Less is More: Minimal Realism in East Asia

Less is More: Minimal Realism in East Asia

Mini Teaser: Historically, in both practical and theoretical debates about American foreign policy, the great divide has been between proponents of liberal internationalism--sometimes called Wilsonianism--and realism.

by Author(s): Christopher Layne

The adverse consequences of multipolarity can be averted, maximalists believe, if the United States maintains intact in the post-Cold War era the Cold War system of alliance arrangements that provided credible security guarantees to Japan and Germany. Official U.S. government documents make the same argument. As the 1992 Regional Defense Strategy document states: "It is not in our interest . . . to return to earlier periods in which multiple military powers balanced one against another in what passed for security structures, while regional, or even global peace hung in the balance."

As to the ideological dimension of maximalist thinking, its proponents see a synergy between liberal values and American primacy.
American primacy, they believe, creates the kind of stable international system conducive to the spread of democracy and free
trade. And, in turn, as democracy and free trade expand abroad--"enlarging the zone of peace"--America's security is thereby
increased. Maximalists thus embrace a broad conception of American interests because they see U.S. strategic, political, economic, and ideological aspirations as inextricably linked.

This view has found ample official expression. As President Bush said in his January 1992 State of the Union address: "[T]he world trusts us with power--and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained; they trust us to be on the right side of decency. They trust us to do what's right." The Regional Defense Strategy sings the same song: "Our fundamental belief in democracy and human rights gives other nations confidence that our significant military power threatens no one's aspirations for peaceful democratic progress." The Clinton administration carries on the tradition. Although it emphasizes the liberal internationalist component of U.S. strategy more than did the Bush administration, there is substantial congruence in the two administrations' declaratory policies. As the
Clinton administration's National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement states:

"We believe that our goals of enhancing our security, bolstering our economic prosperity, and promoting democracy are mutually supportive. Secure nations are more likely to support free trade and maintain democratic structures. Nations with growing economies and strong trade ties are more likely to feel secure and to work toward freedom. And democratic states are less likely to threaten our interests and more likely to cooperate with the U.S. to meet security threats and promote free trade and sustainable development."

The Minimalist Alternative

Clearly, many people--officials and scholars alike--agree with the premises of the maximalist argument. Nevertheless, that argument is
wrong. The maximalist strategy of preponderance raises several questions. Three are central.

First, even if it is desirable in the abstract, is such a strategy viable? In other words, can U.S. unipolarity be preserved? The strategy of preponderance is the geopolitical analog to the hegemonic stability theory favored by many international political economists.
Minimalist realists, however, suggest that international politics is shaped strategically by what could be called the hegemonic
instability theory. In a unipolar world, systemic factors--anarchy, reciprocal security fears, concerns about the distribution of
relative power--should impel states that can do so to act to counterbalance a hegemon. A hegemon's attempt to perpetuate unipolarity thus will have the paradoxical effect of accelerating the emergence of new great power challenges to it.

Second, in its security dimension, the strategy of preponderance could require an ambitious expansion of U.S. extended deterrence
strategy. But can the preconditions that allowed for successful deterrence in Central Europe during the Cold War be replicated in the
post-Cold War world? What are the costs and risks of a post-Cold War extended deterrence strategy? It is not at all clear that the United States can--or should wish to--maintain the sort of security guarantees to Japan and Germany required to prevent renationalization and multipolarity.

Third, do liberal values really contribute as much to American security as maximalists suggest? In particular, is American
liberalism so powerful as to inculcate a widespread belief in American exceptionalism abroad? If not, American power will not be
seen as benign by significant others. Moreover, the liberal internationalist component of maximal realism may blind policymakers
to the possibility that other democratic states may threaten American interests, if not through war than through other forms of
competition. And, because they are committed to promoting economic interdependence, maximalists may overlook the importance of relative power.

In contrast to maximalism, a minimalist grand strategy would cast the United States in the role of an offshore balancer. Rather than
attempting to suppress the rise of new great powers, a minimalist strategy would navigate multipolarity to maintain U.S. security by:
(1) exploiting the U.S. position as a secure, relatively powerful, insular great power; (2) relying on global and regional power
balances to contain newly emerging powers; and (3) increasing America's relative power position by taking advantage of the
economically debilitating security competitions that newly emerging powers (who are America's economic rivals) must undertake, and by devising a more assertive national economic strategy designed to revitalize America's relative economic power.

Maximalism in Practice--East Asia

Having set out the two realist positions in theoretical terms, I now turn to how they differ in practice by contrasting their views on
several specific issues in the East Asian context: unipolarity; extended nuclear deterrence and selective nuclear proliferation;
economic interdependence and the importance of relative power relations; and the role of ideals in U.S. policy.

Current U.S.-East Asia strategy, conveniently set out in a February 1995 Pentagon document, rests on the premise that U.S. vital
interests, increasingly defined in economic terms ("the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region is a matter of vital national interest affecting the well-being of all Americans") require a strong American military presence in East Asia. Absent that presence, the destabilizing things maximalists predict of multipolarity will happen:

If the United States does not provide the central visible, stabilizing force in the Asia and Pacific region, it is quite possible that another nation might--but not necessarily in a way that meets America's fundamental interests and those of our friends and allies. Insecure nations will build up their armaments. Arms races could in turn foster fear and instability.

Extended nuclear deterrence is a key part of the strategy. Stating that the United States is "reconfirming the nuclear umbrella it
extends to its allies", the Pentagon aims to avert the renationalization of Japanese foreign and security policy. Thus the
U.S.-Japan security treaty is lauded because "it contributes to overall regional security. The United States-Japan alliance, while
mutually beneficial, has far-reaching benefits extending to the maintenance of peace and stability of the entire international community."

To round out the maximalist panoply, the Pentagon's East Asia strategy paper stresses the linkage between America's security and its values:

"United States interests in the region are mutually-reinforcing: security is necessary for economic growth, security and growth make
it more likely . . . that democracy will emerge, and democratization makes international conflict less likely because democracies are unlikely to fight one another."

So much for the official line. What are the realities of contemporary East Asia, and how have maximalist realists interpreted them?

Over the past several years, many U.S. observers have begun to focus on the strategic implications of China's rise to great power status. Several incidents have strained Sino-American relations and suggest to many that China is becoming a more assertive power in East Asian geopolitics. These include: an October 1994 Yellow Sea incident involving USS Kitty Hawk and a Chinese nuclear attack submarine; China's January 1995 seizure of some of the disputed Spratly Islands; Beijing's expulsion of two U.S. military attachés on espionage charges; the arrest of human rights activists Harry Wu and Wei Jingsheng; and especially the growing tension between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan. China is also engaged in a significant military build-up and has undertaken a domestic campaign to bolster nationalist sentiment by playing on memories of the 1937-45 war against Japan. China's leadership now views the United States as unremittingly hostile, and, in a major policy reversal, for the first time in a quarter century China no longer welcomes the U.S. military role in East Asia. Rejecting the American portrayal of itself as an impartial balancer in East Asia, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen declared in August 1995: "We do not recognize the United States as a power which claims to maintain the peace and stability of Asia."

Many American realists have identified China as a major emerging threat to several important U.S. security interests and are asking
whether Washington's best response is to "engage" China or to "contain" it. The Clinton administration's policy, as set out in the
Pentagon document, is to "engage China and support its constructive integration into the international community. . . ." Arthur Waldron
has stated the opposing view:

"From now on the Asian security situation will increasingly resemble that of inter-war Europe: a society of strong nation-states,
increasingly well-armed and in possession of conflicting visions of the future, and in the shadow of an erratic and sometimes menacing
power. . . .[U]nless the United States begins to see things as they are, and to play an active role in deterring China and shaping Asian affairs, it will pay the eventual and possibly catastrophic price."

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