#Reviewing By More Than Providence

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783. Michael J. Green, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017.

"Over the course of two hundred years, the United States has in fact developed a distinctive strategic approach toward Asia and the Pacific. There have been numerous instances of hypocrisy, inconsistency and insufficient harnessing of national will and means. There have been strategic miscalculations—particularly before Pearl Harbor, on the Yalu River and in Vietnam. In the aggregate, however, the United States has emerged as the preeminent power in the Pacific not by providence alone but through effective (if not always efficient) application of military, diplomatic, economic and ideational tools of national power to the problems of Asia."[1]

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 is a meticulously researched and comprehensive study of American involvement in the Asia-Pacific since the earliest days of the republic. The author, Dr. Michael J. Green, is eminently qualified to write such a sweeping study having served as special assistant to President George Bush for Asia on the National Security Council and is the chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

The genesis of the book came with Green’s return to academia in 2006 and he discovered there were no comprehensive works on American statecraft more recent than Tyler Dennett’s 1922 American’s in Eastern Asia.[2] Green notes that existing works on American grand strategy begin in 1945 which is a significant shortcoming in the body of existing literature. After all, America has been involved in the Asia-Pacific for over 200 hundred years and a comprehensive analysis of foreign policy and grand strategy of the region is long overdue. Green fills this gap in the existing literature beginning the book “in the cradle of the republic and the first American encounters with the vast Pacific Ocean and the Far East.”[3]

Green argues that if there is a central theme to America’s grand strategy in the Asia Pacific, it is that the United States will not stand for another power “establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.”

Green’s thesis is that America has historically embraced grand strategies towards the Asia Pacific. He is careful to point out that American grand strategies have differed throughout history and Green identifies three important points. First, the grand strategies have always been there, even when America took an isolationist approach to the region. Second, the strategies have worked best when based on a realist approach to international relations. And third, strategies based on an idealist approach have not been as successful. Finally, Green argues that if there is a central theme to America’s grand strategy in the Asia Pacific, it is that the United States will not stand for another power “establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.”[4] This final assertion is clearly evident and one need look no further than the Obama Administration’s Rebalance to Pacific to substantiate this assertion.

Green then goes on to identify five tensions the United States has faced, and must continue to face, to block a potential regional hegemon such as China and assure access for all in the Pacific. These tensions are: Europe vs. Asia; Continental vs. Maritime; China vs. Japan; Defining the Forward Defense Line; Self-Determination vs. Universal Values; and Protectionism vs. Free Trade. Green believes that the United States has always had difficulty balancing these tensions, but American grand strategy has been successful when all the instruments of national power have been applied to the region.

To illustrate these tensions, America’s historical use of grand strategy, and the application of the instruments of national power, Green breaks the book into four periods, the rise of the United States, the rise of Japan, the rise of the Soviets, and the rise of China. Each of these periods is divided into several chapters which examine the varied application of strategic concepts in response to changes in the balance of power. Looking across each era, the author provides detailed analysis and examples of how the five tensions are balanced against American strategic interests.

"The Fleet Passing Through the Magellan Straits" by naval artist Henry Reuterdahl, who traveled with Roosevelt's Great White Fleet aboard the USS Culgoa (Wikimedia)

So, detailed is his analysis and supporting documentation that each part of the book can stand on its own. A reader could easily focus on a particular era in the book and come away with a clear understanding of America's focus and where the republic succeeded and failed in its approach to statecraft. For instance, a reader interested in President Theodore Roosevelt’s grand strategy in the Asia Pacific at the turn of the twentieth century could read Chapter Three and glean a number of salient points. Green deftly introduces the reader to Roosevelt’s views and provides ample examples of those who influenced Roosevelt’s policy, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan. One of the most fascinating aspects of this chapter is how Green details the influence of Mahan’s writings on Roosevelt’s approach to developing a grand strategy in the Asia Pacific. It is interesting to see how Roosevelt, a scholar in his own right, saw value in Mahan’s academic analysis of Pacific.

"John Quincy Adams" by George Peter Alexander Healy (Wikimedia)

The author spares no expense in critiquing presidents and diplomats during each of these eras. For instance, Green contends that John Quincy Adams stood above all American statesmen of the early 19th century and was America’s “first notable grand strategist.”[5] Green's description of Adams' engagements with the European powers and Imperial Russia regarding all parties' interests in the Pacific Northwest is not only compelling, but demonstrates the Europe vs. Asia tension was present in the earliest days of the republic. This is also an important distinction and one of the great strengths of the book which illuminates issues either long forgotten or rarely mentioned. Moreover, his assertion regarding Adams as America's first great strategist is fascinating and supports his argument that the existing body of literature lacks examples of America’s historical engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

Green also takes on notable statesmen such as Presidents Obama, Bush, Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt. For example, in what is perhaps one of the most important chapters of the book, he examines President Obama's approach towards the region. Green suggests President Obama was the first president to designate Asia the top U.S. foreign policy priority. This is an important point in history as American foreign policy tended to focus on Europe and the Middle East first. Obama improved defense relationships with Japan and Korea and fostered new trade initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These few examples from Obama’s presidency clearly support Green’s thesis and demonstrate to the reader that the U.S. has, and will continue to, shape its grand strategy in the region to prevent a shift in the existing balance of power.

Members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The book is full of these insightful examples from history that are useful today, especially when compared to contemporary issues in the region. His thesis is supported time and again through highlights where the U.S. succeeded and failed; from John Quincy Adams’ presidency through the Obama administration. Green deftly demonstrates that America’s ability to shape events is limited, but convincingly argues that an appropriate grand strategy, one that has a regional focus on deterrence, trade, and values will go a long way towards the peaceful management of the balance of power in the region. Given China’s apparent desire to supplant the existing balance of power, coupled with the instability and threat of war on the Korean Peninsula, Green’s work is timely, and decision makers, practitioners, or students of grand strategy and statecraft would do well to add it to their reading list.

Robert Poling is a retired U.S. Navy Officer who spent much of his career in the Pacific. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Dept of Defence Studies, King’s College London researching the historical use of  Anti-Access and Area Denial in the Solomon Islands Campaign.

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Header Image: "Empress of China Arrival in Whampoa in 1784" by Raymond Massey. (CSIS)


[1] Michael J. Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 4.

[2] Green, xv.

[3] Green, xvi.

[4] Green, 5.

[5] Green, 28