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

Waldron also delicately alludes to the likely renationalization of Japanese policy if the U.S. fails to contain China: "Japan . . . will reconsider its role." Just in case worse comes to worst, the American national security establishment already is conducting war games that simulate a Sino-American war in 2010.

In truth, however, the United States faces not one great power challenge in East Asia but two. While China's great power emergence
has attracted intense discussion, far less attention has been focused on Japan's even more stunning rise to the threshold of great power
status. Few Americans think of Japan as a military power, but it is on the verge of becoming one just the same. Japan has the world's
third largest defense budget, very well-equipped and trained forces, and a sophisticated high-tech defense industry. It is already a
virtual nuclear power, a point dramatized in 1992-3 by Japan's importation of large amounts of plutonium. Japan could, if it wished,
build warheads and mount them on intercontinental-range delivery vehicles (the H-2 missile, ostensibly developed for launching
satellites) in a matter of weeks. Unwilling to remain dependent on the United States, Japan is now developing an independent capability to gather and analyze politico-military and economic intelligence.

Japan's great power emergence is reflected most dramatically and obviously, however, in its economic prowess. When the dollar reached its most recent (mid-April 1995) nadir in relation to the yen, Japan's GNP was just two-tenths of a percent less than America's--a remarkable accomplishment for a country with few natural resources and half of America's population. This comparison of respective economic power is somewhat exaggerated because it reflects an overvalued yen and undervalued dollar, but even before the yen's 1995 appreciation, respected international economists were forecasting that sometime in the next century's first decade Japan's GNP would exceed America's. If Japan does surpass the United States as the world's leading economic power it would be a fact of enormous strategic, not merely economic, importance. As Paul Kennedy has noted, throughout international history "economic shifts heralded the rise of new Great Powers which one day would have a decisive impact on the military/territorial order." It is impressive testimony to the power of liberal internationalist beliefs that Washington remains largely oblivious to the emergence of Japan as a great power rival. After all, according to that doctrine a supposed free-market democracy such as Japan cannot be a geopolitical rival.

As for the maximalists, their views of Japan are ambivalent. Most of them, most of the time--Huntington being a notable exception--are unconcerned about the ongoing shift in economic power between the United States and Japan because they see economic interdependence as mutually beneficial. At the same time they stress the danger of Japan becoming an active great power should the United States withdraw its security umbrella. Thus, they worry about atmospherics--the fear that trade frictions could erode U.S. public support for maintaining the security relationship with Japan, a relationship they would not jeopardize by pressing Tokyo too hard on bilateral economic issues. Some maximalists are so frightened by the prospect of Japan as a great power that they would even abjure pressing it for a greater degree of strategic reciprocity and increased military burden sharing. For all maximalists, however, the U.S. security guarantee to Japan is vital because it prevents the emergence of the dreaded condition of East Asian multipolarity. Multipolarity challenges strategic planners because a state can be threatened by more than one adversary, it is often unclear which potential rival constitutes the most salient threat, and complex judgments must be made about the interplay of rivals' power, intentions, and the timeframes in which power and intentions may intersect.

Over time, China could emerge as a very formidable adversary, but such a possibility hinges on three highly-problematical assumptions: that China maintains its domestic political cohesion; that it can sustain for a prolonged period its current high (approximately 12 percent per year) growth rates; and that it can equal or surpass the United States in military technology, organization, and doctrine. In contrast to China, Japan has already established leadership in key high-technology sectors, possesses tremendous financial and manufacturing clout, has highly advanced actual and latent military capabilities, and has a GNP that is closing in on America's. And unlike China, Japan's underlying political stability and internal cohesion are not in doubt.

China may become a threat over time; Japan will become a great power rival in the short term. For that eventuality the United States needs a realistic strategy. Neither global internationalism nor maximalist realism can provide one because their assumptions blind them to the challenge Japan poses. Minimalist realism, however, can provide a realistic strategy.

Impractical, Costly, and Dangerous

Maximal realism has obvious appeal because its arguments are emotionally attractive and intuitively plausible. It is not hard for Americans to believe that a benignly motivated America is good for the world, and that America itself would be safer--strategically and ideologically--in a world where its primacy is unchallenged by other great powers. Maximal realists are almost certainly correct in
assuming that international politics will revert to more traditional patterns of behavior if the United States is unable to stymie the rise of new great powers. A maximalist strategy is also attractive because it promises to dampen incentives for nuclear proliferation and may therefore contribute to avoiding nuclear war in East Asia. Who could oppose that?

These appear to be compelling arguments, but appearances can be deceiving. Minimal realists reject the maximalist strategy because it is impractical, costly, and dangerous.

The strategy of preponderance is an impractical strategy because, over time, the United States cannot successfully perpetuate
unipolarity by thwarting the emergence of new great powers. America's post-Cold War "unipolar moment" is an ephemeral geopolitical aberration. The emergence of these new powers is a recurring feature in international politics that reflects both the impact of differential growth rates among states and the logic of the system. The relative distribution of power among states is constantly, if
slowly, changing; Japan's closing in on the United States in terms of GNP provides a concrete example. And the structural effects of
anarchy compel states that possess the requisite capabilities to become great powers. States have virtually irresistible incentives to acquire the same kinds of capabilities that their rivals (actual or potential) possess, even in cases, such as Japan's, where historical memory militates against it.

Another key structural effect is the tendency of states to balance against others who are too strong or threatening. The pressure to
balance is especially strong in a unipolar system, as modern international history amply confirms. Maximal realists, however, assuming that their own belief in American exceptionalism is shared by the rest of the world, believe that this will not apply in the case of the United States. Instead of challenging America's hegemony, they argue, other states welcome it because they trust the United States to exercise its power fairly and wisely.

This is an illusory view of how others perceive American hegemony. Hegemons may love themselves but others neither love nor trust them; other states are concerned more with a hegemon's fixed capabilities than its ephemeral intentions. Thus, any strategy aimed at suppressing the emergence of new great powers will instead stimulate the rise of challengers. It may be true, as Huntington argues, that a "state such as the United States that has achieved international primacy has every reason to attempt to maintain that primacy", but it
is equally true that other states with the capabilities to do so will work to create counterweights to American overbearing power.

The strategy of preponderance is also a costly strategy because the balancing and reassurance roles prescribed require the United States to remain the leading military power in East Asia--and, indeed, in the world. Maximalist realists focus on the benefits of U.S.
unipolarity, but they overlook the costs. As Robert Gilpin has pointed out, the "overhead costs" of empire are high, and the basic
dynamic is familiar enough. Over time, hegemons decline from dominance because the costs of sustaining preeminence erodes the
hegemon's economic strength. The hegemon's presence abroad also results in the diffusion of economic, technological, and
organizational skills to other states, eventually reducing its comparative advantage over them. Invariably, some of these other states will emerge as rivals.

A strategy of benign hegemony does not change the equation appreciably. Such a strategy enables other states to "free ride" militarily and economically, allowing them to shift resources into economically productive investments. The net result is the same: the
decline in the hegemon's relative power. Hence, by providing regional security--for the express purpose of obviating the need for others to provide for themselves--the U.S. strategy of preponderance will accelerate the decline in America's relative power position vis-a-vis Japan, which will continue to exploit the U.S. security umbrella to follow its aggressive, politically motivated "trading state" policies.

Finally, as the post-Cold War strategy of preponderance calls for the United States to reprise in East Asia its Cold War extended nuclear deterrence policy, it is dangerous.

Essay Types: Essay