As I wrote in a blog last April, I have decided to write here about Israel and the U.S. only infrequently—in part because there seems to be fewer and fewer new things to say, in part because there are now many excellent commentaries available on the internet, in part because it’s a lost cause anyway, and in part because my working time is mostly devoted to working on a big book on the topic (lost cause or not).
However, aside from Israeli-related issues, I have over fifty years experience in reading, teaching, and writing about general issues in American foreign policy. Therefore , I’ve decided to widen the scope of this blog (and will soon rename it accordingly), to include general commentaries on foreign policy, war and peace, and national as well as international security.
Not there’s any shortage of excellent commentators on these topics, either. Still, from time to time maybe I can have something a little different to say. Anyway, such are the dreadful times we live in that one must at least try to say something useful. However, even with this wider new scope, my blogs will be infrequent. Therefore, the best way to know that I’ve posted a new blog is to sign up for automatic email notification (at the top of the column to the right).
The “Balance of Power” and a Coming War with China?
The traditional American policy of isolationism permanently ended with our entry into World War II, and since then the fundamental premise of U.S. foreign policy has been that national security requires the maintenance of a balance of power in the major world regions, a goal worth going to war over, if necessary. Thus, the preservation of the balance of power in Europe and Asia was the fundamental (though not the only) reason that the U.S. government decided to go to war against Nazi Germany and Japan; after their defeat, the same goal was pursued by the policy of containment, designed to prevent Soviet, Chinese or merely communist expansionism, especially in Europe and Asia.
Currently, a new variation of balance of power strategies—“offshore balancing”--has become the dominant “grand strategy” advocated by national security academicians and, evidently, by national security government officials—at least those in the Obama administration, though not necessarily by that name. Under such a strategy, U.S. security would continue to require military intervention if an aggressive major power threatened to destroy the balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Differing from previous versions of balance of power strategies, however, advocates of offshore balancing argue that our national security is best served by eschewing large ground operations in favor of keeping our forces “offshore,” that is, on “over the horizon” naval and air forces.
There is a rather large qualification, however, to this strategy, as developed by its most prominent and sophisticated advocates, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (“The Case for Offshore Balancing,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016). They write that “the aim is to remain offshore as long as possible.” Nonetheless, they argue, sometimes it may be necessary “to come onshore.” This is a rather large qualification to the general argument, for it means that sometimes it may still be necessary, just as in the past, to fight major land wars in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
While an improvement on previous balance of power policies--which required overseas land bases and the continuing deployment of large-scale standing ground forces, meaning that any outbreak of military conflicts were likely to quickly escalate into major war—offshore balancing is still fundamentally flawed, for it continues to rest on the largely unexamined axiom or premise that U.S. national security requires the maintenance of balances of power in world’s most important regions.
Let us examine the case for “containing” China—a different name for balance of power policies---the obvious though unacknowledged purpose of the Obama Administration’s military “pivot” toward Asia. As a consequence of the balance-of-power strategy, the U.S. has fought three major wars in Asia in the last seventy-five years: against Japan in WWII, in Korea in 1950-53, and in Vietnam in the 1960s. If balance of power thinking continues—including that of offshore balancing--there will be a growing risk that this country may stumble into its worst and most dangerous war yet, against a nuclear-armed China.
In light of the fact that Japan is almost 4000 miles and China over 5000 miles from Hawaii (as well as 5500 and 6500 miles, respectively, from the U.S. mainland), it is instructive to reflect on how and why the United States came to believe that its national security required the maintenance of a balance of power in Asia. It appears that it began “in a fit of absence of mind,” as 19th century British colonialism was famously characterized.
That is, in 1898 the U.S. “acquired” (as it is often quaintly described) the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, as an initially unintended and unforeseen byproduct of the U.S. defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War—largely fought over Cuba, at least until an imperial-minded Assistance Secretary for the Navy, one Teddy Roosevelt by name, decided to take advantage of the war to send the Navy to the Philippines and destroy the unsuspecting Spanish fleet anchored in Manilla Bay, over 9600 miles from Cuba.
President William McKinley pondered what to do next. In 1899 the president told a group of clergymen that he “walked the floor of the White House night after night” praying for divine guidance. “And then one night it came to me in this way—(1) we could not give the Philippines back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable... (2) we could not turn them over [to other European colonial powers ]…. There was nothing left to do but take them all, and…uplift and civilize them…..I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States and there they will stay while I am President.”
The U.S. takeover of the Philippines in 1898, then, was an absurd historical accident. Yet, from such a little acorn a hugely dangerous oak has grown, for an unexamined policy axiom took root: the U.S. must maintain a balance of power in Asia to prevent a potentially hostile power from dominating all of China and then being in a position to threaten the Philippines.
Put differently, WWII reinforced and deepened US perceptions of itself as a "Pacific" or even an “Asian power,” with a vital interest in maintaining the Asian balance of power against any new challengers. As a result, the U.S. sought to prevent the communists from winning the post-WWII civil war in China, intervened in another civil war in Korea, fought an unnecessary war with China after refusing to settle for the restoration of the status quo ante in Korea, went to war in Vietnam to prevent the Vietnamese communists from winning a revolutionary civil war there—and in the process may have come perilously close to an unnecessary full-scale war with China in the late 1960s, a war that even then might have become a nuclear one.
The China Issue Today
Apparently accepting the alarmist view of the capabilities and intentions of China, the Obama administration has essentially adopted the policy of containment by means of offshore balancing. In late 2011 the administration began its “pivot” or “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from Europe to Asia. In a number of speeches as well as background explanations by high administration officials, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry set out the new U.S. policy and the rationale behind it, which essentially is that as “a Pacific Nation”--shades of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War!—the U.S. would play a larger and long term role in shaping the region and its future.
Among the actions taken by the Obama administration in the last four years to implement this new policy are the following:
*It has made new naval and air deployments in the region; the Pentagon’s goal is said to be to ensure that 60% of America’s military power—especially submarine forces and aircraft carriers; this is already well underway. .
*It has deployed 2,500 marines in Australia.
*It has increased military assistance and cooperation and joint military exercises with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam.
*It has announced that the U.S. would spend an additional $250 million dollars to build up the naval capabilities of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam—and perhaps even more importantly, it is considering the reestablishment of the huge U.S. military base in the Philippines that had been closed down in 1992.
Unsurprisingly, China sees itself as a defensive state legitimately alarmed by these US actions, and has taken a series of steps, including what we see as military “provocations,” in order to assert what it considers to be its national rights in the region. The consequence is that we are coming dangerously close to outright military clashes with China, which no matter how limited they initially may to be, contain the wholly unacceptable risk of escalating into a major war—and even a nuclear war.
In evaluating U.S. policies, three issues must be considered. First, is China truly an expansionist state that seeks to establish hegemony over the entire region? Second, even if China has such intentions—or later develops them as its military and economic power continue to expand—will it have the capability of destroying the Asian balance of power? The third issue is by the far most important one in terms of U.S. national security: why should the United States be prepared to use armed force, even if that were the only way to prevent Chinese domination of Asia?
To begin with, most China and regional specialists are skeptical about pessimistic or alarmist assessments of the Chinese threat in Asia. Rather, they argue that despite the admittedly worrying Chinese military buildup in general and in the South China Sea in particular, together with its assertive claims to small islands also claimed by other Asian states, Chinese behavior should be best understood as motivated not by the grandiose and unattainable goal of gaining “hegemony” over the region, but by more limited factors. In this view, then, China’s policies have been moderate, essentially defensive, and reactive rather than aggressive, driven (1) by fears of Japan and the United States as well as by its historically understandable sense of vulnerability to perceived threats on its borders that it shares with fourteen states--four of which (Russia, North Korea, Pakistan and India) have nuclear weapons; (2) by its growing economic interests in the disputed islands, and (3) by largely symbolic nationalist claims to “sovereignty” over the contested areas, claims that are said to have some historical validity.
Secondly, if China’s policies threatened to harm the important national interests of other Asian states, they would be hardly unable to defend them. Especially if they should act collectively, states like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, and even the Philippines and Vietnam would be hardly helpless—even in the absence of any U.S. role at all—to defend themselves and their vital interests against any theoretical Chinese expansionism.
To be sure, there is a substantial argument that U.S. military disengagement in Asia might lead to further nuclear proliferation in the region. In particular, it likely would increase the incentives for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to develop their own independent nuclear deterrent forces. Still, there are good arguments against letting legitimate concerns over proliferation dominate U.S. Asian policies.
To begin, the overall effects of the already-existing proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1945 have been stabilizing rather than destabilizing—MAD certainly worked in Europe. While there can be no guarantee that the same result would occur in Asia should further proliferation take place there, the real question is whether it can be prevented, and at what cost.
Furthermore, even if the U.S. withdrew from the region, Asian states might still decide against going nuclear, which is hardly cost-free either in terms of money or of increased tensions and possible dangers of a nuclear arms race throughout Asia. Conversely, paradoxically, even if the U.S. commitments and military presence continue, there is no guarantee that our Asian allies won’t decide to go nuclear anyway, based on the fear that if faced with an imminent war with China, the U.S. would renege on its commitments to go to war on their behalf. Indeed, that would be a perfectly rational assumption, since it would be quite mad for the U.S. to actually live up to such “commitments.”
In any case, the debate over Chinese intentions and capabilities (whichever view should prove correct) is not the central question for U.S. foreign policy—which is whether the U.S. should be prepared to go to war to prevent possible Chinese hegemony over Northeast Asia. In considering this issue, let’s assume the worst case, in which China should turn out to be a radically expansionist state that somehow gained control of all the resources and population of Asia. Even so, U.S. national security—our only truly “vital” national interest—would not be at stake. There are only two ways in which our security could be threatened: by a conventional invasion or by a nuclear attack. No one takes seriously the notion that a China, even somehow controlling the population, land masses, and economy of Asia, would be capable of crossing thousands of miles of ocean and invading a nuclear-armed United States.
And as for the nuclear danger, it already exists, for China is capable of a massive nuclear attack against the U.S. from the weapons within its homeland, a threat that is already (or very soon will be ) essentially absolute, meaning that any later Chinese expansionism would be irrelevant and would do little or nothing to increase its capabilities that threaten America.
What should follow is that we can avert any theoretical Chinese threat to vital national interests by relying on our own nuclear deterrence capabilities while also avoiding any war, including “limited” wars, with China. Put differently, the most likely “threats”--Chinese border conflicts with neighboring states or military clashes over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea-- have the least relevance to U.S. national security, while the most theoretically dangerous ones--Chinese military expansionism throughout Asia--are the least likely to occur.
It has long been an axiom of policymakers and academics alike that U.S. national security requires the maintenance or restoration of the “balance of power” in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The underlying logic or premise of the wars fought for those purposes was that it was better to fight a war now—even a major war—than inevitably to have to later fight an even more devastating war against an increasingly powerful and expansionist state or coalition of states. This was the logic that led to the U.S. government’s decision to join the war against Nazi Germany before it had conquered even more territory and resources; to impose severe economic sanctions against Japan that it knew would likely lead to a war with that country; and to abandon “isolationism”—better understood as “military noninterventionism”-- after WWII in favor of the policy of containment, designed to ensure that the balance of power in Europe and Asia would not be threatened by the Soviet Union and communist China.
However, even if that logic was compelling in the past, it no longer makes any sense to fight a war now than a supposedly even worse war later, for the costs of going to war now against nuclear powers would already be beyond comprehension, whereas the postulated later war might not occur—indeed would probably not occur--at all .
For this reason, an overall US strategy of military disengagement and noninterventionism is far better suited to protect U.S. national security interests in Asia than any version of balance of power strategies, including offshore balancing. What follows is that we should be ending our military presence in Asia—as opposed to our present policy of increasing it--and gradually withdraw from our political and military alliances and commitments, de facto or formal. To be sure, it is true that U.S. allies in Asia (as well as in Europe)—and probably many neutrals as well—do not want America to withdraw its armed forces and military commitments in their regions, but that is hardly a decisive argument in favor of continuing them: we have to make independent judgments about the nature of U.S. interests, the necessity of the use of force, the chances for success, the costs and risks we are prepared to accept, and the probability that states that feel threatened can defend themselves if they were forced to stop relying on this country.
In sum, the best way for the U.S. to protect its national security from potential Asian threats is to jettison balance of power strategies, in any form, and never again go to war there.—any war, not just ground forces wars.