The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the "leader of the free world," the "indispensable nation," and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn't always marry these ambitions to a set of policies and practices that would help it achieve them.
Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?
My concerns have nothing to do with Ms. Kennedy herself, of course. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she's neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she's certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I've missed something, she doesn't speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost, or Tom Foley), she's a political neophyte.
True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. So one might argue that she'll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.
It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn't have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to convince Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn't noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don't want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region's history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.
Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America's overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice. Money quotation:
"[P]ositions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service. . . [Ambassadors] should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including ... useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country. . . . Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor."
Yet despite this strong and sensible recommendation, roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it's one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.
The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don't put someone in centerfield just because they purchased a lot of advertising from the team's owners or have been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn't appoint amateurs -- no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are -- to key diplomatic posts either.
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Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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I'm in Singapore today for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and I'm enjoying the chance to catch up with my colleagues there. I've been fortunate to be associated with this institution for over a decade, and my friends there have taught me a great deal about Asian politics in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is also interesting to see how other schools view the challenges of preparing students for careers in international affairs, and especially the need to adapt to a rapidly changing information environment. Jet lag aside, I'm having a fine time.
This trip is also an opportunity to gauge local reaction to the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. And by a fortuitous coincidence, today's email contained an advance copy of a new roundtable in the journal Asia Policy, on "Regional Perspectives on U.S. Rebalancing." The roundtable features contributions from experts from several regional countries (including RSIS Dean Barry Desker), and it's well worth reading.
Of course, I liked the symposium because there's a lot of realist thought embedded within it, and because it reinforced my belief that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to be a real challenge for the United States. Although balance of threat theory suggests that China's rise will encourage strong balancing impulses by most of its neighbors, that process will not necessarily be smooth or without significant bumps and disruptions. Most of the essays in this collection make it clear that local states welcome America's increased attention to the region, but they are also worried that this trend could disrupt the strong economic ties that now exist between these states and the PRC and generally enflame regional rivalries.
Managing these relations will require U.S. strategists and diplomats to have a deep and nuanced understanding of local conditions and the ability to act with a certain degree of subtlety (which is not always America's long suit). As Chaesung Chun of South Korea notes:
"The most serious concern for South Korea regarding the United States' rebalancing strategy is how deeply U.S. policymakers understand the fundamentals of East Asian international relations. Populations in this region are living in different periods in a contracted time span: traditional, modern transitional, modern, and postmodern transitional. The sources of conflict among East Asian countries come from the traditional strategic culture, the legacy of imperialism, the persistent logic of balance of power, and the so-called post-Westphalian order emerging from global governance."
Or as India's C. Raja Mohan observes in his contribution to the roundtable:
"Washington should attempt to bring a measure of sophistication to the articulation of the Asian pivot. Central to this is the proposition that the United States must not be seen as working "on" Asia, following a predetermined plan crafted in Washington, but rather as working "with" the Asian powers in devising a supple approach to balancing China's power. By adopting this strategy, the United States could profitably encourage a number of security initiatives among Asian powers without having to put itself in the political lead on every single initiative in the region. This adjustment will not be easy, however, given the political style of the United States, where a noisy internal debate complicates the pursuit of a more nuanced approach to the articulation and execution of rebalancing."
My own view is that the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington will hinge in good part on which of the two major powers does a better job of convincing other Asian states that it is the more reasonable. If China is seen by its neighbors as constantly seeking to gain advantages for itself and willing to throw its increasing weight around, then its neighbors' tendency to balance with the United States will only increase. By contrast, if it is the United States that is seen by the locals as excessively confrontational and insensitive to local concerns, then these states will be inclined to keep their distance and governments are likely to face popular opposition to any overt effort to "contain" China.
The United States won the Cold War for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that our key allies in Europe and Asia thought we were less aggressive and more benevolent than the Soviet Union was. The USSR was much weaker, but it was close to many of these states, it had obviously revisionist intentions, and it seemed like a pretty nasty country by comparison. The United States and China are both going to be pretty powerful states in the decades ahead, and great power competition in Asia in the 21st century may be determined as much by perceptions of benevolence as by relative size of GDP or specific military balances (though those factors are not irrelevant).
In short, Leo Durocher got it exactly wrong: in international politics, "nice guys (often) finish first."
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What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
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There's a fascinating and worrisome confrontation playing out in the East China Sea, over a group of uninhabited islands called the Senkakus (Chinese name: Diaoyu). Here's where they are, and here's what they look like.
Short version: Japan seized control of the islands following a war with China in 1895. The United States administered them from 1945 to the early 1970s. Japan regained control in 1972, when ownership was reacquired by a private family. Nobody lives there.
Earlier this year, the right-wing mayor of Tokyo said the city government was going to buy the islands to ensure that they remained in Japanese hands. (Had he gone ahead and done so, they would have become the most distant metropolitan suburb in the history of the world). To forestall this step, the Japanese national government bought the islands instead, a step that has provoked some ugly demonstrations in China and raised the possibility of a military confrontation.
This issue is a tricky problem for the United States, because we'll be expected to support our Japanese ally if the dispute escalates. The U.S. position on the whole issue isn't clear, however, and is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan agrees with the PRC and regards the islands (the largest of which is only some 4 square kilometers and is home to moles, birds, and sheep), as part of its territory too.
This whole business got me thinking. In a bygone era, sovereigns used to sell each other territory when it was in their interest to do so, normally when one of them needed cash. Remember the Louisiana Purchase, or the acquisition of Alaska from Russia? If the Japanese government can pay roughly $2 billion to buy the islands from a private family, why can't China pay the same amount (or whatever the market will bear) to obtain them from Japan? After all, the PRC is pretty flush with cash these days, and Japan could use some extra money (although ~$2 billion isn't really that much). Still, why not just view this as a simple matter of business?
The main obstacle to this obvious solution is nationalism. China regards the islands as Chinese territory, so why should they pay Japan in order to get something they think is rightfully theirs? Similarly, some Japanese might regard selling the islands as an affront to their own national pride, or something like that, even though nobody in Japan is likely to live there or even get anywhere near the remote little rocks.
Nonetheless, it would be smart move for Tokyo to offer to sell the islands at roughly the same price they just paid. Think of it this way: Suppose you and a wealthy neighbor disagreed over the boundary line between your property, and suppose further that the municipal records where you lived weren't clear. Both parties think the other's position is unfair, but you might be willing to forego your claim if your wealthy neighbor offered you enough. And he might be willing to do that even if he believed he was purchasing something he already owned, if doing so would be cheaper than litigation and if he wanted to avoid having a nasty relationship with you in perpetuity. Buying out your claim would be smart move on his part, and you might even take the money and invite him over for a beer to celebrate the deal.
Tokyo should offer to sell for another reason. If China refused, it would look like Beijing was spoiling for a fight, and unwilling to solve the matter in a reasonable way. That outcome would be a victory for Japan, because it is in their interest to be seen as the reasonable party in this dispute. Why? Because if China's power continues to rise, a key feature of East Asian diplomacy will be how different actors inside and outside the region perceive the intentions of the various players. China will want to portray the United States and its various regional allies as the main source of confrontation or instability, because that will make other states less likely to join with the United States in balancing China. By contrast, the more that Beijing is perceived as bellicose, ambitious, and prone to throwing its weight around, the easier it will be for the United States to maintain its Asian partnerships and the more that other states in East and Southeast Asia will be inclined to cooperate with each other despite their economic ties to China and their various disputes with each other. The spat over the Senkakus provides both Japan and China with an opportunity to show how reasonable they can be. And by doing so, they give the other side a chance to blow it by being recalcitrant or greedy.
By the way, I'm betting that none of these things will happen: Japan won't offer to sell and if it does, China will refuse to buy. Which is one of the many reasons why I believe security competition in East Asia will continue to increase.
UPDATE: A well-informed commenter called me yesterday and said I had missed a key element in this dispute: China doesn't care about the islands per se; it is more interested in the resources that may exist in their vicinity (oil, gas, fish, etc.) and wants possession in order to extend its "exclusive economic zone." This is a good point, but it is not a barrier to a financial solution to the dispute. If there are valuable resources and China wants them, Japan can just raise the price, or agree to sell in exchange for some cash up front and a percentage of future revenues (say, for the next fifty years or so). In other words, there's in principle no reason this couldn't be handled through a process of bargaining and side payments. But as I said, I still don't think it will get resolved this way.
The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options).
The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today's New York Times also identifies what could be an even more significant long-term effect of this event: the curtailing of plans to address global warming through sharply increased reliance on nuclear power.
The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries -- including the United States -- would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.
The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely. At a minimum, it will make it much harder to get approval for new power plants -- which already face classic NIMBY objections -- which will drive up the cost and make a significant expansion of the nuclear industry politically infeasible in many countries, especially the United States.
This reaction doesn't make a lot of sense because the costs and risks of nuclear energy need to be rigorously compared against the costs and risks of other energy sources and the long-term costs and risks of global warming itself. But that's not the way that the human mind and the democratic process often work. We tend to worry more about rare but vivid events -- like an accident at a nuclear plant -- and we downplay even greater risks that seem like they are part of the normal course of daily life. Thus, people worry more about terrorist attacks than they do about highway accidents or falling in a bathtub, even though they are far more likely to be hurt by the latter than the former.
So, in addition to the thousands of lives lost, the billions of dollars of property damage, and the knock-on economic consequences of the Japanese disaster, we need to add the likely prospect of more damage from climate change down the road. It's possible that clearer heads will prevail and guide either more stringent conservation measures or the sensible expansion of nuclear power (along with other energy alternatives), but I wouldn't bet on it.
I don't have any profound wisdom to offer in response to the breaktaking scenes coming out of Japan (as usual, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is a fount of videos, tweets, and other on-the-scene accounts), but I do want to make one overarching point about unexpected disasters of this sort. One of the reasons that people like me constantly harp on the dangers of overcommitment is the simple fact that much of life remains unpredictable. To quote the distinguished political philosopher Donald Rumsfeld: "Stuff happens."
No matter how carefully you plan, there are always going to be some unpleasant surprises. Maybe it will be an earthquake hitting a longtime ally. Maybe it's an uprising that topples a friendly leader. Or it could be a financial panic, an outbreak of infectious disease, or a military operation that turns out to be much harder than you thought.
When the unexpected occurs, great powers need to have something in reserve. But if a country has already gotten bogged down in lots of costly commitments, and if its citizens don't like to pay taxes and thus tend to underfund anything anyway, it will be a lot harder to respond effectively when a crisis suddenly arrives. Which is why the United States should think harder about its willingness (at least rhetorically) to "pay any price and bear any burden." That's not isolationism; it's just what Walter Lippman called "solvency" (i.e., making sure that our commitments match our interests and our resources, with something left over to deal with emergencies.
All that said, a prompt and generous provision of relief aid to Japan seems like a no-brainer, in sharp contrast to the more vexing question of what to do about Libya.
Question: What happens when other major powers face growing security problems, and begin to wonder whether the United States will continue to protect them?
Answer: They stop free-riding quite so much and start doing more themselves.
Case in point: Japan. As the New York Times reports today, Japan has responded to fears of a rising China, potential dangers from North Korea, and concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia not by "bandwagoning" with China or opting for neutrality, but by bolstering its own defenses and reaffirming its security ties with America. Its goal, according to the Times, is to become a "full military partner" with the United States.
There are two obvious, lessons to be drawn from this example. The first is that the United States can take advantage of the tendency of great powers to balance to reduce some of its own defense burdens, confident that wealthy allies like Japan can take up some of the slack. By playing "hard to get," in other words, we can "pass the buck" to our allies to a greater extent than we have in recent decades. The United States can do this in part because it has the luxury of being safe and secure in the Western hemisphere while our allies lie closer to potential sources of danger, and smart strategists should take advantage of this favorable situation. If the United States insists on doing it all, of course, we can confidently expect other states to keep free-riding on our efforts.
The second lesson, however, is that there's a limit to how far one can pass the buck to others. If the United States were to withdraw entirely from Asia, or to reduce its military capabilities too much, then some other states might eventually decide to make other strategic arrangements. But given that the U.S. is spending nearly 5 percent of GDP on national security these days, while Japan spends less than 1 percent, I'd say we've have a long way to go before our allies think seriously about realigning.
Remember: The main reason for a state to have allies is so that they can help make it more secure. If having a large array of allies just means the United States has more areas it is obligated to defend, then maybe we need to rethink how many of those commitments actually enhance our security, and how many of them just add burdens without compensating benefits.
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Assuming China continues to grow economically (which seems like a fairly safe bet), how will this trend affect strategic alignments in Asia? I've posted on this topic before (see here), but I've been thinking about it again in light of some recent developments and after reading some recent scholarship on the topic.
Structural realism gives a straightforward answer to the question: As China becomes more powerful, other Asian states will move to balance it by devoting more of their own wealth to national security and by forging closer security ties with each other and with powerful external actors like the United States.
This is essentially a pure "balance-of power" explanation, but as some of you probably know, I think that is not the best way to explain why alliances form. In the near-to-medium term, the extent to which Asian states balance against China will depend not just on Chinese power, but on the level of threat that these states perceive. The level of threat, in turn will be affected not just by China's aggregate capabilities (i.e., its GDP, defense spending, etc.) but also by 1) Geography, 2) Offensive military capabilities, and 3) Its perceived intentions.
To be more specific, states that are closer to China are likely to be more worried than states that lie some distance away. In particular, states that border directly on China -- such as Vietnam -- have to fear China's rising power more than states who are separated by water (such as Indonesia) because it is inherently more difficult to project power over oceans. (Taiwan is something of a special case, given the tangled history of cross-strait relations and its relative proximity).
Furthermore, the level of threat that China poses will depend in part of how it chooses to mobilize its growing economic might. If it builds military capabilities that are primarily designed to defend its own territory, China's neighbors will feel less threatened and be less inclined to balance against it. By contrast, if China develops the power projection capabilities that are typical of most great powers (i.e., large naval and air forces, long-range missiles, amphibious capabilities, etc.), then others in the region will worry about what those capabilities might be used for and they will be more likely to join forces with each other (and the United States) to protect their own interests and autonomy.
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Whatever numbers you hear about the cost of Obama's escalation in Afghanistan are bound to be low. Once you add in veterans' benefits, the long-term costs of medical treatment for wounded soldiers, replacement costs for the equipment they will use up and wear out, etc., you end up with a lot more than the extra $30 billion that Obama mentioned in his speech on Tuesday. If you want to be prudent, assume that the true costs are at least twice what you've heard. Together with the money already allocated, it's going to be well in excess of $100 billion per year. Keep that in mind the next time you pass a rusting bridge, or when your local School Board has to cut its budget and lay off a few more teachers.
But there is another cost to digging in deeper in Afghanistan. Obama has now bet the future of his presidency on being able to achieve something he can describe as "success" there, and he has only 18 months to do it. He's shackled with a sluggish economy that is unlikely to turn around soon, so there are going to be plenty of disaffected voters by 2012. The Dems are going to lose a bunch of seats in the midterms, making it even tougher to pass domestic legislation that might win broad voter approval. And having alienated a lot of the people who worked their butts off for him in 2008 (because they thought he would be different), he's going to have a hard time generating the sort of grass roots enthusiasm that won him the White House in the first place. Progressive Dems won't switch sides, but some of them will stay home. He may even have trouble getting Shepard Fairey's endorsement if Afghanistan doesn't turn around fast.
All this means that Obama will have to devote a lot of time and attention and political capital to the war in Afghanistan, an impoverished land-locked country of modest strategic importance. Meanwhile, life will go on in the rest of the world, and U.S. relations with a number of far more important countries will not receive the attention they should. Here are three examples.
1. The new Japanese government is actively rethinking its security partnership with the United States, and while I don't think we should rush to accommodate all of their concerns, we certainly ought to be paying very close attention. But having just returned from a quick Asian trip, Obama is likely to put relations with Japan (and other key Asian allies) on the back burner. That would be a mistake, because a significant erosion in the U.S. position there would have far more significant effects than the outcome of the Afghan campaign. Mapping out a long-term security strategy for Asia will take time and attention, and that's precisely what Obama doesn't have right now.
2. The democratic government of Turkey has been carving out a more independent and influential position at the crossroad of Europe and Asia. Its recent decision to reject Israeli participation in a scheduled NATO military exercise (which led to the exercise being canceled) is one sign of this new independence, as is its more active engagement with Syria and Iran. This development is not necessarily a bad thing, if Turkey uses its growing influence constructively. But it is a new feature of the global scene that calls for sustained attention and a nuanced U.S. response, and I'll bet it doesn't get either.
3. Brazil is becoming a more independent and less deferential power here in the Western hemisphere. President Lula da Silva has opened more than 30 embassies around the world since 2003, remains on good terms with Venezualan strongman Hugo Chavez, has defended Iran's nuclear research program, and recently hosted Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Brasilia. Obama and Lula have exchanged letters on some of these issues, and Brasilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has said there is "no crisis" between the two countries. But he has also said that the two countries "are in different latitudes" and "must get used to disagreeing." A stronger and more assertive Brazil will also create new diplomatic opportunities for other Latin American countries (who have long resented U.S. dominance in the Western hemisphere), as well as opportunities for other great powers. And might this herald a gradual erosion of the Monroe Doctrine?
None of the developments poses an immediate threat to vital U.S. interests, but all could use some adroit attention on Washington's part and a sophisticated strategy for dealing with them. But my guess is that they will get short shrift, because Obama's attention and a lot of the intellectual oxygen in Washington will be sucked up by the endless debate on AfPak.
You might reply that I'm being too pessimistic, because Obama has a talented administration that is deep in foreign policy expertise and nobody expects the President to do everything himself. He can turn these problems over to DoD, the NSC staff, and the State Department while he focuses laser-like on Central Asia (and the economy).
I wish I could believe that, but I haven't seen much evidence of a smoothly running foreign policy apparatus so far. What I read suggests that the White House holds tight control on the main lines of policy, and apart from the president himself (who does show occasional flashes of strategic vision), I still can't figure out who's in charge of the big picture. So in addition to the human and financial costs of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan, throw in the opportunity costs. There are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and a lot of important issues are going to get less attention than they deserve.
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People like me have been spilling a lot of ink (and blogspace) over events in out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and the like, and I'm not going to apologize for it. But I sometimes think this illustrates the tendency for humans to focus on what is urgent or vivid instead of what's important. People dying and things getting blown up rivet our attention, but sometimes the calm workings of a democratic process might be of greater long-term significance.
Consider the recent Japanese election. I'm far from being an expert on Japanese politics, but I do know there are good reasons to think that genuine reform will be as difficult to enact there as it is here in the United States. (Among other things, entrenched bureaucrats in powerful ministries will be hard to weaken or dislodge.) Nonetheless, if the defeat of the LDP and the emergence of the more populist Democratic Party of Japan leads to the emergence of a genuine two-party system, makes Japanese political institutions more accountable, and generally opens up a set of sclerotic policies, the impact could be far-reaching.
After all, Japan is still the world's second largest economy. Its military spending ranks fifth in the world. It has a highly educated populations and many advanced industries and scientific establishments (including the potential to get nuclear weapons very quickly if it wished). It is the location of several key U.S. military bases, and is bound to Washington by a long-standing security treaty.
All this means that if Japanese economic and foreign policy were to change significantly, the effects would be quite far-reaching. I'm not saying they will, but I am planning to spend a bit more time keeping an eye on events there.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.