Jeffrey W. Hornung

Now, there are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics, who often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action.  For them, working through international institutions like the U.N. or respecting international law is a sign of weakness.  I think they’re wrong…I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.  But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

President Barack Obama, May 28, 2014 (Remarks at West Point Commencement Ceremony)

There is no doubt that as part of the U.S. strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, there is an emphasis on the regional security architecture (RSA). This was apparent in the early days of the rebalance. In former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s remarks in January 12, 2010 at the East-West Center she stated, “A core strategic fact is that this region confronts…challenges and opportunities with a dynamic mix of influential actors…This new landscape requires us to build an institutional architecture that maximizes our prospects for effective cooperation, builds trust, and reduces friction of competition.” Indeed, this view of America’s responsibility continues. In his opinion piece entitled “Realizing the Asia-Pacific Rebalance,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argues that “The United States is uniquely positioned to continue to help Asian nations build a vibrant regional security architecture.” Yet, the logic advocating for an RSA often goes unstated, leaving the justification for this American responsibility without basis. The Barack Obama administration is not mistaken in its focus on bolstering the Asia-Pacific RSA, but a more explicit case needs to be made for its importance.

When we look at international relations today, there are two overarching trends. First, power is diffuse and much more distributed. While some will argue this is indicative that the United States is in decline, it is less controversial to argue simply that the United States does not hold the preponderance of power today relative to others because other states have arisen. For example, while the United States still has the world’s strongest economy and most powerful military, other states throughout the world—but particularly in the region—have developed rapidly. The most notable in the Asia-Pacific region have been China and India.

Alongside an increasingly distributed global power structure is the second trend of regional security problems becoming more complex. Security problems for most of the post-World War II period were derivatives of the Cold War. This did not mean that global warming, piracy, territorial disputes, or terrorism did not exist, but these security problems were subsumed under a bipolar standoff and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Today, particularly because of the inter-connectedness of the world, security problems have tertiary effects that multiply their lethality and complicate their resolution. This means that many contemporary security problems are simply beyond the capacity of states to handle unilaterally.

Considering the shift of economic and strategic weight to the Asia-Pacific region, all states are challenged to adapt to these new conditions of distributed power and increasingly complex security problems. This is because the new global order means states’ security and prosperity is shared. In other words, our mutual security and prosperity increasingly relies on our ability to work together. Consider the problems of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, natural disasters, energy and food security, drug and people trafficking, climate change, or transnational pandemics. No unilateral, national response, no matter how well crafted, will be enough to manage these challenges. Instead, they require properly coordinated regional responses. An RSA assists toward this end by providing means by which all states can not only discuss the wide universe of security challenges, but in some cases work to address those problems.

This is because an RSA essentially performs three functions. First, it facilitates cooperation through both formal and informal means. Informally, an RSA institutionalizes meeting opportunities, which is important because it strengthens the shadow of the future. If leaders know that they will meet their counterpart at regular intervals, the RSA essentially helps nurture a culture of dialogue and provides a disincentive to act against one’s counterparts. Formally, an RSA could force transparency amongst states by institutionalizing or mandating certain types of information flow on specific issues. The benefit that accrues to states is a reduced uncertainty which, it is hoped, will lead to reduced competition.

The second function that an RSA performs is shaping state behavior by defining common expectations of appropriateness. Becoming a member to a regional organization or grouping carries with it responsibilities of behavior. For example, as a member of ASEAN, states agree to not interfere in the domestic affairs of another state. To join the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, states are expected to liberalize certain sectors of their economies. The more robust an RSA becomes, the more institutionalized that behavior becomes. In this way, an RSA is responsible for creating or fostering a consensus around specific norms or rules which, in turn, shapes state behavior and state interaction either by prescribing acceptable forms of state behavior or proscribing unacceptable forms of behavior.

The final function an RSA performs is engagement of all states, no matter their size. In the bipolar world that was the Cold War, the superpowers dominated international relations. Their concerns were heard, their votes mattered, and their decisions ruled. In today’s world, as noted above, power is much more diffused. Yet, without structure, international relations will continue to be dominated by the stronger states and their security concerns. An RSA levels the playing field, engaging all actors regardless of size and providing even the smallest of states a venue to raise their concerns and have a say on regional affairs.

All three of these functions—facilitating cooperation, defining expectations of appropriateness, and engaging all states regardless of size—are important given the need to adapt to the new conditions of distributed power and increasingly complex security problems. Yet, the United States needs to make a stronger case for an RSA by focusing on these very basic functions. It has not done so heretofore. This endeavor can be aided by making a case that support for bilateral alliances does not contradict support for a more robust RSA if this bilateral architecture is being used in a supporting role for the larger, regional effort. In doing so, it is hoped the number of skeptics of RSA will decrease and administration officials can spend more time working with regional actors on building an effective RSA and less time talking about American interest in it.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.