How was the critical American alliance system originally established in Asia, and is it currently threatened? In his most recent book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia, Victor Cha draws from theories about alliances, unipolarity, and regime complexity to examine the fascinating evolution of the U.S. alliance system. Exploring the motivations and aspirations of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, Cha explains the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Asia and how it contributes to the resiliency of global alliances today. Recently Cha took some time to discuss his book and what he learned while writing it.
Why did you write this book?
VC: I was motivated to write a history of how the United States created this incredibly unique and important alliance system in Asia. Long after the Cold War, these alliance still exist and indeed are critical to US policy today. So how and why were these alliances formed? Powerplay is one of those studies that a scholar can work on for years. It deals largely with archival work and in that regard, it is timeless! In my case, I had started the project some 12 years ago and had written about 100 pages. Then, I left Georgetown to take public service leave when I worked on the National Security Council as a director for Asian affairs. I did this for nearly three years between 2004 and 2007 and when I returned to the academy, I took on two additional book projects which took me away from Powerplay for four years. I was so happy to get back to it, however, and spent the last two years going back into the archives and recreating the history of how Kennan, Dulles, Eisenhower and Truman thought about Asia at the end of World War II. I was also able to weave into the last chapter my thoughts about the future of the US alliance system based on my experiences in government. I am so happy with the result and look forward to sharing this with readers.
What did you learn in the course of writing the book?
VC: Perhaps the most interesting lesson for me was how the American experiences as a great power in Asia were truly unique. Even as a colonial power in the 19th century, the United States did not behave like European powers or like prewar Japan. It was a hegemon in Asia, but was more inclusive in its thinking and genuinely interested in more than simply imperial designs. Just as an example, the United States in the 19th century actively encouraged its missionaries to go to Asia to teach about worship, values, and faith. This was unlike the British who banned their missionaries from educating Asia and the Japanese which later imposed state worship on their colonial subjects. The American interest was cultural and economic before it was strategic. It was only with the Cold War that the United States was compelled to create strategic relationships, but then used these relationships to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.
What is your favorite chapter in the book?
VC: Like all authors, I enjoyed the conclusion, because it meant the book was done! Aside from that, I enjoyed very much writing the case study chapters on Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as the stories for each case are different and special in each of their own ways. There are some wonderful quotes by Asian leaders like Syngman Rhee of Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan that were fun to discover in the archives. I also enjoyed writing the section in Chapter 7 about the region’s efforts to form a multilateral security organization in 1949. These efforts are not really covered in other histories.
What is the story behind the cover art?
VC: So, the editors at Princeton and I discussed for a while an appropriate cover for the book. There were some fantastic pictures in the Dulles papers at Princeton that I had come across, and the one we chose is that of John Foster Dulles at the front in Korea one week before the North Korean invasion of 1950. The other photo we considered was Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signing a document at the San Francisco conference with Dulles and Dean Acheson standing behind him. Both photos conveyed the inordinate strength that the United States wielded at the time over these countries, but also an appreciation of the strategic importance of these new allies. The book is about “control” and these photos seemed to convey the “hands-on” nature of the U.S. commitment.
Victor Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and formerly served as director of Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council. Cha is an award-winning author, receiving awards for his books The Impossible State and Alignment Despite Antagonism. His most recent book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.