In This Review

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power
Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power
By Natasha Hamilton-Hart
Cornell Univ Pr, 2012, 256 pp

Hamilton-Hart raises a fascinating, overlooked question: Why is the United States widely viewed as a benign power in Southeast Asia, its presence welcomed rather than feared despite the many violent, selfish, and unwise things it has done over the years? She is not satisfied with the obvious answers: that the United States is far away and presents no territorial threat, that it promotes capitalist development and maritime security to the benefit of all, and that it acts as a counterweight to China. Her core answer to the puzzle is the overlap of local elite interests with American anticommunism during the Cold War, which gave rise to a consensus viewpoint that has reinforced itself over time. For Southeast Asian elites -- although not for labor movements or insurgent groups -- the U.S. presence has in fact been largely beneficent. Thus, the “interests” of her title seem to trump the “illusions.” As is often the case with constructivist analyses, such as this one, it is hard to distinguish the effect of perceptions from the effect of the actual material realities that actors perceive.