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Asia in Washington: Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power

Asia in Washington: Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power

by Kent E. Calder

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For several centuries, international relations has been primarily the purview of nation-states. Key powers have included at various times Great Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia (then the U.S.S.R., and then Russia again), and the nation most influential in international relations for the past several decades has been the United States. But in a world growing


For several centuries, international relations has been primarily the purview of nation-states. Key powers have included at various times Great Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia (then the U.S.S.R., and then Russia again), and the nation most influential in international relations for the past several decades has been the United States. But in a world growing smaller, with a globalizing system increasing in complexity by the day, the nation-state paradigm is not as dominant as it once was.

In Asia in Washington, longtime Asia analyst Kent Calder examines the concept of "global city" in the context of international affairs. The term typically has been used in an economic context, referring to centers of international finance and commerce such as New York, Tokyo, and London. But Calder extends the concept to political centers as well—particularly in this case, Washington, D.C.

Improved communications, enhanced transportation, greater economic integration and activity have created a new economic village, and global political cities are arising within the new structure—distinguished not by their CEOs or stock markets but by their influence over policy decisions, and their amassing of strategic intelligence on topics from national policy trends to geopolitical risk.

Calder describes the rise of Washington, D.C., as perhaps the preeminent global political city—seat of the world's most powerful government, center of NGO and multilateral policy activity, the locale of institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, and home to numerous think tanks and universities.

Within Washington, the role of Asia is especially relevant for several reasons. It represents the core of the non-Western industrialized world and the most challenge to Western dominance. It also raises the delicate issue of how race matters in international global governance—a factor crucially important during a time of globalization. And since Asia developed later than the West, its changing role in Washington raises major issues regarding how rising powers assimilate themselves into global governance structure. How do Asian nations establish, increase, and leverage their Washington presence, and what is the impact on Washington itself and the decisions made there? Kent Calder explains it all in Asia in Washington.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Washington and Asia are both changing fast, with major implications for global affairs. Kent Calder knows that story well, from both the policy and the academic angles. His expertise is unsurpassed."—John V. Roos, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, 2009–13

" Asia in Washington argues that Asian politics has been heavily shaped by the subterranean networks of influence that pervade global cities, and above all, Washington, D.C. Kent Calder has provided a fresh and unexpected perspective on the nature of international relations in our globalized world."—Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow, Stanford University

"Calder... has illuminated [Washington's] agenda-setting impact on Asia and Asia's attempts to navigate the city's growing role in U.S.-Asia relations. Others have sought to explain how Washington works (or doesn't), but Calder's approach is unique in being empirically rigorous, conceptually sophisticated, and truly insightful."—Satu Limaye, Director of the East-West Center in Washington

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Asia in Washington

Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power

By Kent E. Calder

Brookings Institution Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2538-1


Washington as a Global Political City

For well over three hundred and fifty years, since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, states have been the central actors of the international system. Since the end of the Thirty Years' War, it has been states, after all, that decide matters of war and peace, conduct diplomacy, and fight wars. In domestic affairs it is they that have generally guaranteed civil order, received and collected taxes, erected public works, and provided for the general welfare. And the state's role grew markedly greater, in both domestic and international affairs, across the course of the twentieth century, galvanized by leaders as varied in their roles and persuasions as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Willy Brandt.

In theory, as in practice, the state has traditionally been dominant for centuries. Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin developed the classical rationale for state power four hundred years ago, just as the classical nation-state itself was emerging in the France of Louis XIV and the Britain of Henry VIII. Since then, the nation-state has been the central concept in the emerging discipline of political science. When scholars have strayed toward more society-based perspectives, political sociologists like Theda Skocpol and Margaret Weir have insisted on "bringing the state back in." And in international relations theory—the outward-looking face of government—the state also has been conceptually central for a long and illustrious line of political thinkers, beginning with Hobbes and continuing through Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and other scholars of the realist tradition in particular.

The Underdeveloped Analysis of Cities in Their Broader Political Context

Amid this emphasis on the role of the state in both domestic and international affairs, the study of cities and their broader political-economic functions has been neglected. To be sure, the vigorous interdisciplinary field of urban studies has emerged since the 1960s, bringing urban planners, architects, sociologists, criminologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and even a few political scientists together to consider how cities operate, evolve, and relate to the higher domestic layers of government—states, prefectures, and nations—in which they are embedded. Yet for many years little work was done on the role of cities in the international system.

Such analysis of the global role of cities has been inhibited both by the insignificance of the role that cities played and by the dominance of the realist, state-centric paradigm in international relations. For two millennia and more, a few cities have figured importantly in international politics. The significant early municipal players were imperial capital cities—Thebes, Babylon, Persepolis, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople, to name a few. There were also city-states, which combined national and municipal characteristics—Athens and Sparta in the classic age and Venice, Genoa, and the members of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages.

The functions of these communities as cities—their interest-group configurations, the way services were provided, and even their physical layout—materially affected how the broader nations in which they were embedded functioned. Yet little research has been undertaken on these linkages between the anatomy of cities and the functioning of the nations and empires of which they were a part. And such studies as did emerge—including those of factionalism in classic Rome and its implications for imperial stability—were generally limited to a single case and not systematically comparative.

Over the past decade, the serious comparative study of cities in their global context has at last begun to emerge. Leading this effort has been the sociologist Saskia Sassen. In a series of seminal volumes she has articulated the concept of the global city, clearly distinguishing it from the notion of the world city, which in her terminology denotes a great metropolis of the past. She has undertaken serious empirical work on the emerging international economic roles of New York and London and the impact of such developments on local urban life, as global financial markets become more and more deeply integrated. Rejecting the notion that globalization disperses production and diffuses a city's economic power, Sassen argues that globalization leads to the concentration of financial, technological, and other highly specialized services. Cities become increasingly strategic as their capacity for producing global control expands, she contends. Yet Sassen does not probe in detail the systemic implications of the increasing dynamism of cities for global political affairs.

Building on Sassen's general notion of the global city, a school of comparative research has grown up that evaluates and ranks cities in terms of their importance and efficiency in discharging broader international functions—including, to a limited degree, politics. A. T. Kearney, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Foreign Policy magazine have collaborated on one influential comparative study. They considered the global role of major cities along five dimensions—business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement. Based on values assumed in these dimensions, they constructed an aggregate index.

Although important advances have been made over the past decade in the comparative assessment of global cities in their social and economic dimensions, systematic analysis of their political functions still remains underdeveloped. Conspicuously lacking, in particular, is an assessment of how local structures and their evolution influence international politics. Analysts simply have not given much thought to how the institutional configuration of city governments, the interest group profiles prevailing in urban communities, or the linkages of local communities with one another affect the broader political systems in which they are embedded. The international political role of cities is another particularly neglected realm, despite the long-standing international importance of cities within the context of empire, as noted above; the emergence of dynamic new mayoral networks like the C-40 illustrates this increasingly important trend. The converse issue—how international politics affects sociopolitical life in key global cities—is even less explored.

Toward a Political Analysis of Cities in the Global Context

In this volume I develop the concept of the global political city and document in a preliminary way the functions of such cities in international affairs. I define a global political city as one that manifests the broad characteristics of a global city as conceptualized by Sassen but one that also serves as a microsetting for global political transactions, which she does not consider in detail. In a global political city, policies of multiple jurisdictions are shaped, and can be influenced, not only by the local national government but also by foreign governments and transnational actors. Key elements of global political cities include the following:

—A policy hub, exercising disproportionate influence on global policy debates.

—A political-diplomatic community, with dense networks of official and nonofficial actors shaping global affairs.

—A strategic information complex, within which flows important political, military, and country-risk information with global portent.

A few cities, as we have seen, have previously held major political-economic importance in international affairs. Most of these, however, were imperial capitals (Rome, Baghdad, Khanbalik, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, London), in which nation-state influence traditionally loomed large. Such metropolitan centers held unusual international significance due to the strength and wealth of the empires over which they ruled, and imperial interests largely dominated their civic life. A few trading centers that were not imperial capitals, such as New York, Rotterdam, and Singapore, have also been functionally important for the global economy, with their significance magnified during periods of broad international economic integration, such as the early twentieth century and the post–World War II period.

Conceptually speaking, it is useful to regard global cities with political-economic functions as being arrayed on a fourfold table that distinguishes political and economic functions (figure 1-1). On the one axis is a given city's political role—generally expressed historically through its formal imperial functions, although this pattern is likely changing. On the other axis is the global city's role as an economic center. The graphic locations presented here along economic and political dimensions are broadly consistent with values assigned by the "2012 Global Cities Index."

The position of a given city in such a political-economic matrix can, of course, easily change over time—and in fact often does so—as its global significance in a given area waxes and wanes. New York City, for example, was briefly once the capital of the United States, with important political functions—George Washington, for instance, was inaugurated there in 1789, as first president under the U.S. Constitution. New York was eclipsed politically by Washington, D.C., after 1800, however, and even for a time by Albany, the New York state capital. Still, it revived on the multinational stage in the early 1950s, when it became the permanent headquarters of the United Nations in 1952. And its global role was enhanced further by the activities of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as chairman of the C-40 global association of mayors during the early 2010s.

Brussels is another case in point—both as a global city with clear political functions and as one whose global transnational functions have come to decisively eclipse and grow distinct from those of the nation-state within which it is geographically embedded. Brussels had some international political standing, to be sure, as the formal colonial master of the mineral-rich Belgian Congo (1908–60). Further back, Brussels was a relatively important city even in the 1430s as the capital of Burgundy, although its political importance depended entirely on the whims of the European rulers of the time. By the 1830s, with the onset of the Enlightenment, Brussels assumed a broader informal role than that of a mere national capital. The city's relative freedom from censorship, in contrast to Paris, made it a refuge for such libertarian thinkers as Baudelaire and Hugo.

Emigrés such as the Polish organizers of the failed 1830 November Insurrection, or Karl Marx and the Young Hegelians, intensified the revolutionary spirit of Brussels, enhancing its transnational political influence. By the 1850s Brussels was also the confluence of "the three great wire services that were revolutionizing journalism: Reuters of Britain, Havas of France, and Wolff of Germany." This strategic intellectual position within Europe allowed Brussels a further role in the dissemination of ideological journalism, enabling the city to become influential in the formation and spread of revolutionary movements across the entire continent. And since 1958 Brussels's transnational political standing has been sharply enhanced because the city serves not only as the headquarters of an increasingly cohesive and powerful European Community but also the headquarters of NATO since 1967. It is also the headquarters of some internationally prominent NGOs, such as the International Crisis Group. Growing in both local cohesion and global political-economic importance, the position of Brussels has hence been moving up and to the left in figure 1-1.

The historical evolution of Brussels shows clearly the potential for dynamic change in the political-economic role of cities over time, in a fashion distinct from that of the nation-states of which they are geographically part. The Belgian parliament is clearly of declining relative importance in a world of deepening European and global integration. Yet Brussels as a strategic venue for global transactions is retaining its importance—not only as Belgium's capital but also as a locus for international institutions.

Even such a simple typological framework as presented in figure 1-1 generates important empirical puzzles both for comparative political research and for international political economy. How, for example, does the political-economic importance of individual cities like Brussels and New York in international affairs change over time, and what factors drive such transitions? Conversely, how do such changing roles—the emergence of Brussels as the EU capital, for example—affect the prosperity and politics of cities themselves, and with what feedback effects on the national and international systems?

In the real world, political cities of course vary considerably in the degree to which they are dominated by the nation-state in which they are geographically embedded. In extreme cases, like Kim Jong-un's Pyongyang and Stalin's Moscow, there is little civil community even moderately detached from the state. Conversely, in cities like Gaza and Mogadishu, vigorous—indeed, anarchic and destructive—political communities exist in social environments where state power is virtually nonexistent. These distinctions are represented along the horizontal axis of figure 1-2, which also shows how the character of Washington as a global political city has evolved over the past century.

Political communities—as distinct from the nation-states in which they are embedded—have a second dimension of critical relevance in applying the global political city concept: the degree to which they are geographically limited by national political boundaries. Pyongyang and Stalin's Moscow stand, in their isolation, at one pole, as suggested in figure 1-2, while contemporary Washington, in its cosmopolitanism, clearly stands at the other.

The typologies presented in figures 1-1 and 1-2, when applied to concrete cases, suggest that cities characteristically shift their positioning over time. Washington certainly has done so. Major global political cities in Western democracies are typically growing at once both more transnational and less state dominated in the post–cold war world, making the distinction between state and global political city, as defined here, increasingly important. A parallel trend is discernible in nondemocratic and non-Western societies also, although the pace of divergence between state and societal dynamics is less rapid. Thus, the importance of the global political city appears to be growing worldwide, with cities like Washington and Brussels in the vanguard of a broader trend.

Washington as a Global Political City

Washington is no doubt the most important global political city in the world, and its significance is closely related to the global political influence of the American nation-state. Yet Washington as a complex of sociopolitical institutions is far from being a straightforward agent of American geopolitical power, as crude state-centric analyses of international relations might assume. To the contrary, Washington as a vibrant global political city has a discrete importance as a micro-setting for global transactions that is separate from and sometimes in tension with American state power. This informal role moderates the American state, transforms its expressed interests, and opens the U.S. policy process as a whole to information and influences from elsewhere in the world. Indeed, Washington's role as a global political city, transcending the limitations and interests of the American nation-state, converts the United States into a power much more responsive to broad global concerns, on issues ranging from trade to human rights, than it would otherwise be, forcing heavy qualifications on recently fashionable notions of American empire.

Washington's character as a generally open, decentralized political community does not necessarily imply a neutral orientation in international affairs. For complex sociopolitical reasons, many of them historically embedded, there is considerable variation in the access that different nations actually enjoy there. Britain, for example, enjoys unusual entrée, due to linguistic ties and long-standing sociopolitical relationships. Washington's distinctive sociopolitical structure does, however, create at least the potential for broad, moderating access if a sufficiently wide range of groups avail themselves of this opportunity.

Washington's paradoxical receptivity to transnational influences, despite the manifest power of the nation-state within which it is geographically embedded, is rooted in its distinctive history. In contrast to London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, and Lisbon, Washington was never a major imperial capital in its formative years. Imperial capitals had the powerful state institutions that an imperial role naturally generated (and even narrow colonial interests, such as the Caribbean slave owners and rum merchants of eighteenth-century London). The United States did, to be sure, acquire a few overseas possessions, most notably the Philippines, in the early twentieth century. Yet America acquired those possessions relatively late; they provided few economic benefits for the metropole and generated only marginal sociopolitical changes in Washington itself. One exception was the sugar lobby, related to American corporate interests in the Philippines and Hawaii, which gave an anomalous protectionist cast to American trade policies in that area, even when broader U.S. trade policy was more free-trade oriented.

Imperial standing thus failed to transform Washington politically, socially, or economically as substantially as it had major European capitals. And imperial standing, such as it was, did not make Washington a major diplomatic center either. Other factors ultimately propelled its rise.


Excerpted from Asia in Washington by Kent E. Calder. Copyright © 2014 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kent E. Calder is director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University. He is a former special adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Japan Chair at CSIS, and has been professor at Princeton University for twenty years. His books include Embattled Garrisons: Comparative Base Politics and American Globalism, Pacific Alliance: Reviving U.S.-Japan Relations, and The New Continentalism: Energy and Twenty-First Century Eurasian Geopolitics.

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