Synopsis of the 2018 Asan Plenum: “Illiberal International Order”

The agenda of the 2018 Asan Plenum included a keynote address, a book launch, four plenary sessions, and fourteen panels meeting simultaneously in groups of two or three. My intention is not to be comprehensive but to reflect on commentaries about challenges to the international order: the fall of the order, Sino-Russian relations and the order, the impact of sharp power, and the liberal order as viewed from various angles in the Indo-Pacific region. The shadow of the looming diplomacy with North Korea hovered heavily over the plenum; the second set of themes considered was the US alliance with South Korea and the assessments of North Korea as an outlier whose diplomacy could exert an impact on regional order and security. Such observations need to be put in the context of the dramatic development on April 27, when President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong-un at the DMZ to rapt global attention. The plenum was a prelude to that with sober commentaries about where diplomacy may be leading.

What undermines the liberal international order? In the Cold War era, it was assumed that the gravest threat was insufficient hard power, allowing countries to feel intimidated by the Soviet power or to be subverted by the penetration of Soviet agents, arms, and agitation. There was a soft power competition, which communist ideology utilized to arouse discontent drawing on opposition to racism, inequality, and other social themes, while concealing the reality of life in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the communist bloc. The threat to the order today derives from: the economic variant of hard power, wielded by China; the resurgence of arms sales from Russia to China along with other forms of military cooperation as China boosts its hard power and Russia uses its own in a more aggressive manner; the impact of sharp power as a newly disruptive force; the nuclear threat from North Korea, a possible proxy when China and Russia refrain from pressuring it; and self-weakening by the United States and Great Britain when they undercut the very order they had worked hard to build over many decades, especially just after WWII. A mix of these forces has contributed to widely shared attitude that the liberal international order has lost ground and is more threatened than at any time since the Cold War or even during the Cold War.

For many panelists, Donald Trump stood as a major threat to the liberal international order that prior US presidents had forged and strongly supported. Yet, there was also a defense of Trump, who was portrayed as determined—on the basis of his conception of US interests—to construct a new, international order, less liberal in nature. Many suggested that “Trumpism” will fundamentally reshape the order. Across various panels, however, speakers questioned how Trump’s “America First” agenda and also his unilateralist, sledgehammer approach to the existing US-led order would coalesce around multilateralism, shared values, trust among allies and security partners, and economic globalism in ways that sustain or reform the old order, rather than simply destroy it. The challenge to the long-vital liberal international order thus comes from within, from outside forces led by China and Russia, and from structural changes that are demanding adjustments to the order.

Why Is the Liberal International Order under Assault?

Two answers as to the cause of the vulnerability of the liberal international order permeated the discussion. First, domestic policies were blamed for weakening the cohesion of societies and the seriousness with which they respond to external threats—whether Chinese trade and penetration practices that have intensified of late, or Russian moves to sow division, reaching their acme in 2016. Deepening distrust in one’s own system and institutions creates fertile soil for an obsession with enemies at home rather than alertness to challenges from abroad. Brexit and the election of Trump reflected such internal discord. Given ongoing doubts about the domestic situation in the United States and elsewhere in the West, this cause stood out.

Second, China and Russia were predisposed to challenge this order regardless of US policies, although both insist that they are reacting to containment policies not inherent to the order. No interpretation of Xi Jinping’s newly unlimited tenure after his power grab and Vladimir Putin’s new six-year term as president with almost unchecked power provided reason for confidence that the aggressiveness of their policies in opposition to the existing international and regional order would be diminished. The assault on the liberal international order will continue, many assumed, and the vulnerability of that order to today’s ongoing challenges was a pervasive concern.

There appeared to be a deeper cause to the malaise about the growing fragility of the international liberal order. The worldly elites from the think tank, academic, and diplomatic world have operated on a set of assumptions that seemed to be questionable in the latter part of the 2010s. The pillars of the order in the Indo-Pacific region that are welcome in this self-contained world, such as the TPP, the Six-Party Talks, and intensified sanctions that superseded them, have proven vulnerable to rhetoric that blames more open trade and negotiating trade-offs for the insecurities of our age. Simplistic answers and demagoguery found fertile soil where people are constantly told of the shortcomings of ongoing endeavors without grasping the ins and outs of real horse-trading.

Should We Anticipate the Fall of the Liberal International Order?

Although there was considerable pessimism in many of the panels, few were inclined to predict the fall of the order. The reasons varied. First, there was a tendency to assume the vitality of the US political order in weathering the Trump onslaught on many of its principles. Second, the cohesion of the US alliance system and the commitment to the liberal international order of the allies in Europe and Asia were recognized as bulwarks resistant to attacks on the order. Third, the lack of a serious ideological challenge encourages people to believe that soft power is not being mobilized to threaten that order despite the disruptive impact of the ongoing challenges. In general, it was difficult to pinpoint any alternative, despite the discord that will likely linger.

Opinions varied. At one extreme was the idea that Trump is saving the order by addressing its weaknesses. At the other was the notion that the order is not worth saving and will naturally be transformed if the US and Western resistance is finally overcome. The prevailing mood appeared to be that the order is worth saving and reinforcing by resisting and reforming it, not through Trump’s sledgehammer tactics or foreign assaults to undermine it, but by more multilateral coordination behind such tenets as the rule of law, free and fair trade, and security through strength as well as skilled diplomacy. This means doubling down on what was working. The extreme outlier views were heard, but they had scant impact on the mainstream defenders of the existing order, who reinforced each other in seeking ideas for bolstering the order.

Sino-Russian Relations and the Liberal International Order

China and Russia were discussed separately and together. Russia is adamant that the liberal world order is dead, and an alternative is taking shape. The US error in the 1990s was to assume that Russia would be ready to be integrated into existing institutions, instead of calling for new institutions apart from reassertion of the UN Security Council’s prime place on matters of security. Russians insist that the post-WWII order is based on veto-power of five countries and their inviolable sovereignty. This leaves little or no room for the free flow of information, the criticism of anti-democratic behavior and egregious violations of human rights, humanitarian intervention, respect for the struggle of countries against spheres of influence limiting their geopolitical and geo-economic options, and US-led alliances branded as forces for stability rather than hegemony. Whereas China positions itself, however misleadingly, as the champion of the liberal economic order, Russia has openly opposed this order and does not see itself as an economic stakeholder, given its reliance on energy exports. The paradox is that Russia is more hostile to the liberal international order, but China poses the greater threat.

China’s challenge to the order has intensified with assertions that it has become a model for development for developing countries. It is not a revolutionary opponent of the order, but it looms as an economic success story with a different approach to values and the role of the state, which can set an example worth emulating. Lacking economic power and soft power of almost any kind, despite claims to cultural closeness with Slavs and citizens of former Soviet republics, Russia relies on military hard power and on aggressive attacks, including what we discuss below as sharp power, targeted against the backers of the liberal international order.

A point reflecting Russian thinking at the plenum was that no such order ever existed; it was nothing more than an ideological ideal in the West with parallels to the Communist Party’s ideal of unilinear progress. Naturally, as the domination of the West has receded, the ideal appears more suspect. The economic successes of the non-West have led to multipolarity, affirming that civilizational ideals in other parts of the world must be accepted, and the West has to see its own ideals as parochial without promise of spreading them aggressively, as it is still intent on doing, to the entire world. In this reasoning, China is not pursuing its own sinocentric ideals; India and China are working together since they see the world similarly with Russia in opposing the liberal international order, and cohesion—not instability—will follow at the end of this order. This was an outlier rejection of an order that most discussants strove to save.

The Chinese perspective was more nuanced, but often no less antithetical to the mainstream’s search to reinforce the liberal international order. There was also a dearth of common ground. On the minds of many was uncertainty over whether China could manipulate Trump to transform the existing order more to its liking. The values dimension of the order recedes, the trade dimension lends itself to a fresh bilateral deal, the security dimension prioritizes an understanding over North Korea, and the leadership dimension showcases a personal bond of Trump and Xi Jinping that defies anything seen in past rivalries between the two leading powers.

The Impact of Sharp Power on the Liberal International Order

The Russian interference in the US elections and the backlash in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and elsewhere against Chinese interference in domestic affairs have brought the new concept of sharp power to the fore in a matter of months. The panel on sharp power clarified what the concept means, put it in a wider context of types of power and effects on national identity, and compared details on its application by China in several cases. It was widely acknowledged that China’s use of sharp power is more long-term and subtle than Russia’s recent intrusions. Yet, the ideological divergence and profound national identity gap between China, as well as Russia, and the United States and its democratic allies forms the background for application of sharp power. The fact that China supports many aspects of economic openness suggests that it is positive to the liberal international order minus democracy and other values championed by the US side prior to Trump, but some saw China as well as Trump bringing the world back to the nineteenth century. Sharp power, however, is a 21st century phenomenon of using information as a weapon of subversion, which Russia has wielded to maximal effect in the short run, while China is wielding it for long-term and more gradual effect despite recent, prominent setbacks.

The panel on sharp power paid particular attention to Australia, South Korea, and Japan. The case of Australia—with parallels in New Zealand and Canada—is indicative of overreach that aroused a backlash. It revealed United Front activity by China that interfered with freedom of information and democratic norms, prompting an outcry and government moves in defense of the liberal order at home. The South Korean case revealed an alternative Chinese strategy bent on wielding economic power to pressure a country over its security, economic, or human rights policies. In all three respects, defense of the liberal international order can be undermined. One element in both the South Korea and Australian cases is to manipulate public opinion. To do this, China seeks mouthpieces and forges networks to favor its policy standpoints. The case of Japan served as an exception, where China’s sharp power has scarcely been evident. It was suggested that China has lost so much soft power since its heyday in the 1980s that there are few points of entry to insert its sharp power. Yet, Japan may face such intrusions in the near future, as China continues to seek ways to penetrate Japanese society.

The panel and discussion of sharp power that occurred in another panel not only diagnosed the nature of the problem but also discussed how to counter use of this aggressive manipulation of public opinion. It is not clear that the means chosen to deal with Russia’s blatant assaults on the democratic process are suitable for responding to China’s less obtrusive methods. Some moves must start at home to reduce the number of disgruntled voters who are easy pickings. Others depend on foreign policy, avoiding US alienation of allies and partners, that creates a vacuum, e.g. by abnegating leadership as in the abandonment of TPP. Specific steps can be taken to defend digital democracy, to enhance education and media credibility, but also needed, some surmised, is a strategy to make national identity more coherent and credible. Also necessary is what Hillary Clinton dubbed “smart power” to boost soft power by better appreciating what works with bilateral partners. It was well understood that Trump is oblivious to smart power, has dismissed sharp power as a hoax, and will not be the US leader who directs a counterattack in an environment of greater exposure to danger and urgent need to find effective responses.

The Importance of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific for the Liberal International Order

With TPP gone, the rebranded goal of an inclusive regionalism built on a rules-based order that extended from the United States through most of Asia—especially maritime Asia—was evoked as the strategy that could sustain the liberal international order. Although Trump has failed to offer a vision of multilateralism to give substance to this slogan—which is attributed more to Abe than to him—it has captured the imagination of analysts intent on demonstrating how the United States could advance the order. Whether it is directly linked to warnings about China’s threat to the liberal international order or asserted as fundamental principles to which China is welcome to adhere, the adversarial impact of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is difficult to obscure. This is especially clear as US policy toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative has become more oppositional since the middle of 2017, the very time when Abe’s policy has begun to be more conciliatory, despite his insistence that standards such as transparency must be applied.   

The call for a free and open Indo-Pacific challenges China through freedom of navigation, rule of law, and no change through unilateralism. It is inherently an appeal to multilateralism and reinforcement of the status quo, but Trump in his approach to trade, unilateral disruption of the status quo, and what were previously championed as universal values, obfuscates the challenge of drawing a clear line with China. Only in the case of security and connectivity with ramifications for security—often under the rubric of capacity-building—do we see the challenge from China being clearly addressed. US security concerns easily outweigh other concerns, while for Japan, security is important too, but so are demographic needs driving it to look outward.

It is widely agreed that Trump is expediting the decay of the liberal international order. His hostility to multilateralism, free trade, and democratic values tears at the foundation of the order. His unpredictable and unilateral dealings with allies leave them looking for relief. In Asia they face China, which is seeking to reorganize the southern tier through the main thrust of BRI and the northern tier through diplomatic maneuvering over North Korea. This two-pronged strategy relies heavily on economics, but it also benefits from national identity gaps widened as a result of Trump’s impact. It is not only Trump’s tweets and policies; it is also mis-governance that leaves many in the United States with grievances and receptivity to xenophobia of a sort not seen in the West of late. Sharp power finds fertile soil as faith in institutions declines and fragmentation of media makes a democratic national identity appear more problematic. The free and open Indo-Pacific ideal requires leadership that will not only occasionally mouth this slogan but will persistently pursue a strategy of multilateralism to give substance to the idea.

 ROK-US Relations in a New Context

Never before 2018 had Seoul and Washington simultaneously engaged in upbeat diplomacy with Pyongyang and coordinated in this pursuit, despite an interlude in 2006-08 when there was some loose talk of a shared understanding. Never before had the leader of North Korea become the driver in diplomacy, hustling from one summit to the next and entertaining more overtures for summits from countries intent on shaping the geopolitical outcome of this time of diplomacy. Any snapshots of discussions one week are bound to be superseded by events over the next few weeks. Even so, we can grasp for nuggets of lasting wisdom from discussions that anticipated declarations of success from a string of summits that could already be foreseen as raising the hopes of some while arousing warnings of troubles ahead by veterans of diplomacy.

In the background to the obsession with North Korea were indications the US-ROK relations had developed better than expected over the first year of Moon Jae-in’s presidency. Despite shared impressions that Trump and Moon represent sharply divergent ideological camps, they have been getting along rather well. Alarm that the KORUS FTA dispute would set relations on a downward spiral were quickly dispelled. And, of course, signs in February that different views of how to deal with North Korea would tear at the alliance did not last past early March. Trump’s questionable support for the liberal international order has stayed in the background, given the preoccupation with the peninsula in Seoul. Similarly, Trump has not pressed Moon on matters beyond the peninsula, given the US priority for denuclearization and the trade balance. While many anticipated a rougher patch in relations when the pace of economic assistance is linked to the pace of denuclearization through concrete negotiations, that issue is left for the future.

Trump’s assumption that North Korea had been so alarmed by his threats of preventive attack and so hurt by intensified sanctions that Kim Jong-un was ready to unilaterally denuclearize in return for economic incentives and a security guarantee was met with great doubt by commentators. If Trump, along with his national security advisor John Bolton, could anticipate the Libyan agenda, Kim would counter with demands for mutual military retrenchment, sanctions-busting appeals to China and South Korea, and policies targeted at splitting Washington and the other states in the Six-Party process. Few harbored illusions that diplomacy with Kim would proceed smoothly. Yet, speculation on how North Korea’s eventual defiance of Trump would impact the liberal international order seemed premature. One could conjecture a sharp divide between Beijing and Moscow in support of a transition appealing to Pyongyang as Trump was tested in how he could work with Abe, given somewhat different objectives in dealing with Kim, and even more with Moon. The approach Trump has taken to Iran’s nuclear program has disrupted relations with European states, and it does not seem far-fetched that Trump’s handling of North Korea will expose serious divisions with Asian allies and the wide gulf with Beijing and Moscow.

The plenum in late April came at a time of relative harmony between Trump and Moon, as one commentator spoke of making the US-ROK alliance greater. But others warned that summits and diplomacy over the coming months would pose a significant stress test. The roller coaster began with the dramatic reversal in dealing with Pyongyang from 2017 to 2018, and before the year is out—perhaps as soon as the fallout from the June 12 summit date whether a meeting occurs or not—another reversal in mood would not be a big surprise. A belligerent Pyongyang is easier for the alliance than a charm-laden Pyongyang, but hardest, some predict, would be a diplomatically astute Kim Jong-un cleverly playing on differences between the allies and among the other parties most concerned. The focus would shift from mil-mil ties, where bonds are closest, and from summitry to complex diplomacy, for which Trump lacks staff he can trust and Moon’s personnel are more ideological than before. Once the diplomatic floodgates are opened, the bigger regional picture comes to the forefront; US interest in the Indo-Pacific and limiting China in opposition to the North’s interest in using Chinese and Russian needs to position against US alliances. This would put Moon’s engagement of Kim Jong-un in a tenuous atmosphere if Kim sought to capitalize on the split. The basic divide is US (independent of Trump) thinking centered on polarization and South Korean thinking centered on bridge building, whether to North Korea, China, or Russia. 

The Asan Plenum occurred in the midst of optimistic diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, awaiting summits and anticipating breakthroughs. Yet, the skepticism of seasoned diplomats and analysts pointed to pitfalls ahead. No concern was probably greater than the challenges that loomed for US-ROK relations, given different objectives, attitudes toward diplomacy, and approaches to the complex task of multi-stage talks with Kim Jong-un. The troubled atmosphere about sustaining the liberal international order spilled over into unmistakable concern about how to avoid a reversal of mood in dealing with Kim Jong-un. One theme was in the forefront; the other cast a shadow difficult to escape.