In his 1943 book U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, journalist Walter Lippmann took successive US presidents to task. Starting in 1898, when Admiral George Dewey’s flotilla overpowered the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, the US assumed vast commitments in the Asia-Pacific region, annexing the Philippine Islands and a series of lesser island outposts connecting the US with its modest empire in Asia.
For Lippmann, the problem was that Washington didn’t build a navy big or strong enough to defend its new Pacific holdings.
Among the presidents who served between the Spanish-American War and the outbreak of World War II, only US president Theodore Roosevelt received passing marks from Lippmann, who credited him with devising the rudiments of a workable Asia policy. But Roosevelt, arguably the finest soldier-statesman ever to occupy the White House, departed the presidency in 1909, leaving US policy in Asia adrift.
Lippmann warned that the US’ penchant for combining ambition with weakness spelled trouble. The lesson still applies today.
Why? Like nature, international relations abhors a vacuum. Rival maritime states — particularly Imperial Japan — sought to fill the vacuum created by US indifference to imperial defense and to the sea power needed to underwrite it. Between 1941 and 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy evicted the US from the Far East, staking Japan’s claim to supremacy in maritime Asia.
Fateful, unintended consequences thus can flow from neglecting the military component of foreign policy. In the final analysis, a world power’s standing rests on the bedrock of force. This fact appears lost on today’s US, buffeted by economic and financial hardships. The US could forfeit its primacy in Asia if it turns inward, letting budgetary woes rather than strategic deliberations drive its policy in the region.
One trouble sign: The US Navy has seen its fleet dwindle from nearly 600 ships during the heady days of former US president Ronald Reagan’s buildup to 283 ships today. And escalating shipbuilding costs and stagnant acquisition budgets are driving these numbers inexorably downward. The modest 313-ship fleet espoused by the Navy leadership looks increasingly unaffordable. Estimates making the rounds in the defense community suggest the Navy could drop to as few as 150 ships.
Today’s Navy packs more punch than the Reagan Navy on a ship-for-ship basis. Still, numbers matter — especially in Asia, a predominantly maritime theater. Former US president George W. Bush’s administration reconfigured the global US force posture, concentrating assets at Asia-Pacific strongholds like Guam. Too severe a drawdown of the US Navy nonetheless might leave US allies and friends in the region wondering whether Washington will — or can — honor its guarantees of their security.
Should they conclude the US has become an untrustworthy partner, they will fend for themselves. That’s the logic of self-help, of threat and response.
Consider Japan’s plight. Japanese leaders might interpret US naval decline, coinciding with China’s rise, as portending a collapse of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Finding itself on what Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (孫子) called “death ground,” Tokyo might see no recourse other than to abrogate its self-imposed cap on defense spending (at 1 percent of GDP), freeing up resources to augment the Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces.
A conventional arms race could ensue as China, Japan and even South Korea looked to their own defenses, hedging against one another’s military endeavors.
Worse, the unthinkable — a nuclear-armed Japan — could become thinkable under such nightmare circumstances. There’s no denying the potency of Japanese antinuclear sentiment. But even Japan’s “peace constitution,” which codifies these attitudes, is not a suicide pact. Should the US nuclear umbrella become unreliable — or be viewed as such — Tokyo would see the nation’s survival as at risk. This could warrant measures like developing a submarine-based deterrent.
There’s precedent for a conventional US drawdown spurring efforts at nuclear proliferation. South Korea interpreted the pullout of a US combat division from the Korean Peninsula in 1971 as a precursor to a withdrawal of the US nuclear guarantee — and launched a crash nuclear-weapons program in response. Similarly, China’s nuclear breakout in the 1960s, followed by US force reductions on Taiwan in the 1970s, prompted Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to initiate clandestine research into a Taiwanese bomb.
Washington prevailed on Taipei and Seoul to forego the nuclear option, in part by convincing them it remained committed to their defense and possessed the wherewithal to fulfill its commitment. Now as then, as Lippmann might counsel, the repercussions could be dire if Asian leaders lose confidence in the US armed forces’ staying power in the region.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his alone.
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