Tending to Passing Strategic Requirements
In the wake of the Obama administration’s emphasis on Asia, I spoke to a Friend of the Blog in Tokyo—an experienced observer of U.S. and regional foreign policy—for his reactions, and for a sense of how all of this is playing in Japan. This senior analyst has worked in US and Japanese think tanks and foundations and consulted closely with Japanese government offices. His basic message is that Japan likes The Pivot: The core of Japanese public opinion and its leading national security community place great stakes in a positive US regional role, and the reemphasis of that role embodied in the “shift to Asia” has gone down like a fine shot of sake.
“I believe that the Obama administration’s handling [of Asia] is pretty well balanced,” he told me. “The Japanese liberal media traditionally tends to be pro-China and critical of the US military presence, but even the liberal media did not make much noise about Obama’s ‘pivoting to Asia’ posture. On the other hand, conservative and centrist media tend to be critical of China’s assertive attitude and fear abandonment by the US as an allied partner.” It’s logical, therefore, that “conservatives seem to be relieved by [the] Obama administration’s stress” on the US commitment to the region.
I asked about the general attitude toward China and where he would place the current level of concern in Japan about China’s emerging security posture. Ordinary people were not thinking about China much until the last year or two, he explained, but “security experts and conservatives gave a warning to the public before the Senkaku Islands conflict, which included the arrest of four Japanese businessmen for espionage in China and delays in rare earth metal imports from China in September 2010.” After that point, “more ordinary citizen began to share a ‘cautious concern’ about China with experts and conservatives.” Now, he says, a view of an aggressive Chinese posture is well established, and it “would be very difficult to ease such a concern unless dramatic positive event occurs. As matter of fact, Chinese naval activity near Japanese archipelago is getting more frequent and visible, although the Chinese diplomatic attitude has started to show some attempt to ease the tension with Japan.”
“Most Japanese,” he concluded, “feel better as Obama administration has shown its commitment in Asia in their ‘pivoting Asia’ agenda. At the same time, Japanese experts are realistic enough to worry that the US may reduce its commitment eventually if serious military tension and conflict occurs in the Middle East. Many Japanese,” he explained, “tend to see both Japan and the US” as declining powers, while China “continues to be rising in both military and economic terms. Although others do not see China’s rise continuing forever, they rather worry about the difficulty of controlling the negative effect in China after the current growth stops.”
The most important strategic principle the US could pursue in the region, he argued, is simple: Stay engaged. “In State Secretary Clinton’s article, ‘America’s Pacific Century,’ I found the essence of the strategic principle: ‘At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, US commitment there is essential.’” He summarized the idea as “the presence and commitment of the US for regional stability, which is the indispensable foundation of the economic prosperity because I believe that sharing common interests is essential for successful international cooperation.”
These comments, from a respected regional expert, summarize perfectly what might be termed the shadow or overhang of requirements and expectations from the passing age of US global posture. It’s a set of views based on the role the US has played, not the role the way it will be able to play it a decade or more into the future. As has been argued here—and as is increasingly becoming almost a new conventional wisdom—financial, military, and public opinion constraints will increasingly demand a more limited US strategy and posture.
Yet the administration seems determined to assert the opposite: “Nothing to see here, move along, no transformation of strategy in progress.” There are obvious political reasons for this—the self-interest of self-identification with Kagan and so forth—and also, it seems, an honest belief by now in the hard-line conventional wisdoms that Obama challenged so effectively in his campaign rhetoric. In this as in so many ways, the president who is governing is not the candidate who ran for office—not the first such distinction in US political history, by a long shot.
The problem is that the candidate was on to something—an emerging mismatch between US aspirations and capabilities, ambitions and resources, efforts to impose its will and will to do so. The administration must be given great credit for recalibrating the world’s attitude toward America. But the danger is that things will slide back toward confrontation if US strategy reverts to traditional approaches to national security when the world is shifting rapidly around it.
The paradox, of course—as pointed out by our Friend of the Blog—is that those traditional approaches are welcomed in many corners of US alliance-dom. A politically savvy strategy will find a warm embrace abroad in friendly capitals, as well, and will be applauded in many op-ed pages. And it will look very sensible and effective—until the day, eight or ten or thirteen years hence, when US strategy hits a wall (economic, political, technological, military), and suddenly the credibility of our commitments collapses in a heap. To avoid that outcome, we need to begin gradually weaning the world, and our own political system, of the existing version of US commitments; yet at the moment there seems no appetite to begin this process.