homo strategist however, is a myth.

In this clever book, Natasha Hamilton-Hart examines why Southeast Asian nations tend to support the United States. Rather than simply being a question of objective alignment with their national interests, Hamilton-Hart shows how these calculations are made by a foreign policy community that has its own distinct patterns of thought, standards of information and other social forms that shape their assessment of the world.

Hamilton-Hart’s argument is that it is the material interests of the regimes in Southeast Asia that best explains why these states support the US. The US has often helped these regimes take power, or provided support to those in power. And this, far more than global balance of power questions determines the alignments of these countries or their response to international events. This is both about powerful sources that drive belief and powerful community dynamics that help re-enforce certain beliefs while excluding others.

Now, Hamilton-Hart tends to see much of this reason for supporting the US as somewhat cynical and based on illusions, and to the extent you agree or disagree may shape your view of much of the key data chapters and analysis. I tended to find my enthusiasm for the book waned as it went on. It’s hard to find great evidence for these issues, and some sections seemed further away from the core issues than was helpful. Some of the authors interpretations of the 70+ interviews also seemed less objective than I might have preferred.

But regardless of these quibbles there’s a central methodological insight that is vital here, regardless of your views. Namely, the need to recognise the limitation of the homo strategist model and adopt a more complex way of investigating why foreign policy actors hold the beliefs they do about the world and how those beliefs are developed, tested, re-enforced or challenged within the communities they operate in.

As Hamilton-Hart alludes to near the end, if we accept that there is merit to her judgement that material interests of the regimes in Southeast Asia matter then, there are vital and challenging policy implications.

First, this makes the support of Australia’s neighbourhood for the US much more brittle than it may otherwise seem. Not only could it be pulled away by Chinese (or someone else’s) resources in a relatively straight forward fashion, but because of the re-enforcing dynamics inside the community, mass opinion will barely seem to change until it shifts suddenly and substantially. Second, the US’s challenge is not about re-assurance or deterrence, but on the economic and political side of the ledger, helping to provide sufficient prosperity, regime legitimacy and rewards so that allegiance endures. This doesn’t have to be thought of in a corrupt, feudalist fashion, but you also wouldn’t be totally wrong to see parts of it that way too.

This is an important book. First for better understanding how Southeast Asia actually operates, and for encouraging much more grounded thinking about how foreign and defence policy is developed in the real world and how social forces do so much to shape what is seen and heard. Perhaps my own reaction of doubt is actually just because it forced some uncomfortable thoughts about the limited material I access and just how objective and evidenced based my own beliefs are.

A really good book. More for the scholar or student than general reader, but there’s much to gain for anyone interested in international politics and the future of the US-China struggle for influence in Asia.