Asan Plenum

Panel: Limits of U.S. Power?

Date/Time: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 / 14:00-15:15

Moderator: Lee Chung Min, Yonsei University


Edwin Feulner, The Heritage Foundation

Han Sung Joo, Korea University

Philip Stephens, Financial Times

Yao Yunzhu, Academy of Military Science, PLA

Panel Description

American leadership is indispensable to resolving many of the challenges confronting the global community today. Yet the United States faces a more diverse and complex array of crises than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Many of these crises have revealed the constraints on U.S. power in the international arena. Regime change, democratization, and nation-building have proven to be exceptionally difficult tasks. The U.S.-led alliance system in Europe and Asia is under siege by revisionist challengers. Meanwhile, transnational problems such as climate change, terrorism, and pandemics call for global responses and global leadership. At a time of major geopolitical upheavals, the consequence of American disengagement from international affairs may lead to even greater turmoil. What are the most pressing obstacles to more effective U.S. leadership and how can they be overcome?

Session Sketch

Plenary Session 2, titled “Limits of U.S. Power?” explored the obstacles that the United States faces in achieving more effective U.S. leadership and how they should be overcome.

Dr. Edwin Feulner, Chairman of Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, began by responding to the title of the conference “Is the U.S. Back?” and saying that it never left to begin with. He pointed out that military issues, economic relations, or Asian issues cannot always be prioritized. However, he stressed that budgetary challenges in Washington should seriously be addressed, especially in regards to the military budget. The United States should also maintain its presence in the Asian region because of the rise of China. The United States should continue its role as the honest broker between Japan and Korea, India and Pakistan, and perhaps between China and Taiwan, which can ensure stability and predictability in the region.

On the contrary, Minister Han Sung Joo, Professor Emeritus at Korea University, opined that the report of U.S. decline wasn’t an exaggeration. He focused his presentation on the six limitations upon U.S. power: 1) diffusion of power exemplified by other powers such as China; 2) multiple layers of global crises; 3) extreme partisanship in the United States; 4) conflict among its allies; 5) U.S. fuzziness of policy threatening its own authority and credibility; and 6) troubled relationships with other major powers such as China and Russia. Nevertheless, Minister Han pointed out that current nuclear deal with Iran shows the continuing relevance and robustness of U.S. power. He also noted unchallenged U.S. soft power. Acknowledging that President Obama has overcome many of the aforementioned limitations, he argued that U.S. leadership will continue if it overcomes its unilateralist and isolationist position.

Mr. Philip Stephens stated that U.S. power is both ‘indispensable’ and ‘insufficient’. While he agreed with Dr. Kissinger that the United States was not declining but undergoing an adjustment process, he noted that it is strongly perceived to be in decline. Given this, he suggested that the United States should firmly decide the extent to which it wants to use its power. But overall, the American solution will continue to be the most pertinent for the next decade at least.

Finally, Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Academy of Military Science, PLA, structured her presentation around the question: Why does the U.S. power have a limit? To this, she gave four reasons. First, the United States has overused its power after the Cold War by leading wars one after another. Next, its power has gradually been balanced by other powers. Third, the utility of unilateral power is undermined as international powers are becoming more and more interdependent. Lastly, in the digitalized era, power disperses both horizontally and vertically. Network power changes how national power will fit into the changing world.

While Maj. Gen. Yao acknowledged that the United States is still the world’s superpower and that it is the most experienced in terms of capability, she suggested some changes that the United States should take into account to improve relations with China. First, China would like the U.S. leadership to be more supportive in sharing multilateral responsibility. It expects the United States to be more open-minded and less ideological as Western democracy is not the only system that can succeed. It also expects the United States to be more engaging and cooperative in reforming global institutions.

The moderator of the session, Dr. Lee Chung Min, Professor of International Relations at the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University, proceeded by asking questions to each speaker.

Regarding Korea’s dilemma with the AIIB and THAAD, he asked Minster Han whether it will worsen in the next coming years and what is Korea’s optimal strategy for the future. Minister Han’s opinion was that the fuss was created by the media and mishandled by the government. He cautiously suggested that Korea should deal with these issues in a way that ensures one country is not favored over another, considering that our alliance with the United States will continue in the foreseeable future and China is the largest economy in the region.

Maj. Gen. Yao was then asked why countries sharing borders with China do not feel comfortable with China even though they are not natural enemies. She answered that China has been making efforts towards peace, but still needs to work more on better conveying its intentions to its neighbors so that they are not misinterpreted. Maj. Gen. Yao was also asked about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to which she stressed that for China, a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear proliferation does not simply mean the absence of nuclear weapons on the peninsula; it means an absence of nuclear deterrence as well. In saying so, she noted that Beijing shares the same position as the United States in denuclearizing North Korea. In fact, to another question regarding China’s thoughts about the future of U.S. power and influence, she replied that the mainstream sees amply opportunities for multilateral cooperation in areas including the Middle East.