The Geopolitical Lessons of 1991 and the Revisionist Turn

My political consciousness of a wider world around me – a world larger than Deep South and America – coincided with the 1991 Gulf War. On one side of that war is memory fog so dense I can only ‘remember’ the fall of Berlin Wall through history books and YouTube videos. Thus, by chance, I was tuning into this world at the moment my President was declaring the birth of a “New World Order,” George H.W. Bush’s optimistic term for what we now call the post-Cold War Era. The end of the Cold War, in this time, heralded not just the end of a multi-generational existential threat but a time when the world agreed with America on core issues: Iraq was wrong to invade Kuwait and 39 countries joined swords to say, “this is not how things will work from now on.”

I sometimes envision that for the rest of the world, the Cold War felt something like a more deadly version of contemporary US partisanship. Most countries either chose a team or had the choice decided for them1. That this is not entirely true is a point will be returned to, but surely alliance relationships with the Soviets or Americans often felt like protection rackets. And perhaps neither the Soviets or Americans were wrong to insist to weaker countries that there was a threat so real that safety could only be found by joining one racket or the other.

Like any good racketeering syndicate, “once you were ‘in,’ you’re in.” Marcos would tolerate Reagan’s dangerous blustering blustering towards the Soviet Union, and Reagan would overlook Marco’s human rights abuses against anyone who might assist ‘third column’ Reds. The Philippines provided America with bases and America was, in theory, on standby to assist if the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas ever came down the mountains and marched on Manila2. It was never an equal relationship: the Philippine’s owed a security ‘debt’ to America almost as infinite as America’s capacity to wage war. There was also an understanding the Americans or Soviets would quickly find a replacement amongst your rivals should you want to put any distance between your country your super-power protector.

This was all a historical relic by 1991, so much so that Fukuyama’s The End of History seems only to have captured an ether in the air between the original 1989 essay and 1992 book. If the Cold War was like today’s Washington partisanship, the Soviets were apt to support Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait only because America opposed it (or vice versa). The end of history was the end of politics was the end of such stupid rivalry, because one side was right and the other was wrong. The end of history implied more Gulf War-style coalitions with the United States military in the lead because it was assumed everyone now agreed with America’s set of norms that put teeth to in moral claims about this ‘New World Order’: it was wrong for powerful countries like Iraq to bully and then annex weaker states like Kuwait; they must leave or be crushed. The moral weight of the world was pro-America and the rivalry and violence of the protection racket were things of the past.

The truth, of course, was more complicated. A widely forgotten event exposes the rumblings a chaotic unraveling, so familiar today, could be already be heard at the same time that Washington was heralding a “New World Order.” The Philippine Senate looked at what can might be called the national security ‘balance book,’ found the existing alliance relationship unacceptable, and voted the American military off their islands. The protection America had offered since the 1980’s was against the damage the Soviet’s would do to American allies. The ‘normalization’ of China meant the New People’s Army was no longer receiving outside support, making the threat far less tangible. Why was the American military still there except as a reminder of who colonized whom a ninety years earlier?

In 1991 Mount Pinatubo covered the largest US bases in volcanic ash just as the Soviet threat was gone, just as the US basing lease was coming up for removal, and more than a decade after NPA threat diminished. The Americans, however, were unwilling to change any of the terms of the alliance arrangement. It was not just that the Americans would not pay higher rents or subject their soldiers to Philippine laws and courts, but that Americans refused to discuss new terms with their Filipino counterparts like partners. Not liking the American attitude and no longer valuing the American presence as they did before, the leases were left to expire and the Americans left the Philippines claiming they were the ones to question the value of Clark and Subic Bay in this new era.

That it was not entirely true that every country was forced to choose one side or the other during the Cold War was reference to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and China in particular, when I said that the Cold War was not exactly like a protection racket where every country had to choose sides. There was Sino-Soviet schism after Stalin died and Americans refused to believe it wasn’t a hoax until the late 1970’s. While initially Mao’s attempt to steal the Soviet throne in the socialist camp, by the time Deng came to power China embraced the ethos that countries should not have to participate in the dualistic Cold War protection rackets. Instead, you could stay out of the fray or play both sides against each other like the Egypt and Indian did.

The 1991 Philippine Senate vote should be remembered today as the country embracing those same transactional NAM philosophy of international relations. If Americans couldn’t come to Philippine’s terms for a new alliance arrangement, they could be shown the door. This was the new Philippines that had just removed Marcos, friend to Reagan and brutal thug to Filipinos. All of this was a profound change of course: a security ‘debt’ once thought virtually unlimited was suddenly seen to have obvious limitations, the biggest of which was a looking at their geopolitical landscape and seeing no apparent threats on the horizon warranting the old terms of the American alliance deal.

The closure of Clark and Subic Bay in the Philippines signaled the beginning of something very different. It was the end of existential despair about Cold War threats and with it the end of limitless security ‘debts.’ Manila didn’t kick the US out because it American politicians lacked ‘resolve’ or saw the US military as ‘weak’ after the turkey shoot in Iraq. Instead, they felt they did not need the same level of protection anymore (if it was ever ‘needed’ in the first place). That the Philippines chose a de facto pacifist foreign policy for the post-Cold War Era is mutually exclusive with arguments that America wasn’t “there for them.” Either the US security blanket was found too smothering or it wasn’t comforting enough. Americans believe the latter because they have selectively forgotten that they were kicked out by their best friends in Asia3 when Obama was graduating from Harvard Law School.

It took nearly twenty years for the Philippine political elite to learn they had severely miscalculated when the Revisionist Turn appeared out of nowhere starting in 2008 when the Russian army invaded Georgia as Beijing kicked off their Olympics games. By 2011 Chinese ships were firing warning shots at Philippine fishing boats inside their Philippine territorial waters. In seeing no external threats worth their attention anymore, they not only kicked the Americans out but let their military, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), fall into a deep state of neglect.

When the Scarborough Shoal standoff arrived 2012 they had an Air Force with no jets and a former USCG frigate serving as their navy’s flagship. They had no choice but to stand down and renegotiate the US alliance when that ancient flagship, the BRPO Gregorio del Pilar, was caught ‘naked’ surrounded by unarmed Chinese vessels less than 200 kilometers from the former Subic Base US Navy base. More than that, the mirage of the ‘New World Order’ was shattered. China had the same disputes and lower level confrontations with every Philippine neighbor, but an alliance of any two of them over the same threat vector proved too much of a challenge. They had kicked the Americans out, and no internation coalition was coming to the rescue on principle alone.

We should remember this historical context when we hear pundits and scholars lament the collapse of an international order that was already cracking in 1991. When we hear that China seeks to displace the American-led international order, I wonder if they already haven’t done just that. The end of the Cold War was the end of infinite security ‘debts’ and the onset of a new transactional, arguably mercantilist, style of international relations that China has been pioneering since Reform and Opening. The extinction of infinite alliance security debt-bondage was the proverbial lowering of the tide: anyone could now see which countries which countries were swimming naked.

That some countries didn’t mind being caught naked geopolitical swimming pool should be a more important question, because it offers explanation for why the Philippine political elite that chose not just evict American bases, but let their military atrophy to such an extent that it could offer no realistic deterrent value should a geopolitical hard power crisis emerge. The best answer is the most obvious: the saw little, if any, value in either security ‘debts’ to powerful nations or the expense of preparing for something they deemed implausible. Duterte’s later skepticism of AFP modernization, framed as futile against China, cannot be retroactively fitted when equally poor neighbors like Vietnam and Indonesia continued a slow but steady path of military modernization.

Nor has the ‘nakedness’ of country’s like the Ukraine and Philippines really factored in to how they responded when geopolitics took a hard power Revisionist Turn. This context is so thoroughly missing that ‘we’ got to this place has has been mischaracterized. Just as the Philippine break with the United States in 1991 was not replaced with a racket-alliance with China (or anyone else), China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Development Infrastructure Bank are not meant to replace Bretton Woods institutions. China’s threat to the ‘American-led’ international order has been one of ethos and style instead of substance and institutions. Consequently, the issue with Realist international relations theory was that it over-emphasized hard power in an era when most states had come to see the threat of inter-state war greatly diminished if not entirely extinct in some parts of the world.

A new mercantilist style had already begun overtaking the mode of international relations. The style was wrong in underestimating the continued existence of hard power, of strong stakes bullying weak states, but that political elite almost everywhere outside of the United States acted as if this assessment was correct led them down paths to unexpected vulnerability.

As badly as the Philippines miscalculated, no country one has been worse in misunderstanding the nature of this change than the United States. The problem has been perceived only on the supply side in Washington; America has been too ‘weak,’ and rivals have exploited this. Syria used poison gas because Obama didn’t ‘do something.’ China militarized the South China Sea, turning reefs and shoals into island fortresses, because ‘we let them get away with it.’

It was mercantilist in the sense that the inflationary accounting of the Cold War no longer applied: America’s alliances held together even though the security stakes dramatically fell and every country interacted with each other as if hard power would never be used. What, to the Japanese in 1991, was the value of America’s nuclear umbrella? But with China and Russia’s Revisionist Turn, every countries relative power ‘account balance’ in was seen for what it was. Weaker countries (the Philippines, Georgia, Ukraine) were found to be overplaying the cards they had against powerful revisionist states (China and Russia), just as America was found to be overplaying its hands in North Korea, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere.

This was all packed inside a model of international relations quietly advocated by China for three decades before the Revisionist Turn, had already become the de facto world order. Within five years, both the Philippine and American publics would elect leaders that overtly embraced mercantilist IR. The best that can be said of these men is that they sought only to kick away the last hopes of The End of History and the “New World Order.” They want to negotiate, country-to-country, strength-to-weakness, because that’s the way things already seem to be.

  1. See: Germany, Vietnam, and Korea ↩︎
  2. Communicated for more than a decade through costly ‘alliance assurence’ pursued in Vietnam. ↩︎
  3. However one-sided the feeling was: Americans do not celebrate Philippine-America Friendship Day and few know that such an honor exists on the other side of the Pacific ↩︎

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