Chris Hill: Americans Should 'Do More Listening'

NEW YORK , May 30, 2008 - Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in a wide-ranging interview during the Asia Society's annual Williamsburg Conference in April in Bali, Indonesia, says that Americans need to be a bit more "humble" with respect to their position in the world.

In conversation with Asia Society's Nermeen Shaikh, Assistant Secretary Hill says all Americans, not just American leaders, need “to do a little more listening.”

Assistant Secretary Hill urges subsequent US policymakers to bolster engagement with Asia as the region builds a political and security architecture.

In response to a question about the different US responses to alleged nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, Assistant Secretary Hill cautions against a “one size fits all” approach to the nuclear issue.

He suggests that the US, India, China and ASEAN need to work together to address problems in Burma, and expresses optimism about American relations with China.



ASIA SOCIETY ONLINE : There has been much talk recently about the extent to which American foreign policy has been consumed by Iraq and also Afghanistan, and North Korea to some extent, although a lesser extent. What other areas and issues in Asia will the next administration have to confront?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, first of all, I think this administration has worked very hard on the relationship with China. And I think in many respects the relationship with China has taken off in recent years. It has taken off due to a variety of reasons – economic interaction between the US and China is enormous. I think any follow-on administration will continue to deal heavily with China.

What I would like to see are a couple of other things happen in the coming years. First of all is to deal with some of the emerging multilateral, political and security architecture in Asia. The US has been very present in APEC, but I think there’s clearly a yearning in Asia for more than just APEC. I think the East Asia Summit is an example of that, what we’re doing in the North Korea talks with the emerging Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism is another example. The US effort to have a free trade agreement with ASEAN is still another.

So I think a follow-on administration will probably be spending more time on some of these multilateral, architectural questions, and in particular, I suspect there will be greater effort to deal with some of our Southeast Asian friends and allies.

Some of the factors in Southeast Asia are changing; for example there is a relationship with Singapore that has grown a lot in recent years and that will continue. There is an emerging relationship with Vietnam that is very interesting. Vietnam is really quite a different place than it was a decade ago. So I see Vietnam as a growing player. Indonesia has continued to consolidate its political gains so I would see the US and Indonesia having a stronger bilateral relationship. A number of things like that but I think it’s very important that as Asian countries look to create architecture, look to create a sense of community, the US needs to be a part of that. We were not so much a part of it in the past, just with APEC; I think you’ll see a lot more of it in the future.

AS: I’d like to turn now a little bit to North Korea. What do you think the impact will be of the change in the South Korean administration on North Korea’s cooperation in the talks– or lack thereof?

HILL: Well I think as the weeks and months roll by, the Six Party process, what we’re seeing is an emerging pattern, where I think there is more and more consensus among the other five that North Korea needs to move, it needs to get out of this business of developing weapons of mass destruction, and I think everyone sees this as something that has to get done.

I sense in Asia less of a feeling that somehow the US is bullying North Korea. On the contrary I like to think that people see that the US is being patient and fair and reasonable in trying to approach this but clearly the North Koreans have to do more.

To some extent I think what we’re seeing in recent times with respect to North Korea’s relationship with South Korea is the frustration in North Korea with the fact that South Korea has grown so enormously and has grown not just economically but also in political terms. South Korea has had a number of successful elections and the new president has promised a somewhat different approach towards North Korea.

So the usual North Korea way of handling this is to belligerently threaten everyone, the South Koreans, as they tried to do in the early ‘90s, but in the early ‘90s, following their threats, many South Koreans went to the supermarkets to buy the last packets of ramen, but you’re not seeing that right now. You’re seeing a much more self-confident South Korea now, confident in its own abilities and its growing international perspective, confident in its good relations with its neighbors. So I think North Korea is going to be very frustrated in this approach.

AS: Apart from obviously trying to get the North Koreans to disclose the extent of their nuclear assets, are there other relations that North Korea has that the US is interested in--?

HILL: Oh you bet! We’ve got to tackle a number of things. One is to get them to give us the full dimensions of their plutonium program. How much plutonium they’ve actually produced and got stored away in some bunker. I think we’ve gotten an agreement with them that that will come.

We also need to know what they’re up to with Syria. And they were clearly up to some things. They know what they’re up to and we know, and they know that we know. So it’s really kind of time to put it out there. The trouble is we’re asking for transparency from a country which regards transparency as the enemy so it’s been a bit of a clash of cultures there, but we’re working on it. I’m confident that we’ll get through this.

The real question is what comes next? And whether North Korea will be prepared to finish the job, and truly denuclearize.

AS: What is the nature of the relationship that you suspect between Syria and North Korea?

HILL: Well I mean there’s a nuclear relationship there. We’re not talking in public about things we’ve discovered but there’s clearly a relationship that has involved the transfer of know-how; not the transfer of fissile material, I want to emphasize. Nobody is suggesting that they’ve sold or given away nuclear material, bomb-making material to Syria or to anybody else. But they certainly have transferred the know-how and frankly that has got to stop.

AS: There has been talk of the worsening food situation in North Korea. How will the US balance its humanitarian concerns for the North Korean people with sustaining pressure in order to get them to disclose--?

HILL: In our view, the North Korean leadership has made a lot of mistakes. Its nuclear policy is chief among them, but these are not mistakes for which North Korean peasants should suffer. So we are very concerned about the food situation in North Korea. To some extent, it’s the result of climatic issues; the weather problems that they’ve had have reduced the harvest. But to some extent these are manmade issues. When you construct a system that is that dependent on perfect weather conditions, you have to take some responsibility for it. That said, we are monitoring it closely, and the United States has continued to maintain that we will participate in food aid to North Korea when our overall conditions are met. By conditions I am talking about the fact that when you give food aid to a country, you need to be assured that the food aid is necessary in that country, that it is even more important than the needs in other countries, and that you have adequate monitoring because when you go back to your taxpayers, you need to be able to say, “Yes we gave food aid to country x, and yes, we insure that the food will get to the correct people.” We worked through those issues. It’s not easy with North Korea because again they pride themselves on staying very closed and refusing to let foreigners in their country.

AS: One of the things that’s been striking is the different way in which the US administration has dealt with the nuclear problem in North Korea versus Iran. Could you say a little bit about that? With Iran, there was quickly talk of a more threatening or military response, with the phrase “the military option cannot be taken off the table”, whereas that has never been the case with North Korea; this has never really arisen as a possibility. Could you explain why?

HILL: Well the Asia Society handles East Asia right through to Iran. Alas I don’t! I just have one bad problem on my plate, not the Iran issue.

I would caution people that, in looking at what we’ve been able to do in North Korea, I am first to acknowledge, in fact to take some pride in, some of the progress we’ve made, but we’ve got a long way to go too. I would caution against the idea that one size fits all, or that what we do in North Korea can somehow be applicable in Iran. Or vice versa.

I like to think that what we’re doing in North Korea is actually working but I would not make the assumption that what we’re doing could be immediately transplanted into Iran and find that that actually works as well.

Iran is a very different dynamic. It has a very different relationship with its neighbors than North Korea does. If you look at a map of Northeast Asia, North Korea is the smallest, weakest state and if you look at a map of the Middle East, Iran would not be described as the smallest weakest state. So very different dynamics.

AS: So let’s return to East Asia then: How do you think the US administration will deal with China and the growing problem in Tibet?

HILL: Well you know working with China is not easy. It’s an extremely complex country. It’s not quite the cartoon image that many people have of the quote “communist dictatorship”, that you just need to talk to one person, and if you convince that one person then everything will be okay. It’s far, far more complex than that. There are overlays of culture, and history, and anthropology there, so I think when you go into a relationship with China you should be a little bit humble about all the history that is there.

All that said I think there is a growing consensus within the United States that we need to pay a lot of attention to China. We need to understand that China is here to stay and that we can help shape the environment for China, and make it a positive relationship or we can engage in some self-fulfilling prophecy and say that China is the enemy and indeed we could end up with China as an enemy! Clearly that latter course should not be of interest to anyone who’s thought about the issue for more than ten seconds.

Clearly we need to have an approach that really is engaging, where we are dealing with China on issues, not only issues that we agree on with China such as some climate change issues, but also issues where, frankly speaking, we have some real disagreements. Stick with those and work them out.

China is a country with enormous growth and therefore an enormous appetite for international raw materials. Sometimes that appetite for raw materials colors some of their foreign policy and some of that foreign policy in our view is not politically sustainable. To be perceived in the world as supporting the Khartoum government and to be perceived as not being rigorous enough in dealing with the problem in Darfur frankly is not a sustainable policy. It is not for us to be wagging our finger at the Chinese and telling them that, they have to come to these realizations themselves.

I would add that with respect to Darfur, they have. They have made some changes there, and that they will get some credit for.

So we need to be engaged with China. We have an incredible number of dialogues, some 56 dialogues; you name it, whether it’s endangered species or climate change or bilateral political issues. We have got some 56 dialogues; one per week actually! So we are engaged with them and we need to continue to be engaged with those 1.3 billion people.

AS: There are some who respond to the case that you made about China’s somewhat unsavory foreign relations, particularly with Sudan, but others as well, that the same accusation has been, and could still be, levied against the United States and its relations with equally unsavory governments.

HILL: That would be a Chinese argument, a Chinese counter-argument, for those who criticize China’s relations with Sudan; the Chinese could probably find examples in the US past, Latin America for example. I’m sure there could be a lot of criticism levied at the US, which is why my approach is not really to wag fingers at countries, because they can come wagging them right back at you!

I think what we need to do is to identify the problems and understand that it is in all of our interest to resolve these problems. China has no interest in fostering genocide in Darfur. China has every reason to resolve that issue, so sometimes it’s a question of trying to get a common analytical framework and trying to deal with it.

I am not despondent about these things. I think we can work with China. China is a country that does have a famous pragmatism to it, and I think the US does as well. I think we should be doing a lot more with China, not less.

AS: So are you optimistic, then, using that line of reasoning, on the question of Tibet as well?

HILL: Well that’s a really tough one, that’s a real tough one for China, and I believe that China can do much better in dealing with it. I’m not sure it’s helpful if American diplomats publically admonish the Chinese for how they’re dealing with it. But I will say that I think there’s more scope there for dialogue than has been explored to date. I think there’s more scope for restraint than has been followed to date. I think China can think about what they’re doing and put to use that well-known pragmatism, but it would be wrong to just ignore the emotions here, and to pretend that there isn’t a history there. So let’s see if there can be some better approach to that in the coming months.

AS: On Burma, what actors do you think have some kind of leverage there apart from the United States? What are the partners that you would like to be working with more?

HILL: Well, Burma is a very interesting case, a very sad case because when I was growing up, when I was a kid, Burma was always considered a country that was going to make it. Something really we all knew about, World War II history, a lot of fascination. Well that’s all gone. And it’s very sad to see where Burma has ended up. It’s an enormous country with 60 million people, tiny foreign trade, falling behind its neighbors.

One of the problems is that in the US when we think of Burma, we usually think of the enormous human rights problem, which it is, but when you talk to countries in the region, the Indonesians, the Thai, and the Chinese, you see a kind of strategic problem there.

The Chinese really worry about a situation where the Burmese lose the ability to police their own borders. China is very concerned about the drug trade coming over from Burma into Chinese cities. So China worries about stability factors in Burma more than it worries about democratic factors.

Certainly Burma is a geostrategic problem and it’s a problem therefore that China has an interest in solving, India has an interest in solving, and ASEAN – which Burma is a member of – has an interest in solving. So I think we need to work together with all these countries with the understanding that if you just work with ASEAN you will have a situation where Burma will try to use that in order to coddle up to the Chinese, or if you just work with China, Burma will move over to India and see what they can get from the Indians. So I think we really have to do a better job of kind of tightening up, knitting up the diplomacy.

Burma, whatever they think they’re doing, creating this referendum process and excluding all the opposition including Aung San Suu Kyi, whatever they think that’s aimed at, it’s not working. You don’t have to be an expert in Burmese politics to understand that a process that ignores the opposition, that keeps thousands of people in jail, that keeps Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest, is simply not going to get the country back towards some kind of normalcy. So I hope the Burmese will understand, will start getting the message not only from ASEAN or the US, or India or China, but from everybody together.

AS: I’ll just ask now, to conclude, a couple of general questions about American foreign policy. There has been some discussion about the extent to which American foreign policy institutions have accommodated themselves to a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, it was clear there was one monolithic threat, the Soviet Union, and institutions -- academic, foreign policymaking, research – were very much geared towards conceiving of a foreign policy directed at that. Could you say a little about how you think the environment in the foreign policy establishment has changed, or hasn’t, or ought to?

HILL: Well it’s obviously much more pluralistic. I mean there’s no organizing concept here of anti-Soviet hegemony and that sort of thing that sustained the community in days past. I would be careful though to think that there would be another single organizing concept. I would be careful to think that what we in the United States have developed in terms of our own traditions, our own democratic traditions of which we are justifiably very proud, but I would be careful to assume that those are what every other country wants immediately.

So I think we need to do a little more listening maybe to understand that this desire that every American has, it’s basically deep in our DNA, to proselytize and to talk about our successes, I think we have to be a little careful about choosing the issues on which we make those points. I mean I am a strong believer that the natural condition for people is freedom. The natural condition of people is to participate in their government, to be able to express their views with no fear; I have no problem with that. The problem is how to convey that without wagging a finger at people and otherwise threatening people who are not quite imbued with that spirit. So I would worry a little about how the United States is perceived. I think probably the best thing we could do to address that is to set the best example we can. I think there’s a lot to emulate in the United States, a couple of hundred years of democracy. Anyone who has read about the founding fathers in the United States in 1776 can feel very proud of all that, but I think we need to continue to work on that, and let other countries look at our example, and follow our example.

So I think we are in a transformational age where we do not have the organizing principle of this great divide, this Cold War; we have to think in terms of other organizing principles. We have to think in terms of tolerance, and certainly the whole issue of Islamic intolerance, this phenomena of terrorism really does need to be taken on, and I think we’re trying to do that but I think we need to be very careful about how we push our weight around in the world.

AS: You don’t think it would be possible that communism will simply – as a monolithic threat – be replaced by Islamic terrorism.

HILL: No, I think international threats don’t replicate themselves in the same terms. And I think while we all use historical analogies to help us understand the present and the expected future, I would be careful with equating terrorism with communism or communism with fascism. We need to have a better analytical framework than that.

AS: One of the things I’ve been talking to the delegates here about has been perceptions of the US. It’s now widely reported that around the world the reputation of the US has suffered greatly in the last several years, and many people, including the American delegates, have talked about the need for the US to reclaim its position of leadership, not just political but also moral. First of all, do you agree that the reputation of the US has suffered recently, and if so, what do you think some of the concrete steps are that the US could take to improve its image?

HILL: Well certainly if you look at polling data worldwide, there’s a problem out there. I think any American would be wrong to ignore that problem. So I think we do have to deal with that. One of the speakers this morning said that this protracted selection process we have ahead of our November elections is actually helping our standing in the world. People are seeing how the US political process works. I think this is an election where the people around the world seem to be as interested in the US election as Americans are. The only difference is that they’re not allowed to vote in the US election! I think that’s kind of encouraging. And it’s a reminder that whatever problems we have, these are problems that are not permanent, are not structural. I think we can overcome them.

Probably we need to, as a general rule of thumb, Americans, not just American leaders, but Americans really need to do a little more listening. I think Americans need to be a little more humble about where we stand in the world. Lord knows we have our problems as well. There was a book written in the 1950s at another time of alleged American triumphalism, and that was a book called The Ugly American. I would encourage people to have another look at that book, and I think they will see some distant echoes of what we’re dealing with now.

All that said we have a tremendous reservoir of goodwill in the world. I think people want to look to us and have a great respect for our accomplishments. I think Americans can take heart from that as we go forward.

Nermeen Shaikh is the Managing Editor of Asia Society Online. Her book The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power has just been published by Columbia University Press.

Founded by John D. Rockefeller 3d in 1971, the Williamsburg Conference brings top leaders from Asia and the United States together to discuss the greatest challenges facing the Asia-Pacific community and develop creative approaches for addressing them.