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Benjamin Schwarz

Though the Cold War is over, and America is staggering under a colossal debt and an accumulation of frightening social problems, it continues to spend billions to protect Germany and Japan - two rich nations whose freedom is in no apparent danger. Why? Here is the answer that the foreign-policy elite would give if it dared to speak frankly about the delicate matter of American efforts to assert international economic and political control.

Three years ago, in light of the end of the Cold War, the Clinton Administration undertook a "fundamental reassessment" of America's national-security requirements. But after six months of analysis Administration officials concluded that the defence of US global interests still demanded military spending of more than $1.3 trillion over the following five years and the permanent commitment of more than 200,000 US soldiers in East Asia and Europe - in other words, a strategy remarkably similar to that which America pursued during the Cold War. Moreover, rather than relinquish America's costly and risky responsibilities by dissolving Cold War alliances, defence strategists now plan to expand NATO's responsibilities eastward. Those who call for a more modest plan argue that US strategy seems to be extravagance born of paranoia, or of the defence establishment's anxiety to protect its budget. In fact, given the way the makers of US foreign policy have defined American interests since the late 1940s, these plans are quite prudent. And that is the problem.

If many Americans had been asked ten years ago why US troops were deployed in East Asia and Europe, they would have answered: To keep the Soviets out. They may have wondered, however, why the United States persisted in its strategy long after Japan, South Korea, and Western Europe had become capable of defending themselves. Now that the USSR itself has disappeared, why does Washington continue to insist that US "leadership" in East Asia and Europe is still indispensable?

Ask National Security Council staff members, think-tank analysts, or State Department policy planners about America's globe-girdling security commitments and they will deliver very different answers - ones that have not changed in forty-five years. They will justify the Pax Americana by invoking "the imperative of continued US world leadership," the need to "shape a favourable international environment," "reassurance of allies," and the ongoing need for "stability" and "continuing engagement". Even during the Cold War the "Soviet threat" might not have been mentioned.

The question that all this justification ignores is: What, exactly, is "leadership", and why has it been the mantra of foreign-policy cognoscenti for nearly fifty years? What have we been doing around the globe, and why?

Most Americans misunderstand their country's foreign policy. It seems to operate only when "danger" looms - when Iraq invades Kuwait, when Russian "imperialism" threatens to resurface, when China rattles its sabres at Taiwan. Even people who religiously read the newspapers fail to grasp that US foreign policy is far more than simply a series of responses to crises.

For instance, media coverage of recurring tensions on the Korean Peninsula has focused on speculation about North Korea's nuclear program and the prospect of a new Korean war. But when foreign-policy officials and experts discuss the Korean crisis among themselves, they rapidly leave the Koreas behind to focus on the real players in the region: China and Japan. As far as national-security experts are concerned, almost any immediate crisis is subsumed by a larger threat - in this case no less than East Asia's role in the potential collapse of the international economy that US power has sustained since the late 1940s.

It's now an axiom of the US foreign-policy establishment that economic, technological, and demographic changes are making East Asia the world's most dynamic arena, a driving force - increasingly the dominant force - in the international economy. The Pacific Century, we are told ad nauseam, has dawned. This transformation also means a shift in the international distribution of political and military power. In a typical evaluation of East Asia's strategic future the foreign-policy expert Aaron Friedberg states darkly in the journal International Security:

In the long run, it is Asia [rather than Europe] that seems far more likely to be the cockpit of great power conflict. The half millennium during which Europe was the world's primary generator of war (as well as of wealth and knowledge) is coming to a close. But, for better and for worse, Europe's past could be Asia's future.

Friedberg's assertion nicely illustrates the ambivalence with which the US national-security community views East Asia's future. He both prophesies an exhilarating Pacific Century and warns the West that the East may once again be up to no good.

East Asia has never been a terribly successful field for American diplomacy. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, and surely that shortcoming for which the United States is continually indicted - cultural and historical myopia - has contributed enormously to its failures in the region. Americans have always seen East Asia not for what it is but for what it can do to them or for them: the region is either danger or opportunity - either a new "ground war in Asia" or a new China market. American understanding of Japan, for instance, is, in the words of the historian Bruce Cumings, caught within the conflicting views of Japan as "miracle and menace, docile and aggressive, fragile blossom and Tokyo Rose". As Friedberg's analysis attests, the US foreign-policy community worries that the fragile blossom may again bloom into a Tokyo Rose.

Pacific Century rhetoric usually describes the new era in a "post-Cold War" context. This is misleading, because it starts at the wrong place. First, the shift of economic activity has not been sudden. Even if East Asia rose in the American consciousness just as the Soviet Union receded, to define the economic and geopolitical transformation of East Asia as a post-Cold War phenomenon Americanises and trivialises a development in international (not American) politics of far greater impact then the Cold War itself. Although Vietnam, China and North Korea were for forty years able to contain America's Cold War ambition to "roll back" communism, they are proving utterly unable to contain the juggernaut of East Asia's capitalist political economy. Most important, to imply that the end of the Cold War is of primary significance to US policy in East Asia is to wrench that policy out of its most important context and to distort its underlying aims and challenges.

What we think of as the Cold War was merely instrumental in America's larger "Cold War" strategy. In "scaring hell out of the American people," as Senator Arthur Vandenberg said in 1947, the US-Soviet rivalry helped to secure domestic support for Washington's ambition to create a US-dominated world order. That same year one of Vandenberg's colleagues, the fervently anti-Communist Senator Robert Taft, expressed a strong suspicion that the supposed dangers to the nation from the USSR failed to explain America's new foreign policy. He complained that he was "more than a bit tired of having the Russian menace invoked as a reason for doing any - and every - thing that might or might not be desirable or necessary on its own merits". The former Secretary of State Dean Acheson put things in proper perspective: describing how Washington overcame domestic opposition to its internationalist policies in 1950, he recalled in 1954 that at that critical moment the crisis in Korea "came along and saved us".

Making the World Safe for Capitalism

A fundamental aim of America's Cold War strategy was to create and maintain what the former Secretary of State James Baker has called "a global liberal economic regime" - a capitalist world order. After the Second World War, American statesmen believed that the United States, standing alone and strong in a world of weary nations, had a remarkable opportunity, as Acheson said, to "grab hold of history and make it conform." American statesmen seized that opportunity by creating a complex strategy to reify Adam Smith's dream. Washington envisioned a world economy in which trade and capital would flow across national boundaries in response to the laws of comparative advantage and supply and demand - an economy in which production and finance would be integrated on a global scale. The constricted national markets that were emerging in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Europe and East Asia would be combined, eliminating the inefficiencies of statism and self-sufficiency. Large-scale regional economies would in turn be integrated into an interdependent world economy. US policy makers knew that building this multinational capitalist community required the United States to provide Western Europe and Japan with enormous amounts of economic aid (through such schemes as the Marshall Plan, for Europe, and the Dodge Plan, its equivalent for Japan), so that those areas would not retreat into closed economies. They also knew that an open world economy demanded an even more ambitious American project: transforming international relations.

The greatest danger to US democracy and prosperity came, they believed, not from the Soviet Union but from Germany and Japan, whose potential strength amounted to a sort of Catch-22. Without a flourishing international economy, Under-Secretary of State Will Clayton warned in 1947, "our democratic free enterprise system" could not function. As late as 1960 exports accounted for only 3.8 percent and imports for 4.8 percent of GDP. The health of the international economy, in this disputable view, depended on Germany's and Japan's economic revitalisation. Germany, if its economy was resurrected, would once again be Europe's most efficient producer and its most avid consumer. Its very economic potential, however, made Germany a threat to the other Western European states, which, as the future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained to a closed Senate panel in 1949, were "afraid to bring that strong, powerful, highly concentrated group of people into unity with them". Similarly, as Dulles, Acheson and other policy makers understood, a strong Japan was both necessary for a prosperous international order and intolerable to its neighbours. The problem lay in the inherent contradiction between capitalism and international politics.

Capitalist economies prosper most when labour, technology, and capital are fluid, so that they are driven toward international integration and interdependence. But whereas all states benefit absolutely in an open international economy, some states benefit more than others. In the normal course of world politics, in which states are driven to compete for their security, the relative distribution of power is a country's principal concern, discouraging economic interdependence. Thus 250 years ago the philosopher David Hume bemoaned the lack of economic co-operation among countries, blaming the "narrow malignity and envy of nations, which can never bear to see their neighbours thriving, but continually repine at any new efforts towards industry made by any other nation". In its efforts to ensure the distribution of power in its favour and at the expense of actual or potential rivals, a state will "nationalise" - that is, pursue autarkic policies, practising capitalism only within its borders or among countries in a trading bloc. This circumscribes both production factors and markets, and thereby fragments an international economy.

A truly global economy is probably impossible to achieve. In fact, as the Princeton political economist Robert Gilpin has said, "what today we call international economic interdependence runs so counter to the great bulk of human experience that only extraordinary changes and novel circumstances could have led to its innovation and triumph over other means of economic exchange." Historically, to secure international capitalism a dominant power must guarantee the security of other states, so that they need not pursue autarkic policies or form trading blocs to improve their relative positions. This suspension of international politics through hegemony has been the fundamental aim of US foreign policy since the 1940s. The real story of that policy is not the thwarting of and triumph over the Soviet threat but the effort to impose an ambitious economic vision on a recalcitrant world.

Nurturing - and Constraining - the Fragile Blossom

The overriding objective of US post-war policy toward East Asia was restoring Japanese economic power. To be sure, this would help to immunise the region against Communist expansion; but Acheson and the other creators of the American Century thought the goal itself vital, regardless of the Soviet threat. As the historians William Borden, Bruce Cumings, Ronald McGlothlen, and Michael Schaller have argued, in attempting to create a global economic system Washington pursued a course designed in essence to restore the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere - imperial Japan's regional economy, which the United States had just destroyed in the Second World War. If Japan was to help fuel the world economy, it would have to be, in Acheson's words, "the workshop of Asia." American post-war planners viewed the political economy that had developed in Northeast Asia from about 1900 to 1945 as the region's natural economy - a tripartite system in which Japan, given access to continental markets and raw materials, formed the industrial core and its neighbours formed the economic semi-periphery and periphery. As Japan advanced in the product cycle, climbing up the technological ladder, it spun off its low-technology and low-wage industries to its neighbours.

In the late 1940s and 1950s the United States essentially restored this system; but the machine could not run by itself. Washington had to ensure that Japan's neighbours would feel secure politically in the regional hierarchy atop which Japan stood. Washington also had to ensure that the hierarchy did not develop - as it had in the past - into a Japanese-led closed economic bloc, which would threaten the world economy. NSC 48, the National Security Council's 1949 blueprint for America's Cold War Strategy in East Asia, summed up the chief difficulty facing Washington's economic goals in the region - and around the globe. Starting with the premise that "the economic life of the modern world is geared to expansion," requiring "the establishment of conditions favourable to the export of technology and capital and to a liberal trade policy throughout the world," NSC 48's authors went on to warn that "the complexity of international trade makes it well to bear in mind that such ephemeral matters as national pride and ambition can inhibit or prevent the necessary degree of international co-operation, or the development of a favourable atmosphere and conditions to promote economic expansion."

The distinguished historian and diplomat George Kennan, then the head of the State Department's policy-planning staff, saw only one solution to what he described as the "terrible dilemma" confronting US ambitions in East Asia. Forty-seven years later Washington continues to pursue that course.

By providing for Japan's security and by enmeshing its foreign and military policies in a US-controlled alliance, Americans have contained their erstwhile enemy, preventing their "partner" from embarking on independent - and, so the thinking goes, dangerous - political and military policies. By restraining its powerful ally, Washington has, to use a euphemism favoured in policy-making circles, "reassured" Japan's neighbours and stabilised relations among the states of East Asia. The United States played the decisive role in promoting Tokyo's integration with its former colonies in Japan-centred regional trade networks that have been the foundation of East Asia's economic "miracle". South Korea and Taiwan, for example, overcame their fear and resentment of Japan and opened their doors to Japanese investment and trade.

In a series of revealing interviews published in 1970 the former under-secretary of state Eugene Rostoe was pressed to explain the motivations underlying US foreign policy generally and US policy toward Vietnam specifically. In doing so he betrayed the lingering and profound distrust that US policy makers feel toward any powerful state that could play a role in world politics more independent than the one the United States has assigned to it. At a time when America was involved in Southeast Asia ostensibly to draw a line against international communism, Rostow admitted, "I think the major concern - at least my major concern - in this miserable affair is the long-range impact a [US] withdrawal would have on Japanese policy." He explained, "After the Japanese lost the war they reached certain conclusions, the principal one being that it was infinitely better to co-operate with the United States than to follow a hostile, militaristic line. Now, it's greatly to our interest to have that judgement proved correct. If the United States abruptly pulled out of Vietnam, Rostow went on, "I think the Japanese will draw certain conclusions. And I think their policy will take on a much more nationalistic cast... I think the first thing that would happen would be that they wouldn't ratify the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. They would feel compelled to become a nuclear power." This would endanger the imperative that America preserve "a world of wide horizons in which we can move around and trade and travel on a large scale."

America as "Adult Supervisor"

America's Cold War policy is best understood not by its communism-containing words but by its ally-containing deeds. Washington committed itself to building and maintaining an international economic and political order based on what officials at the time termed a US "preponderance of power". By banishing power politics and nationalist rivalries, America's Cold War alliances in East Asia and Europe in effect protected the states of those regions from themselves.

The United States has not subjugated colonies but, like Great Britain in the nineteenth century, has built and benefited economically from a stable international political order. In this way Lenin was right: imperialism is, or allows for, "the highest stage of capitalism" - an open economy among the industrialised nations.

In explaining its global strategy in 1993, in its "post-Cold War" defence strategy, the Pentagon defined the creation of "a prosperous, largely democratic, market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity that encompasses more than two-thirds of the world's economy" as "perhaps our nation's most significant achievement since the Second World War" - not the victory over Moscow. And it declared that this global capitalist order required the "stability" that only American "leadership" could provide. Ultimately, of course, US policy makers and Lenin diverge. America's foreign-policy strategists have hoped to keep the reality of international politics permanently at bay.

Although the Cold War has ended, what National Security Advisor Anthony Lake calls the "imperative of continued US world leadership" - as exercised, for instance, in America's dominance of its alliances in East Asia and of NATO - remains necessary to maintain a global economy. The now-infamous draft of the Pentagon's defence plan, or the Defence Planning Guidance, which was leaked to The New York Times in 1992, gave the public an unprecedented glimpse of the thinking that informs Washington's security strategy, merely stating in somewhat undiplomatic language the logic behind America's Cold War strategy. The United States, it argued, must continue to dominate the international system and thus "discourage" the "advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or... even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." To accomplish this, America must do nothing less than "retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing... those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations."

The United States, in other words, must provide what one of the Planning Guidance's authors termed "adult supervision". It must not only dominate regions composed of wealthy and technologically sophisticated states but also take care of such nuisances such as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il, to protect the interests of virtually all potential great powers so that they need not acquire the capability to protect themselves - that is, so that those great powers need not act like great powers. Thus, for instance, Washington must protect Germany's and Japan's access to Persian Gulf oil, because if these countries were to protect their own interests in the Gulf, they would develop military forces capable of global "power projection". No wonder the United States must spend more on its "national security" than the rest of the world's countries combined. This post-Cold War strategy reflects what the historian Melvyn Leffler defined as an imperative of America's Cold War national-security policy: that "neither an integrated Europe nor a united Germany nor an independent Japan must be permitted to emerge as a third force."

Only in this context can Washington's concerns regarding current developments in East Asia be properly understood. For instance, in 1993 Alberto Coll, then a deputy assistant secretary of defence, clarified US aims in East Asia. "In the future," Coll declared in the Washington Quarterly,

the stability of the Pacific Basin and a strong US-Japanese relationship will be more important to the United States than ever before. The US economy needs the vast markets of the Pacific Rim, and it benefits enormously from Japanese investment capital and technology and the impetus toward greater productivity provided by the Japanese competition.

All these benefits would be lost, according to Coll, if the "traditional rivalries among Asian powers... unravel into unrestrained military competition, conflict and aggression." In the same vein the author of the Clinton Administration's security strategy for East Asia, Joseph Nye, then the assistant secretary of defence, asserted last year that the US military protectorate is "the basis for stability and prosperity in the region"; if the United States were to forsake its "leadership role" in East Asia, "the stable expectations of entrepreneurs and investors [would] be subverted." Although the United States committed forces to Japan ostensibly to protect it from the Soviets, and to South Korea to protect it from the North, in 1993 the deputy defence secretary, William Perry, declared that America would continue to reassure and stabilise East Asia by maintaining troops "permanently" in Japan and even in a future unified Korea.

The Domino Theory Revisited

To Washington, East Asia is still composed of dominoes ready to fall. "Renationalisation", a term used by the cognoscenti to mean the resumption of international politics, could start virtually anywhere and spread rapidly. In one of Aaron Friedberg's many nightmare scenarios one can almost hear the click of fallen dominoes:

The nuclearisation of Korea (North, South, or whether through reunification or competitive arms programs both together) could lead to a similar development in Japan, which might cause China to accelerate and expand its nuclear programs, which could then have an impact on the defence policies of Taiwan, India (and through it, Pakistan) and Russia (which would also be affected by events in Japan and Korea)... similar shock waves could also travel through the system in different directions (for example, from India to China to Japan to Korea).

Friedberg and other national-security analysts paint a similarly gloomy picture in Southeast Asia if, for example, Japan should undertake a military build-up in response to Korean reunification. Japan's reaction would alarm China - the emerging colossus, which US defence planners now regard as the most serious potential long-term threat to America's global position. China would speed up the development of its "power projection" forces. This would alarm Korea, Taiwan, and Japan - and also Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Their defensive response would further alarm China.

Such developments, from Washington's perspective, would have one of two results, either of which would shatter the global economy: international anarchy, or regional dominance by China or Japan, which policy makers believe would lead inevitably to a regional trading bloc. Arguing in 1992 for the maintenance of America's leadership of its Cold War alliances, a high-ranking Pentagon official asked, "If we pull out, who knows what nervousness will result?" The problem, of course, is that America can never know. According to this logic, it must always stay.

To the United States, the best change in East Asia is no change at all, because any alteration in the status quo could start the dominoes falling. And if there is to be change, Washington - not Tokyo or Beijing - must manage it. To permit otherwise would send a dangerous signal about America's diminishing ability to regulate, calibrate, and manipulate international politics in East Asia. Of course, Washington appreciates that change is inevitable, and its frustration comes from being unable to square the circle - to manage an increasingly unmanageable world.

Although the United States remains committed to preserving the Pax Americana in East Asia, the states in the region see US influence inexorably declining, and they are planning accordingly. South Korea, for example, is reorienting its military away from an emphasis on the threat from the North and toward projecting power against a future threat from Japan by means of naval and air forces, submarines, spy planes, and satellites. The problem is that in prudently preparing for similar eventualities the East Asian states may indeed, as Washington fears, precipitate renationalisation.

At a loss for what to do, US policy makers propose two contradictory solutions. On the assumption that democracies are inherently peaceful toward one another, one solution goes, the United States should tranquillise East Asia by democratising it. At the same time, the second solution has it, because only American dominance can ensure stability in the region (as in Europe), the United States should maintain its hegemony indefinitely. Leaving aside the question of whether either goal can be achieved, it should be clear that proposing these solutions is as inconsistent as simultaneously asserting, as do most in the US national-security community, that although democracies pose no danger to other democracies, America must continue to contain Germany and Japan.

The hope and fear with which policy makers view economic change in East Asia illustrates the contradictory convictions that animate US policy. Washington both heralds the economic dynamism of the Pacific Rim, hoping it will bring democracy and peace and worldwide economic growth, and dreads the Asian miracle. It knows that just as economic change endangers a shift in political and military power, so a particular economic order is jeopardised as the foundation upon which it rests - US hegemony - weakens. In the oxymoronic vocabulary of US diplomacy, strong "partners" are economically welcome and indeed necessary, but US "leadership" is indispensable. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who developed the idea of a trilateral division of responsibility among the United States, Japan and Europe, calls for Washington to develop "a more co-operative partnership" with Tokyo even as he asserts that America must continue to control Japan militarily.

Losing Ground

There is something at once poignant and obtuse in James Baker's comment that because President Clinton's foreign policy lacks consistency and firmness, "for the first time since the Second World War, Japan is not delivering an automatic vote for the US position." Sticking his head in the sand, the former Secretary of State claimed that such problems could be obviated "as long as America leads... We have to lead." Japan's actions are certainly related to a decline in US leadership, but that decline is not the fault of what Baker would characterise as Clinton's weak foreign policy. No matter who is in charge of US foreign policy, America is less and less able to lead. Baker seems to have forgotten that America's leadership in the Gulf War was possible only because its allies agreed to pick up the tab. Given such leadership, it is no surprise that once-subservient "partners" are increasingly going their own way. Preponderance cannot simply be asserted; it must reflect a position based on power. When that position shifts enough, preponderance - "leadership" - is lost.

Lenin argued seventy-eight years ago that international capitalism would be economically successful but, by growing in a world of competitive states, would plant the seeds of its own destruction. Ironically, the worldwide economic system that the United States has fostered has itself largely determined America's relative decline even as it has contributed to the country's economic growth. Through trade, foreign investment, and the spread of technology and managerial expertise, economic power has diffused from the United States to new centres of growth, thus undermining American hegemony and ultimately jeopardising the world economy.

Nearly everyone applauds today's complex web of global trade, production, and finance as the highest stage of capitalism. But international capitalism may be approaching a crisis just as it is reaching its fullest flower. A genuinely interdependent world market is extraordinarily fragile. The emergent high-technology industries, for instance, are the most powerful engines of economic world growth, but they require a level of specialisation and a breadth of markets that are possible only in an integrated global economy. As US hegemony continues to weaken, renationalised foreign and economic policies among the industrialised powers could fragment that economy.

The future of a foreign policy designed to strengthen what the United States must contain and, at the same time, to maintain an economic order that weakens the very foundation of that order seems evident: it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The United States remains caught in the dilemma Kennan discerned more than forty years ago: "To what end 'security'? For the continuation of our economic expansion? But our economic expansion... cannot proceed much further without... creating new problems of national security much more rapidly than we can ever hope to solve them." To escape this dilemma, Americans will have to understand the foreign policy that is conducted in their name and re-examine the requirements for their own security and prosperity.

Source: Atlantic Monthly, June 1996.

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