We Asked Yoichi Funabashi: What Should Be the Purpose of American Power?

"The future of America power must be a long-term game of strategic rebalancing—both in the Asia-Pacific region and at home."

September-October 2015

Editor’s NoteThe following is part of TNI’s special 30th anniversary symposium. We asked twenty-five of the world’s leading experts: What is the purpose of American power? You can find all of their answers here. You can also find our exclusive interview with Henry Kissinger here.

The future of American power must be a long-term game of strategic rebalancing—both in the Asia-Pacific region and at home. A momentous shift in economic, military and political power is rapidly taking place in Asia, with global repercussions. The great drama of the twenty-first century will be the trajectory of China’s rise. The challenge posed by China is twofold. An ascendant China is a rival to U.S. power and a potential threat to the post–World War II liberal international order, of which China has been a beneficiary. If Beijing seeks to undermine the existing order and establish an alternative system based on its own Sinocentric strategic vision, then the organizing principles that have laid the foundation for unprecedented peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific are at risk of being overturned.

Despite China’s newly realized status as the greatest potential contender to American power, a Cold War policy of containment is no longer viable. The United States must act as the primary and ever-present balancer within the region. Withdrawal is not an option. America’s main challenge is to effectively reaffirm the principles of the liberal international order, maintain the initiative in shaping the strategic environment alongside like-minded partners, and facilitate China’s ascent and willing integration into the rules-based order. This should be the purpose of American power.

Undeniably, in recent years the United States has identified the Asia-Pacific as the “defining region” for the future and responded by outlining a “pivot” or “rebalancing” strategy for the region. Yet, despite reassurances that the rebalance is moving into its “next phase,” there remain serious doubts as to the vitality of the strategy and the very viability of Washington’s lasting commitment to the region. America’s role as a rebalancing power must go beyond the Obama administration and evolve into a sustainable and bipartisan doctrine—only in this sense should it resemble the fabled containment policy. What the United States lacks but most urgently needs is a new Asia-Pacific dream to counter Beijing’s “China dream.” Building this long-term vision cannot be the responsibility of the United States alone. Regional players should be involved in creating and narrating this story.

Specifically, this grand strategy should have the following features. First, we must learn from the success of postwar Germany’s and Japan’s reintroductions into the liberal international order, and in a similar manner, encourage the integration of emerging powers such as India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar as stakeholder states. Second, the United States should leverage its Cold War regional alliances (Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines) as key coalition partners in shaping the regional architecture—going beyond the logic of the hub-and-spoke system. Washington should act as an enabler that encourages its like-minded partners to take on greater leadership responsibilities, particularly in maritime security. Third, while constructive engagement with China and avoiding suppression should be the primary objective, the concept of the Indo-Pacific is a crucial counterweight against potential Chinese adventurism.

To be sure, the recommendations so far have been limited to external rebalancing. Of equal importance is America’s need of an internal rebalance. America must rediscover its status as the “city upon a hill.” There are three key issues to address. First, the United States should reduce its dependence on China, which has large holdings of U.S. public debt. Next, the rapidly widening wealth gap must be checked, and the middle class should be reestablished as the foundation of society. Finally, the United States must overcome the partisanship and gridlock in Congress. Victory for the rules-based international order in the Asia-Pacific hinges on this two-pronged rebalancing process. America must pursue “quiet deterrence” to ensure the future stability of the international system.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Embassy The Hague