The Decline And Fall Or Turn The Lights Down Real Low

Michael Auslin at American Enterprise Institute:

Decisions by the governments of Japan and Great Britain and the passage of the bankrupting health care bill in the US spell the coming end of America’s overseas basing and ability to project power. Should these trends continue, the US military will lose its European and Asian strategic anchors, hastening America’s eventual withdrawal from its global commitments and leaving the world a far more uncertain and unstable place.

The first strike comes from Asia. For the past six months, the new government of Japan has sought to revise a 2006 agreement to relocate a Marine Corps Air Station from one part of Okinawa to a less populated area.

Though the agreement was reached only after a decade of intense negotiations and with Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government has instead suggested numerous alternative sites for the base, most of which were rejected during the previous negotiations and none of which would allow the same type of training and operations necessary for the Marine Corps’ air wing.

Now, American officials are privately wondering whether the ruling Democratic Party of Japan wants to allow the US the same level of access to bases in Japan, without which America would be incapable of providing regional security guarantees and serving as a force for stability in Asia amidst the growth of China’s military capacity and North Korea’s continuing nuclear developments. Indeed, the former head of the Democratic Party of Japan has publicly mused whether the US 7th Fleet is sufficient for alliance purposes, thus raising the specter of the withdrawal of US Marines and Air Force from Japan.

On the other side of the globe, a special House of Commons foreign affairs committee this week has concluded that Great Britain must learn to say no to Washington and exercise more independence, or risk further harm to the UK’s image abroad. Most worrying, the committee recommends a “comprehensive review” of current arrangements for the U.S. use of British military facilities at home and abroad, singling out such strategically crucial bases as Diego Garcia.

Reacting to reports of the CIA’s use of such bases for rendition purposes in the war on terror, the committee is calling on the government to drop the term “special relationship” to describe the US-UK bond and to more realistically recognize the “ever-evolving” nature of the relationship, which observers can safely interpret as putting greater distance between Whitehall and the White House.

The final strike in this geopolitical puzzle comes from Washington, D.C., where both Republican- and Democratic-run governments have blown up America’s budget to unsustainable levels, all but ensuring that US defense budgets will decline in coming years.

Greg Scoblete:

So who is guilty of moral weakness and short-sightedness: the Japanese, the British, or the Americans? All of the above?

It’s one thing to worry if the U.S. was unilaterally unplugging itself from alliances over the objections of its partners, but at least in the cases Auslin cites, that’s not the issue. The U.S. is harranging Japan to keep the base deal on track, while a democratically elected government, responding to the desire of its people, is objecting. In Britain, neither the current Labour government nor David Cameron’s Tories are talking about seriously undermining strategic ties with the United States.

Auslin sites the success of a 60 year American strategy to keep the peace globally, but isn’t this the fruits of such peace? Independent-yet-friendly democracies seeking a little more freedom of movement seems to me a far cry from countries seeking “non-aligned” status or worse, becoming clients of a competitive power.

Furthermore, I’m not sure why Auslin would suggest that “foreign governments will expand their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies in order to fund their own military expansions.” As Auslin notes, the U.S. is able to fund a globe-spanning military without undue burden, surely these other large economies can fund militaries sufficient to meet their (less grandiose) security needs.

I do agree with Auslin that we’re looking at a potentially less stable international environment, but that’s mostly due to the rise of China and more powerful states in Asia. And China is rising regardless of the percentage of GDP we allot to defense and entitlements. If defense analysts think this is going to overturn the peaceful workings of global trade, then it seems to me they should spend more of their time arguing against nation building in the hinterlands of land-locked Afghanistan than on health-care. The former pulls resources directly away from the mission of militarily containing China (unless providing security so that Chinese mining concerns in Afghanistan can reap billions in profit is a super-sophisticated form of stealth containment), while the later exterts a longer-term budget strain which may or may not impact defense outlays.

And while those who believe in “global fraternity” are surely romantics, I would argue that those who believe in a durable global hegemony are equally starry eyed.

Daniel Larison:

What provoked this vision of the “dimming of our age”? The British Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s report pronouncing the “special relationship” dead and the continued resistance by the DPJ government in Japan to the location of a Marine air station in Okinawa. Oh, and health care. It is telling that the foreign examples Auslin provides are the results of national backlashes against perceived excessive identification with or dependence on U.S. power. Britain walked in lockstep with the United States before and during the war in Iraq, and it was badly burned by the experience. Japan has tolerated a continued military presence on Okinawa despite a history of abuses suffered by the civilian population. Some of our best allies feel used or put-upon, and their complaints stem from precisely the sort of overbearing hegemonist attitude that tends to treat many of our allies more like satrapies rather than treating them as sovereign, independent states with their own interests.

So some of the countries that theoretically benefit most from the American ability to “to uphold peace and intervene around the globe” want to adjust their relationships with the U.S. so that their national interests are better served. Britain and Japan are not proposing to scrap their alliances with America, nor are they necessarily declaring their opposition to America’s active role in their parts of the world, but they do seem to be saying that they should give more thought to how often their security and foreign policies line up closely with our own. Instead of taking advantage of the potential for increased burden-sharing these moves represent and instead of encouraging allies to tap into their own resources to provide for their defense, we hear laments foretelling the “dimming of our age.”

As for the so-called “romantic belief in global fraternity,” which very few people actually hold, there have been no greater romantics than the idealists who have deluded themselves and many of us that the interests of the rest of the world and the interests of the United States frequently converge. American hegemonists have been fairly certain that democratization and globalization advance American power, and so they have tried to encourage both on the unfounded assumptions that economic interdependence and democracy will tend to prevent conflict and will lead other governments to align with Washington. As both emerging-market democracies and long-established industrialized democratic powers have been showing us in recent years, neither democratization nor globalization magnifies American power, but instead has tended to create more increasingly powerful centers of resistance to Washington’s policies. In a way, that is a credit to past successes of U.S. policy: American power provided the protection and shelter to permit war-ravaged nations to rebuild and become capable of providing for their own needs and defense. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us the chance to end our abnormal and untraditional global role, and Washington failed to seize the opportunity. We are now at a point when we can still disentangle ourselves from many places around the world largely on our own terms and when we can shift the burdens for regional security to the regional powers and institutions that are capable of taking them up, but there seems to be no political will and no imagination needed to make this happen.

Reihan Salam:

As a critic of cosmopolitanism, it’s very possible that Larison wouldn’t see the end of what we might call the Second Globalization Era, after the First Globalization Era that stretched from the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, as a great tragedy.

But for those of us who believe that global trade flows, the free flow of capital, relatively free migration, and market-friendly governments are a good thing, Auslin raises an important question, namely whether the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia “free-rides” on American military power creates benefits that outweigh the costs. Perhaps the security competition that would result from a U.S. grand strategy that focused on offshore balancing rather than the more active and interventionist posture of the present would prove manageable. Military budgets would swell slightly, but new collective security arrangements would emerge to keep the peace at reasonable costs. Or perhaps the security competition would spark dangerous spirals of aggression and counter-aggression. It’s difficult to tell, though I tend to think that the former scenario is somewhat more likely.

Let’s assume a middle series projection in which military budgets do indeed increase, and, as Auslin suggests, states pursue more activist economic policies — including aggressive capital controls and migration controls — to finance this military expansion. Is this a friendlier world for classical liberals than one in which the benevolent global hegemony of the U.S. persists, or rather efforts to extend BGH persist?

Again, I’m not sure. I do think that such a world would prove somewhat less prosperous and more dangerous at the margin, though I can also imagine a comparatively freer United States flourishing in this environment. So really, much depends on your preferences and how you weigh American lives relative to the lives of foreigners in the regions where conflicts might intensify. Alternatively, much depends on how you weigh the relative risks. The status quo, as Larison would remind us, is far from risk-free.

Larison responds later:

One of the reasons I didn’t originally address these concerns is that I don’t find these to be the likely consequences of China’s continued rise, Russian resurgence in its own neighborhood and Iranian membership in the nuclear club. Why will global trade flows be stressed? China is heavily dependent on its export trade to sustain economic growth at home. It has no incentive to disrupt or “stress” trade flows or to embark on policies abroad that would lead to this. At present we see increasing economic integration of Taiwan with the mainland, and the Hatoyama government has held out the possibility, however remote it is at the moment, of forming an East Asian economic community modeled on the European Union. China is investing in (and exploiting) markets all over the world in states where Western companies typically do not go or where they are not allowed to go. So why will the free flow of capital be constrained if China continues to increase its military power? Are we not instead seeing increased trade carried out by and among the BRIC nations? Aren’t emerging-market countries, including China, engaging in noticeable economic innovation?

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist:

I’m with Mr Larison here. I’ve written on this before, but I’ll say it again: “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power”, as Mr Salam puts it, seems to me to be a non-fact. Which countries in East Asia does Mr Salam believe spend too little on their own defence? South Korea, with 600,000 men under arms, currently ramping spending up to 3% of GDP despite declining North Korean capabilities? Taiwan, which has also raised defence spending to 3% of GDP and just finished buying $6 billion worth of arms from America? How much need Thailand spend to ensure victory in its border dispute with Cambodia? What is the threat to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, or (apart from tussles with China over undersea mineral rights in the Yellow Sea) Japan? True, Vietnam is buying Russian submarines with a view to denying Chinese superiority in the South China Sea. And perhaps the Philippines could stand to beef up its military to put down insurgents in Mindanao. But what do either of these have to do with “free-riding on American military power”?

The claim fails for the same reasons with regard to Europe: 1. The major European powers spend a healthy 2%-plus of GDP on defence, and 2. No major European country faces any serious military threat. In fact, I don’t believe the phrase “free-riding on American military power” describes any actual countries in the world in the year 2010.

This is not to say that rising Chinese power will not lead to rising defence expenditures on the part of other regional countries in coming years. But even here, I’m baffled by Mr Auslin’s call for more American defence spending for fear that otherwise “foreign governments will expand their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies in order to fund their own military expansions.” Assume this were true, and that you are the sort of person who thinks of laws and taxes in terms of “governments expanding their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies.” Why in that case would it be a good idea for America’s government to expand its regulatory and confiscatory powers against its domestic economy, in order to forestall other countries from doing so? Or does Mr Auslin think that other countries’ militaries are funded by taxes, while America’s is funded by magic?

More Larison:

It is the lack of serious threats that needs to be emphasized. Suppose that Russia becomes even more assertive in post-Soviet space. Is this going to trigger a significant European arms build-up? It seems unlikely. It is European governments that have been consistently trying to block moves that would appear provocative to Russia. The Germans in particular are far more interested in building a constructive trading relationship with Russia than they are interested in feuding over political influence on Russia’s periphery. In the last decade, Washington has not been providing protection against a growing Russian threat to Europe, but has instead been trying to goad Russia with continued NATO expansion that most other members of NATO didn’t want and refused to accept. On the whole, American hawks have made a habit of perceiving threats to Europe that most Europeans do not see. Then they congratulate the U.S. for shielding Europe from these threats, marvel at European weakness in the face of said threats, and demand European gratitude and deference to U.S. initiatives on account of the protection we provide. This tends to color hawks’ views of everything else.

We see this again with the fear of an Iranian bomb. Most of the other major and rising powers in the region do not regard Iran’s nuclear program as a problem, much less a threat, and even important U.S. allies such as Turkey and India are far more interested in trade with Iran than they are in isolating or punishing it for a program Iran is actually entitled to have. On the whole, Iran’s neighbors do not see why the region should be subjected to another destabilizing conflict that has no realistic chance of halting Iran’s nuclear program in any case.

From the American perspective, it would seem to make fiscal and strategic sense to encourage allies to assume additional responsibilities for regional security. Auslin exaggerated the extent to which America was “hollowing out” its military capabilities, but Americans should welcome the prospect of wealthy allies providing for even more of their own defense. How and when allied states choose to do this will largely be up to them, but it should not be regarded as a calamity for them or the U.S. when it happens. Greater allied burden-sharing will reduce or eliminate the need for American military presence in many parts of the world, and that could help to trim the budget and it could help to keep the U.S. out of long, expensive military campaigns.

Salam responds to Steinglass:


Note that I put “free-riding” is scare quotes. That, of course, is a subtlety that’s easy to miss. I was suggesting that free-riding isn’t the perfect term, but it is useful. Given the way Steinglass approaches issues relating to health systems, public finances, etc., I can’t be too surprised by his reaction. But I am disappointed.

Do I believe that European and East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful concept. Military expenditures are a kind of self-insurance against an anarchic international environment. Choosing the “right” level of self-insurance is a thorny question that doesn’t have a clear answer. This is an environment with more than one imaginable equilibrium. The idea that a state can spend the right amount reflects a planner’s delusion. I tend to think that there is a complex political economy story behind the size of our defense budget. If we ran our defense budget like a lean multinational firm, it would look very different. Political and security imperatives play a big role, as do the PR and lobbying arms of for-profit firms.

The notion that there is free-riding going on doesn’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad thing: this is a core premise advanced by William Wohlforth and others who believe in “the stability of a unipolar world.” “Free-riding” in this vein is a feature, not a bug.

Many of these countries could spend less, e.g., if they consolidated domestic defense industries, outsourced more military functions, etc. I am suggesting that, in the absence of U.S. security guarantees, many of them might be inclined to spend more, not least because of the security competition that might emerge in this counterfactual world. How odd to imagine that U.S. security guarantees could evaporate and have zero effect on the global security environment, and the emergence of threats. This is a very strong version of the William Appleman Williams thesis recently revived by Andrew Bacevich. I’m not sure that Bacevich would believe that an offshore balancing strategy on the part of the U.S. would have zero effect on the global security environment. But who knows? My guess is that it could (a) improve it or (b) make it worse, and that in either case it would do so unevenly. That is, even in a more secure post-American world, some countries would perceive elevated security risks.

UPDATE: Michael Auslin responds

Larison responds


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