Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Fall 2010
Brothers, Fellows, Global Leaders
While Peter Armacost WF '57 and Michael Armacost WF '58 have followed very different paths, both have come to prominence in the global arena.
Ambassador Michael Armacost, Stanford University
What thoughtful Americans need to understand about the state of Asia today, says Michael Armacost WF ’58, is that the rise of China as an economic and technological power is less a threat or an opportunity, than a wake-up call.
Ambassador Armacost recalls the 1957 Sputnik launch, during his undergraduate days. “That was a profound event for Americans in the 1950’s. We thought we had a natural, inalienable right to lead the world in technology and economics. Suddenly the experts were forecasting that the Soviet Union might supplant the U.S. as the world’s leading industrial power. We had a similar experience in the late 1980’s when Japan appeared poised to surpass us. Instead, the Soviets self-destructed, the Japanese entered a protracted period of stagnation, and we recovered our resilience and sense of purpose.”
In that connection, he says, the U.S. should regard China’s vibrant growth as a similar wake-up call. The nation responded to Sputnik with increased investment in education, infrastructure, and technology, particularly aerospace, computers, and telecommunications—which underpinned American dominance in those fields for the balance of the 20th century. Now, as China gathers strength, “We have not responded so impressively. We’re putting up with sub-standard schools, taking on too much debt, wavering on immigration—a major source of our creativity—and tolerating incredible levels of political dysfunction both in Washington and many state capitals."
Now Distinguished Shorenstein Fellow at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Michael Armacost served as the United States’ Ambassador to the Philippines from 1982 to 1984, then as Ambassador to Japan from 1989 to 1993. Between those assignments, he served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. After retiring from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Armacost became President of The Brookings Institution, a post he held until his departure for Stanford in 2002.
Having studied European small-state diplomacy on a Fulbright in Germany, Michael Armacost turned toward Asia as a result of a series of lucky breaks. He took a position teaching international relations at Pomona College in 1962. By the time he earned his first sabbatical in 1968, Asia’s importance was increasingly visible. “We were engaged in a war in Vietnam; China was descending into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and Japan’s economic growth was stunning,” he says. Yet Dr. Armacost had never been west of Long Beach. To overcome that lacuna in his training, he secured a teaching position at International Christian University, just outside Tokyo. Student strikes freed him to devote most of that year to learning about Japan’s history, language, culture and politics.
While on leave, his Department Chair at Pomona nominated Dr. Armacost for a White House Fellowship. “I wanted to see whether what I was teaching undergraduates bore any resemblance to what was going on back in Washington,” he recalls. “The idea of the fellowships was to introduce people to government at a high level, then return them back to the private sector. But I found that ‘doing foreign policy’ was more fun than talking about it, so I just stayed—for 24 years.”
“I wound up working on Asia because senior officials at State, knowing that I was an academic by training, and had just returned from Japan, assumed that I was an Asian expert. Since they didn’t ask whether I was, I didn’t tell them I wasn’t. I just went to work, and things turned out remarkably well. As in many careers, there was a lot of luck involved.”
During Ambassador Armacost’s tenure in the Philippines, that nation began its transition back to democracy, yielding lessons that, he says, remain valid for others. While his first year was devoted to negotiating a new base agreement, the assassination of “Ninoy” Aquino altered the trajectory of his work dramatically, and he sought to put distance between the U.S. and Ferdinand Marcos’ government as a “people’s power” uprising began to gain momentum.
Over the next several years, he recalled, the U.S. government was able to assist those Filipinos who sought to restore democratic procedures and the rule of law without intruding too heavily into the internal affairs of the country. “Democracy promotion is important, but success also requires a measure of restraint. It is essential to let local groups take the lead. Ours was a supporting role—encouraging elections, providing international monitors, lending moral support at critical moments, providing Marcos safe haven in the U.S. The Filipinos did the heavy lifting, and they deserved the credit for the successful outcome.”
Ambassador Armacost’s time in Japan offered a different set of challenges. Trade negotiations—the so-called Strategic Impediments Initiative—raised a host of issues that cut pretty close to bone of Japanese sovereignty and its internal politics. “There was a serious risk that we could provoke a serious nationalistic blowback. We sought to limit that prospect by assuring that each country could raise complaints about trade barriers in the other market; we encouraged Washington to pursue reform measures proposed by Japanese, and we focused our public diplomacy on highlighting the benefits structural changes in their market would generate for Japanese consumers.”
The Gulf War raised a different set of challenges. “United States intervention to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait preserved access to that was more indispensable for Japan than for us. We forged a broad coalition to accomplish that objective, and urged the Japanese to find ways of sharing the risks as well as the costs of that endeavor. Unfortunately, Tokyo possessed neither the political consensus nor the legal framework required. So they put up lots of money but got little recognition or credit for that from the U.S. Congress or from other members of the international coalition.” Subsequently, they took a hard look at the self-imposed restrictions on their defense policy, and began amending many of those limitations.” With the bitter aftertaste of the Gulf War experience in mind, Prime Minister Koizumi moved swiftly after 9/11 to pass special measures legislation that gave Japan a new role as an off-shore supplier of logistic and other non-combat services to UN authorized peacekeeping ventures, and an occasional U.S.-led “coalition of the willing.” This allowed the U.S.-Japan alliance to become “more balanced, more global, and more operational.”
One of the admirable qualities of American policy during the cold war, Ambassador Armacost notes, “was our readiness to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of common goods—free trade, the protection of the global commons, the provision of security for small states, and the promotion of international institutions which fostered cooperation and established reasonable rules of the road.” He laments the fact that we seem less ready to perpetuate that role today.
Ambassador Armacost still considers teaching his first passion. He believes the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship was a “natural fit” for him. And he remains a strong supporter. “Our universities remain the gold standard around the world,” he notes,” but our K-12 system is sorely deficient. So I’m encouraged to know that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is finding ways to induce young people with solid graduate degrees to teach math and science in high schools.”
His own shifts in and out of the academy have, he says broadened his perspective on the world. “I’ve found it fascinating to move between teaching, diplomacy, and research administration. It made my life more interesting, and increased my ability to tackle difficult and diverse assignments.”