The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
To a great many Americans and Europeans, Southeast Asia today must look like an incurably troubled area. They see that there has been fighting in Laos and vicinity, and that a shooting war is raging in South Viet Nam, killing not only natives but also foreign advisers who have been sent there to help the South Vietnamese defend themselves. They also have read that one nation is confronting another, threatening to crush it flat as a pancake; and perhaps they may have noticed vociferous statements by an ex- king who wants to lay his country at the feet of Communist leaders unless certain Western nations beckon him to take back a few million dollars of aid which he had spurned and proceed to fall on their knees to receive his diktat at an international conference. All this must appear a hazy, unhealthy and utterly confusing situation. Leading their own orderly and prosperous lives, they must incline to shrug their shoulders and ask why their governments don't keep out of such brawls and leave these quarreling people to their own fate.
Even in Thailand, which though not unaffected by these worrisome developments remains an island of peace and tranquillity in the sea of turmoils, people also voice the same queries. Would they not be happier if their leaders could behave like the three legendary monkeys? Unfortunately, there is no such simple way out, and much as the Thai nation wants-like nations in America and Europe-to be left alone to lead a quiet life of its own choice, circumstances simply do not allow it to do so. On the contrary, Thailand perforce must bear its share of the threats and dangers which assault Southeast Asia like furious surf from a stormy sea.
How did this state of affairs come about? The facts are complex, but a brief analysis may be attempted.
Prior to World War I, Southeast Asia, with the exception of Thailand, was under Western colonial rule. The British, French, Dutch and Americans shared control of the region. After 1904 and the formation of the so-called Entente Cordiale, Britain and France agreed to divide their respective zones of influence and not trespass into each other's domain, thus sparing Thailand, then Siam, from falling under the colonial yoke. The agreement also called a halt to the colony-hunting game widely practiced hitherto by many Western nations. Southeast Asia acquired a kind of stability which prevailed until the Second World War.
As the Nazi war machine rolled from one victory to another in Europe, Japan, which had already moved into the Asian mainland, struck at Southeast Asia and succeeded in displacing the Western powers. Until the end of the war in the Pacific, Japan was in full control over Asia as far as the eastern confines of India. That overlordship came to a close at the surrender on the battleship Missouri.
Even though the war ended in victory for the Western nations, which staged a temporary comeback into their former colonial domains, it had undermined the previous order of things in Southeast Asia and brought in a new pattern of life. One by one the Western rulers had to leave, some voluntarily, others by defeat and surrender. The air of Southeast Asia was filled with songs of freedom; the emerging sovereign nations gleefully celebrated their newly won independence. But amidst these boisterous activities a power vacuum developed, for Japan's military might had been smashed and the colonial powers sent home. None of the new nations in the region was strong enough to assert its authority. All of them, without exception, hardly possessed the attributes of modern powers. Even the older ones like Thailand were in the process of learning how to meet the requirements of a highly complex international life. In terms of power politics, Southeast Asia became more or less Balkanized, as Eastern Europe had been on the eve of World War I. Each nation, following its own destiny, spoke a political language of its own, which was not generally understood. There was neither unison nor a lingua franca.
The tasks confronting the newly independent Southeast Asian nations thus appear mainly to be twofold. They have first to devise their own internal order and structure, and then to define their position vis-à-vis the outside world.
In regard to the first, one conclusion seems to be beyond any doubt, namely that these nations do not want to preserve the foundation laid by their former masters. For most of them the colonial era evokes painful and, for some, even bitter memories. The relics of it must be erased as promptly and as completely as possible. After all, they are now fully sovereign. How then can a colonial framework fit their new status?
In their search for a social order of their choice, at least two patterns offer themselves: either the structure of most of the Western nations, known as capitalism or the free-enterprise system, or a more recent system developed by late-comers in the world community, socialism. The first system is not unfamiliar. They had seen it in operation at close range, and even distorted as it came to be applied to overseas territories. It may be highly beneficial to metropolitan countries; but the advantages turn out to be much less for colonies which do not have either political or social equality. The protecting nations may proclaim to the world the great weight of their white man's burden; they cannot hide, however, the truth that their colonies had brought to them shiploads of riches. It is difficult for newly independent nations to have much taste for capitalism or free enterprise which, as they knew it, often smacked of exploitation.
Moreover, even in metropolitan territories where equality seems to prevail, the success of the free-enterprise system, with all the advantages attributed to it, is conditioned upon a long accumulation of compounded human and material resources which new nations do not have or have only insufficiently. Nor can they afford to wend their way through the years of evolution as did those who preceded them. The emerging nations are in general retarded both economically and socially; they are therefore impatient to make up for lost time and to catch up with the advanced countries as swiftly as possible. Thus free enterprise does not appear to them to be the most desirable mold in which to cast their economy.
There remains the other alternative, socialism, which at least in one instance has given a performance not unworthy of consideration. The experience of the Soviet Union, once a nation with a backward peasant economy, cannot fail to attract attention and also, perhaps, more or less openly avowed admiration. True, its rise was accomplished by immense sacrifices in human lives and suffering. However, faraway nations which were not directly or indirectly affected cannot be expected to show strong sentiments about such things. Indeed, they all too willingly overlook the debit side of the experiment and are impressed only with the truly astounding results. Especially those nations which glorify themselves in what they call the revolutionary spirit and philosophy find the socialist system adequate and adaptable to their homeland. And in their overwhelming self-confidence, they believe that they will be able to avoid the pitfalls of the Russian experiment, keeping only its beneficial side.
In actual practice, neither has the free-enterprise concept been altogether discarded nor has socialism been adopted in its pure Marxist form. The result is a rather hybrid offshoot which may ultimately prove more suitable to Southeast Asian soil.
While some nations in this area have been attracted by the socialist experience, others like Thailand with longer traditions in freedom and independence, and particularly with no deep-seated grudge to bear against exploiting Western empire-builders, remain more firmly attached to the free- enterprise system. In their case, no revolutionary fires were needed to blaze away ties of bondage, and they show a greater inclination toward moderation than toward radical experiments involving heavy tolls in human life and misery. The soothing and peaceable Buddhist philosophy which advocates neither asceticism nor martyrdom certainly plays an important part in influencing the choice of an economic and social system, pointing toward a more moderate experience like Japan's rather than distant Russia's.
Japan, territorially small, also underwent an amazing experiment. From being a relatively insignificant nation, it rose to prominence among the Great Powers through methodical and determined effort. However, little trace of socialism is to be found in its great national undertakings. Its economic and social system has always been that of free enterprise, with its assets and drawbacks. Reduced by war to rubble and ashes, it now is making a spectacular comeback on the same basis as before. It has been vastly aided in reconstruction by the same people who rained destruction upon it. Nevertheless, if its methods of development and progress are so successful, they surely have some merit.
The conclusion seems to be that, instead of adopting a system that is still untested and untried in this part of the world, it is prudent to rely on examples of visible success closer home. This is why, in spite of a substantial upswing in favor of socialism, many nations in Southeast Asia still cling to the free-enterprise system, with necessary adaptations, as the course which will ensure their fuller and more orderly development.
Much the same reasoning applies to an even greater extent in the political field. Here the choice between free democracy and what is called people's democracy is easier, since few people, if any, ever choose of their own accord to embrace "people's democracy," or to use a plainer term, Communism. Usually, if not always, it is imposed upon them either in consequence of a war, as was done by the Soviet Union in the Eastern European countries, or as compound effects of historical, social and administrative circumstances, as in the case of Mainland China or Cuba.
The problem to be solved is whether a representative system or parliamentary democracy as practiced in Anglo-Saxon countries is susceptible of being adapted to Southeast Asia. The question lacks precision, since the American system, for example, has shades of difference from the traditional British parliamentary system. Be that as it may, certain Southeast Asian countries which inherited the tradition from their former rulers claim that the system is functioning satisfactorily and take pride in it. Another country has transplanted the American presidential concept. So far, no expressions of disappointment have been heard and all concerned are to be congratulated for their adaptability.
With others, including Thailand, the experiment has gone less well. It would be wrong as a result to jump to the conclusion that some Southeast Asian peoples are more democratic-minded than others. It would be closer to the truth to say that those who experienced Anglo-Saxon rule had the opportunity to be imbued with the traditions of their former tutors. But this is only a partial explanation, for a scrutiny of representative democracy as practiced in this region reveals a number of differences from the practice of it in its homeland. In the first place, its application here rests more upon financial means. Further, it leads to many widespread disturbances, some of which result in considerable losses of human life, especially during electoral contests. It may still be the same democratic representative system, but when transplanted to this region it seems to have altered its fundamental character and be reduced in worth and value.
Thailand may in this connection be a case apart, for the Thai people, imbued with the most egalitarian and compassionate of all faiths, Buddhism, have always practiced the basic tenets of democracy. They believe profoundly in human equality and there is never either class struggle or watertight compartmentalization between the various elements of the Thai society. Any individual may rise, on his own merits, from the humblest to the highest position. Most important of all, discrimination in all its forms is totally alien to the Thai mind. In spite of these assets, the Western representative system has not produced results measuring up to expectations; indeed, instead of bringing progress and stability, it once brought the Thai nation close to the brink of disintegration. This unsatisfactory performance may have originated in technical maladjustments. In any event, the Thai nation has for some time been at work to adapt the system to its own genius and make it function properly.
In addition to the task of determining their economic, social and political structures, there remains another problem of no less magnitude for the newly independent Southeast Asian countries-how to define their position, attitude and national line of conduct vis-à-vis the outside world.
Here again at least two possibilities are open, each of them advocated by a group of powers which aims to win adherents or at least good will and moral support. The competition is indeed very keen. The means used range from the usual international courtesies, friendly and frequent intercourse through normal diplomatic channels as well as personal contacts, to less suave media of propaganda including various kinds of pressure and even a resort to infiltration and subversion. But the most effective methods are no doubt found in trade relations and particularly in aid in various forms. These vary from less expensive methods such as technical coöperation and long- term loans with low or no interest to outright grants for economic or military purposes. The competition to win the hearts and minds of the emerging nations represents a serious undertaking to which both sides have been devoting much attention and energy as well as considerable resources; for success or failure will have wide implications for the future world status of each.
As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, this subtle but deadly campaign has shown only moderate gains for the socialist side. But though only North Viet Nam has fallen into the Communist orbit, as a result of the partition of Viet Nam at the 1954 Geneva Conference, this does not mean that the Communist side has lost out in the contest. On the contrary, since that conference, more and more determined efforts have been deployed to make further inroads into non-Communist adjacent areas of Laos, South Viet Nam and the northwestern part of Southeast Asia. The tactics combine infiltration, subversion, insurgency and even conventional military force. The supplies include not only propaganda and military equipment and materials but also well trained political and military cadres and technicians who play such a vital role in actual fighting in South Viet Nam.
In Laos, the Communist gains consisted firstly of securing de facto control over two of the Laotian northern provinces, even though these remain under the nominal authority of the central government, and a long corridor connecting North with South Viet Nam, through which military personnel and supplies steadily flow to sustain and intensify Communist Viet Cong operations in South Viet Nam. The Communists also scored an important victory by extorting an agreement from Western and other non-Communist nations assembled at the Second Geneva Conference in 1961-62 to confer legality on the Communist-controlled Pathet Lao, and to include it together with the neutralist and conservative groups in the so-called Government of National Union. This gives the Communist faction unprecedented power to make or break Laotian governments at will and might enable it to take over the whole Kingdom of Laos without firing a bullet-or using only a few bullets.
In South Viet Nam, whatever advantages the Communists have been able to secure are not without cost. Their investments both in terms of human life and resources have been heavy and continue to increase. The substantial assistance from the United States to South Viet Nam has prevented them from making significant advances. But they can now engage in larger military operations than before, and with supplies coming in more steadily through Laos and Cambodia, which provide a privileged sanctuary, immune from pursuit and retaliatory measures, they have become bolder and carry out their war with renewed vigor. Communist North Viet Nam, undeterred by either loss or cost, makes the seizure of South Viet Nam more than ever a national project of top priority. There can be no doubt that in this it is supported by its big brother further north.
Compared with other theaters of Communist operations, the northwestern part of Southeast Asia has drawn few newspaper headlines. However, this relative quietness gives no ground for optimism. In actual fact, the activities conducted there-mainly by the Chinese Communists-are ant-like and mostly clandestine. Instead of seeking publicity and spectacular results, they patiently aim at gradually undermining the existing structure. They seem to think that time is on their side. For our part, we hope that we shall be able to assess the extent of the damage done and possibly repair it before the entire edifice crumbles.
In the southern part of Southeast Asia, Communist activities are not carried on exclusively by Asian Communists but take on a wider international character; Communist progress or setbacks there are also better known than elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that they should not be closely watched. As is well known, the Communist Party of Indonesia is the third largest in the world, ranking next after those of the two principal Communist lands. Its assumption of power in a country with over one hundred million people would thus have far-reaching consequences for the whole area.
The sympathy and support which the Free World has found among certain nations, both new and old, are due less to promises of material advantages and cajolery than to the similarity of ideals and approaches to international life. These nations realize that those who seek to dominate others either by guile or by force are a threat to their own free existence. They therefore have decided to join with other nations which make the same assessment of the danger, hoping that their combined efforts may curb any encroachment on their way of life and heritage of freedom. Far from banking on immediate material gains, they were aware that the decision to commit themselves would be less than lucrative. For it had to be expected that once they had done so, major attention and consideration would shift to other potential recruits. What they hoped for most was assurance that, should the danger materialize, they would not be left to themselves, and that others who had accepted the commitment toward them would in fact come to their help in an emergency.
The question which arises then is: Will the help come? To ask the question does not imply an intention to reflect on the moral integrity of one's allies and partners; it is rather an expression of realism and prudence. History, particularly of recent times, is strewn with examples of lesser nations being sacrificed by their allies on the pretext of preserving the peace of the world but actually because the national prestige and vital interests of those allies were not directly affected. International conferences were sometimes resorted to in order to afford a more or less honorable way out of the obligation. Or else the unfortunate victim was simply left to face either destruction or surrender.
These happen to be facts of international life. No responsible government nowadays can disregard them except at its own peril. Caution becomes even more necessary when international treaties abound with clauses euphemistically referring to so-called "constitutional processes" which may reflect either a deep deference to the legislative authority or provide a convenient escape device in case the discharge of the treaty obligation does not appear to serve national interests or becomes too onerous. In such event, it would not be too difficult to leave it to the legislature to stall or even to prevent action from being taken. The government which had undertaken the obligation would be faultless and blameless; but the result would still be that the assurance solemnly given would have come to naught.
These complex facts of international life are not unfamiliar even to those who recently attained nationhood. While awaiting the day of liberation, they had seen nations disappear, obliterated by aggression or split asunder by international treaties. Now they are asked to make up their minds, to choose to live with the free or the forward-looking (as the two sides like to depict themselves). If the dice are cast for the forward-looking they may have to wait a long time before the promised goal is ever attained. In the meantime, life will be asphyxiatingly drab, regimented and subdued by an ever-present iron discipline. If, on the other hand, they join with the free and become "safe," they foresee that many of the amenities with which they have been lavishly showered by both parties may soon taper off or even cease completely; this will be true, at any rate, of those coming from the other side. As regards the security which may be gained, elementary wisdom and simple object lessons reveal that it will be contingent upon the interests directly involved; and even if vital interests are actually involved, probably no great distinction will be made between committed and non-committed nations. The latter will be succored as surely as the former, if the peril facing them jeopardizes the national interests of others, too.
Under these circumstances is it reasonable to expect these nations to make a choice? They thereby lose many of the benefits, material and otherwise, which had been flowing to them from many sides. They have to incur more or less onerous obligations, while the security benefits will be dependent upon a number of uncertain factors. Moreover, those benefits may sometimes be enjoyed without undertaking any commitment in return. In these circumstances, the natural reaction seems to be not to make any choice, at least not at present. Such an attitude does not seem to be unrealistic and can scarcely be reproached. The new or small nations may say candidly that there is no hurry to choose one side or the other; and by postponing the choice, a moment may come when they can decide with proper appreciation of all the facts. This actually happens to be the attitude taken by many newly independent nations who have refused to join either of the two sides. Their policy of non-alignment serves, in their view, to maintain the delicate balance in our divided world.
Such is Southeast Asia in all its diversity of political structures, economic and social orders and national policies, as variegated in nuances and shades as a spring flowerbed. Will this diversity help or harm the region? Many of us who have our roots and a stake in it are anxious to know the answer. Will it work as a centrifugal force tearing this area apart? Or will it serve to unite and bind all the components together into a cohesive whole?
Much as we would like to concentrate on Southeast Asia alone, it is neither possible nor advisable to consider it "out of context," divorced from its surroundings, in particular ignoring the geopolitical fact that both to the east and the west stand two enormous colossi looking down on the area's rich and fertile plains, ready to release the teeming millions who fill to the brim their own parched and eroded lands. Even though these masses may seem amorphous, as indeed they were at the end of World War II, they are impressive enough by their sheer numbers. Can they be contained within their own sphere or will they spill over into the green valleys of Southeast Asia? The problem has become more urgent than it was. Prior to the war, many had left their ancestral homes, alternately scorched by drought or flooded by erratic rains, to seek a better living in more promising lands. The process then was more or less peaceful and unorganized. In the future, if any mass movement were to take place, particularly from the east, it is likely to be not in a single file but in close military formation.
As the war ended, bringing freedom in its wake, there were some who dreamed of an Asian Entente Cordiale between Russia and China, the two most populous nations of Asia, which would carve up this region into zones of influence, as the two West European countries did early in the twentieth century. But the Communist régime in Mainland China has shown a preference for violent revolution over the traditional Buddhist-Gandhian philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence), and made clear its determination not to share but to dominate. The Sino-Indian border dispute revealed that the plan for a peaceful division of Southeast Asia must be abandoned. The dragon shows no desire to let anyone share influence over this region; the dominant role will have to be exclusively its own.
Since then, new bids have been made to fill the power vacuum left by the departure of Western colonial rulers, one on a continental basis, the other on a more modest regional scale.
The first bid, in true oriental tradition, was made quietly. Except for a brief fracas in the high reaches of northwest Asia the manifestations of it were hardly perceptible; but there can be no mistake that it was made. From now on, if there was to be peace in Asia, it would eventually have to be a Pax Sinica. Highly sensitive Asian leaders, like the Cambodian and a few others, thinking they saw the signs of the times, hastened to endeavor to accommodate themselves to the new era. They hoped that by being among the first to jump onto the victorious bandwagon they would be sure of a privileged place in the future setup.
There also have been indications lately that some desire to fill the vacuum left by past colonial powers on a regional basis. Relying mainly on numbers and perhaps also on superiority in arms, they put forward claims that any modifications of the existing order and any arrangements which might alter the present setup in Southeast Asia, particularly its southern portion, would have to be subject to their prior concurrence and endorsement. Otherwise they would withhold approval and even show their opposition, if necessary by resort to force. The appearance of this trend in Southeast Asia, although not completely unexpected, has added a new element of uncertainty to the area.
Viewing these developments, nations outside the region, especially those which had once been involved there, have taken an alarming view of its future prospects. Consciously or otherwise, they seem to believe that the influence and authority of the Pax Sinica will ultimately engulf Asia, as the Pax Romana once covered Gaul and Western Europe. In their wisdom and farsightedness, they have suggested that Southeast Asia, or certain parts of it to begin with, should be neutralized. They do not pretend that such a solution will save the free nations of the area, but only that it may retard their downfall. This device of neutralization has been widely discussed during the past few months, and though it has met with a small measure of support it has encountered much greater opposition. Its main defects appear to stem from the fact that it has already been tried, and unsuccessfully, in Laos (because of a lack of good faith on the other side); and secondly because neutralization is not a solution but rather a temporary expedient, or at best a moratorium, before ultimate surrender and subjection take place. Consequently, while some may be prepared fatalistically to accept the curtailment of their rights and even the deprivation of their sovereignty, many more, accustomed to long traditions of freedom and independence, categorically reject such a prospect. In any case, they are not resigned to it. If their age-old heritage is to be lost, it will have to be after they have made every effort to defend it.
For a traditionally independent nation like Thailand, everything does not seem to be lost, even though the situation may look ominous. The solution is not to be found in submission, at present or in the future, but in gathering sufficient strength to meet the challenge and in joining with others who are imbued with the same faith in their future and are willing to ward off the danger and defend their patrimony. The problem is to arouse the conscience of as many Southeast Asian nations as possible to the necessity of combining their strength, of working closely together and presenting a solid front to anyone daring to entertain evil designs against them. If they succeed, not only will each and every one of them be spared from destruction, but the region as a whole will emerge as a strong and free community, capable of serving its own interests as well as those of the world at large. This, we hope, will be Southeast Asia's lasting call, and that it will be heard.