Review of Parallax Vision
by Bruce Cumings

This review appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of the Journal of Asia-Pacific Affairs

In his latest work, Bruce Cumings, who has generated more controversy than any other Korea specialist, expands his provocative, contrarian perspective to the entire Asia-Pacific region and particularly the U.S. view of East Asia. The message in Cumings' metaphor of parallax vision is an old one: No one is so blind as he who will not see. Without recapitulating Cumings' entire metaphor, his basic thesis is that how we see the "other" tells us more about ourselves that it does about them (just as a review tells us more about the reviewer than the author).

Cumings argues "A deep, abiding, and often unexamined 'consensus' is so rooted in the United States that it is not a matter for conscious reflection...and therefore Americans conceive of themselves as a people without ideology." To Cumings, this unexamined consensus is more mysterious and inscrutable than anything found in the Orient. Cumings seeks to unearth the origins of this conventional wisdom, as an archaeologist digs up the physical origins of a society or a genealogist traces the descent of a family.

Cumings finds the origin of ideological misperceptions about East Asia in the hegemony of Western liberalism. He excoriates "(t)he American (who) locates something familiar...abroad (and) declares it to be liberal and therefore Good (or)...locates something unfamiliar and...declares it illiberal and therefore Bad." Instead, in analyzing East Asia Cumings wants to follow Barthes who "used Japan not as a mirror to reflect back to the West what is good and true and sadly lacking there...but as a system of difference to develop a radical critique of the West and its assumptions."

Cumings' critical method yields great insight into the sources of misperceptions that exacerbate conflict in the Pacific rim. He holds that not just the popular media but also policymakers in the U.S. have fundamentally misunderstood what the North Korean regime was thinking during the nuclear crisis, how Japan relates to the international system, how the colonial experience has shaped the contemporary regimes in East Asia, how the growth of civil society and democratization have interacted in East Asian nations, and how the hegemonic position of the U.S. impacts the Pacific region.

One has come to expect Cumings to challenge conventional doctrine about Korea, and he does not disappoint here. Cumings rejects the image of North Korea as a crazy, unpredictable, rogue regime. He argues that North Korea is not really hard to understand because "its mind is concentrated by the power asymmetries," but that analysts in the U.S. do not have any "felt necessity to know (the) enemy." To most Americans the Korean civil war is a long ago, forgotten war, but the legacy of that conflict is "something the Pyongyang leadership deals with every day."

For example, Cumings does not find it mad or renegade behavior for a state that has been in a continuous confrontation with an overwhelmingly superior power and under constant threat of nuclear attack (which he effectively documents) to seek nuclear deterrence. While in no way defending the regime in the North, which he characterizes as a deformed garrison state, Cumings also excoriates the U.S. for conducting surveillance on the North he calls the equivalent of "international proctology," while claiming to be the "avatar...of national self-determination."

Cumings might have extended his metaphor of parallax vision one step further for a more general insight on how the U.S. thinks about "rogue" regimes. When the U.S. sees a crazy, unpredictable, irrational rogue regime, it tells us less about the nature of that regime than that the U.S. feels a wound to its narcissistic pride and a threat to its hegemonic control.

Cumings sees Japan as the key East Asian nation, not just in the 20th century, but well into the 21st as well. He ridicules the popular media's tendency to oscillate between series of antinomies about Japan--Japan as model or Japan as threat, Japan as innovator or Japan as copier, the Japanese state as authoritarian or enlightened, etc. He is not much easier on academics and policymakers, who are usually the source of such simplistic dichotomies, even if policymakers have been heavily skewed toward the Japanophilic rather than Japanophobic side. Cumings argues that rather than being blinded by these easy dichotomies, the best way to understand American policy toward Japan during the Cold War is as "dual containment." The U.S. forces in Japan have been containing not only the Soviet Union but simultaneously Japan.

According to Cumings, hegemony has nested Japan within the American dominated system, leaving Japan permanently ensconced as number 2 in Asia. Cumings is not the first to note modern Japan's tendency to subordinate itself to the prevailing hegemon, beginning with its long alliance with the 19th century hegemon England and continuing with subordination to the U.S., England's successor in the postwar world. Japan's only deviation from this tendency was when the collapse of international trade during the Depression crisis led it to align with the rising hegemonic challenger, Germany.

Cumings' characterization of the war between the U.S. and Japan is too subtle to be recaptured here. Any summary would not do justice to the finer nuances, and more importantly, given the conditioned reaction of so many Americans and Japanese to these issues, only push all the wrong Pavlovian buttons. I simply recommend immersion in this highly thoughtful, even soulful, treatment of the errors of both sides, which elites of both nations have gone to such great lengths to bury, but which are so crucial to understanding not only the history of East Asia, but also its future.

Cumings sees the interaction between state and civil society in East Asian development and democratization as not so much as a product of East Asian cultural distinctiveness but rather as typical of late developers around the world. He finds contemporary American democratization theory less helpful in illuminating the interaction between state and civil society in East Asia than German philosophers from Hegel and Marx up to Habermas, because as Germans they were acutely aware of the problems of late developers in the world system. For Cumings, the pluralism that dominates American conceptions of democratization is too limited to procedural rather than substantive notions of democracy and fails to recognize the importance of the international system in shaping developments in each country.

While Cumings is right both in placing democratization in East Asia in an international context and in avoiding essentialist notions of culture, he is perhaps too dismissive of the role of modernized, synthetic Confucianism and other East Asian value systems in creating and maintaining national and regional identity in the face of Western hegemony. For example, the popular democratic movement in South Korea which Cumings ardently champions is animated not only by a belief in universal human rights but also by a strong sense of a particular ethnic identity differentiated from the West and a quest for national self-determination.

The weakest argument Cumings makes is for the relative unimportance of China in the East Asian future. Here Cumings is guilty of the error he points out in others. He takes China as a metaphor for something else, in Cumings' case, the Korea he knows. The analogy of the current Chinese regime with Park Chung Hee's in Korea is useful in some ways, particularly in pointing out the key role of the state in the economic development of latecomers to industrialization. But China today is also much different than Korea a generation ago. Most important, China is not yet under U.S. hegemony, but rather a major power in and of itself. Cumings is right to deflate the supposed military threat China poses as largely the creation of the American military-industrial complex looking for a post cold war enemy to fight. (I would add it is also a creature of the narcissistic rage Americans feel for a nation that rejects their tutelage). But he is too influenced by the other pole of the contemporary American dichotomy in thinking about China--the millennial triumphalism that sees American hegemony as invincible. Cumings underestimates the growing importance of China's economy in the region, China's potential attractiveness to forces in the region dissatisfied with American political hegemony, and the political as well as economic value of its network of overseas ethnic Chinese.

Cumings' depreciation of China's role in the future of the Asia-Pacific is symptomatic of the most distressing flaw in this otherwise incisive work. Like most heterodox observers, Cumings is more effective in documenting the distortions of conventional points of view than in establishing his own perspective. When projecting the future of the Asia-Pacific region, Cumings' own vision is in some ways as limited as those he criticizes. Like any conventional analyst impressed with the current cresting of American power, Cumings is unable to foresee any serious challenge to American hegemony. Perhaps that in fact will prove to be the case, but one would at least like some allusion to countersystemic forces and alignments. Yet despite its occasional flaws, Cumings' latest work sharpens our insight not only into a key area of the world, but also into how our notion of the "other" reveals who we are.