Hard Interests, Soft Illusions

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power

Natasha Hamilton-Hart
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Hard Interests, Soft Illusions
    Book Description:

    In Hard Interests, Soft Illusions, Natasha Hamilton-Hart explores the belief held by foreign policy elites in much of Southeast Asia-Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam-that the United States is a relatively benign power. She argues that this belief is an important factor underpinning U.S. preeminence in the region, because beliefs inform specific foreign policy decisions and form the basis for broad orientations of alignment, opposition, or nonalignment. Such foundational beliefs, however, do not simply reflect objective facts and reasoning processes. Hamilton-Hart argues that they are driven by both interests-in this case the political and economic interests of ruling groups in Southeast Asia-and illusions.

    Hamilton-Hart shows how the information landscape and standards of professional expertise within the foreign policy communities of Southeast Asia shape beliefs about the United States. These opinions frequently rest on deeply biased understandings of national history that dominate perceptions of the past and underlie strategic assessments of the present and future. Members of the foreign policy community rarely engage in probabilistic reasoning or effortful knowledge-testing strategies. This does not mean, she emphasizes, that the beliefs are insincere or merely instrumental rationalizations. Rather, cognitive and affective biases in the ways humans access and use information mean that interests influence beliefs; how they do so depends on available information, the social organization and practices of a professional sphere, and prevailing standards for generating knowledge.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6403-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-15)

    There is little effusive sentimentality about the United States among foreign policy elites in Southeast Asia today. More than sixty years have passed since President Manuel Roxas of the Philippines declared that the safest course for his newly-independent country was to follow in the “glistening wake” of America.¹ His view was emphatically rejected by many Southeast Asians at the time and does not resonate in a region formally committed to independence and norms of noninterference.² Extravagant statements professing a kindred spirit and shared vision sometimes still adorn official speeches and communiqués, but these appear intended for diplomatic consumption only. Leaders...

  5. 2 BEHIND BELIEFS: Hard Interests, Soft Illusions
    (pp. 16-47)

    As the tides of the Pacific War turned against Japan in 1944, Prince Konoe Fumimaro wrote that “leftist revolution” is “as frightening, or more frightening, than defeat.”¹ Not long afterwards, most of the Japanese elite embraced the external power that had defeated their country in war and cemented an enduring, friendly relationship with the United States. The prince’s assessment of the relative seriousness of the two threats facing the established order in Japan was prescient: under the American occupation, substantial elite continuity was maintained and any prospect of “leftist revolution” firmly extinguished.² Across the sea, in China, a similar moral...

    (pp. 48-87)

    Beliefs about the United States are closely related to the material interests of those who have gained or lost as a consequence of American actions in Southeast Asia. Ruling elites in the Southeast Asian countries aligned with the United States since the 1960s or earlier benefited from the regional role played by the United States and continue to benefit from the American-defined global order. U.S. actions made it easier for those now holding political power to advance and secure their positions against domestic competitors. In several cases, contenders for power were directly aided by the United States in domestic political...

    (pp. 88-142)

    The lessons of history are rarely straightforward. History in the hands of policymakers is frequently misread, and historical analogies are often wrongly applied.¹ Yet policymakers in Southeast Asia, like their counterparts elsewhere, exhibit great confidence in their own reading of history and the lessons to be drawn from it. In official documents, public statements, and private conversation, “history” is identified again and again as the reason for a given policy orientation and the beliefs that underpin it. For America’s longstanding friends and allies in the region, the most frequent justification for viewing the country as a benign, stabilizing force is...

    (pp. 143-189)

    Members of the foreign policy community in Southeast Asia explain their beliefs about American power by drawing on their professional expertise as a source of evidence and interpretive schema. Professional expertise can thus be thought of as a set of cues that influence beliefs. Foreign policy professionals have good reasons to attend to such cues, reasons that go beyond self-interest or political expedience. The idea that professional advisers modify their advice according to what they perceive their clients or superiors want to hear enjoys considerable currency. However, it is difficult to pin down this process, and evidence that powerholders have...

    (pp. 190-202)

    When policymakers and foreign policy professionals in Southeast Asia speak of the United States as, overall, a benign power, they are doing more than simplifying a complex reality. The simplification provides rough-and-ready rules for action, making it possible to act in uncertain situations and to avoid going back to first principles every time a foreign policy decision is made. Foundational beliefs that identify friends, foes, and those who merit a wary watchfulness are relatively stable. They are also, this book has argued, driven by the regime interests of political powerholders and the career interests of foreign policy professionals. Foundational foreign...

  10. APPENDIX: Interviews
    (pp. 203-206)
  11. References
    (pp. 207-236)
  12. Index
    (pp. 237-244)