December 1, 2005  

What the United States wants

There is no issue in American long-range strategic policy that exceeds in importance the question of the United States’ relationship with Japan. It is the only one of America’s alliances that is equally focused on all three of the major threats we will face in the 21st century: The threat of Islamic terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear technology to rogue regimes and the rise of China. And in light of the recent agreement between the United States and Japan, this is an auspicious moment at which to examine an extremely important topic.

In this article, I’ll pose four questions: Why is the U.S.-Japanese alliance so important to both governments right now? What is our vision for a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance? What concrete steps must our governments take in the near to medium term to strengthen the U.S.-Japanese alliance? And what may be the obstacles to moving forward?

I won’t pretend to provide complete answers to any of these questions, but the process of working through them should help provide some of the strategic focus that both sides will need to achieve the important task of transforming the alliance.


The U.S.-Japan alliance is one of the great strategic success stories of the Cold War era, and thus far, it looks as if it will continue. The latter fact has surprised many people who predicted the alliance would fray or even break after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but instead, and especially over the last 10 years, it has grown stronger. Why is this the case?

Part of the answer, despite the predilections of the realist school of international relations — both on the left and right — is that the alliance has been based, and continues to be based, on shared values and a broad conception of common interests, not only in a response to immediate threats. If that were all there was to it, once the Soviet Union had disappeared, the alliance would have ceased to exist as well.

But it is also true that in the past decade we have seen the emergence of new challenges and those have given renewed urgency to the alliance. It is interesting to contrast the developments in relations between the United States and Japan to those between the United States and Europe. In contrast to many of the states of Europe, there has been a considerable convergence in thinking between Americans and Japanese on the urgency and the importance of the challenges we face. I would identify three.

The first is the threat from irresponsible, aggressive and dictatorial states that seek weapons of mass destruction — North Korea, Iran and, at one time, Iraq. Those threats are with us now. In spite of the recent optimism over the Six-Party Talks on North Korea, there’s every reason to remain skeptical that we are going to achieve a satisfactory resolution of this confrontation.

The second challenge is the threat posed by terrorists who use whatever means they can to impose tyranny in the name of religion. And that is a direct threat to three central targets. One, the threat of an attack on the advanced industrial democracies, as we have seen in the United States, Europe, and — in 1995 — Japan. Two, there is a threat of destabilization posed by terrorist groups to the energy-producing areas in the Middle East and Central Asia. Three, there is the threat to the stability of countries along critical transportation routes from the Middle East into Northeast Asia. And although it is fair to say we have made significant progress in meeting this challenge over the last four years, it also seems safe to say that it is going to be with us for some time.

The third challenge, perhaps still a potential challenge, is that posed by fast-rising powers whose political development may not keep pace with their increasing economic and military capabilities. And since we have entered a new era of candor on this subject, let’s admit we’re talking about China.

It is extremely important to use a phrase that appeared in some of the early strategic planning documents of the Bush administration, the National Security Strategy document of 2002, to maintain what was referred to there as a “balance of power that favors freedom,” globally, but especially in Asia, to discourage any possibility of aggression or coercion, but also to work together to counter any Chinese effort to reshape Asia in ways contrary to our shared interests and values. This is a challenge that has only recently begun to be fully evident, and it will be with us for quite a long time.

Simply stated, the U.S.-Japanese alliance matters because both countries recognize the need to cooperate ever more closely to meet these challenges. Sadly, this is an assessment that only applies to several of our alliances in the world.


Turning to my second question: What is our vision for the U.S.-Japan alliance and how do we see it fitting into the broader regional and global security architectures that may be developing? To specify terms of reference, what would we like to see the U.S.-Japan alliance look like five or 10 years from now?

On this issue, there is increasing agreement on the broad question — both American and Japanese strategists and decision-makers hope to build a more equal and fully integrated partnership. Some have referred to it as a “normal alliance;” that is because Japan is becoming more a normal country, thus the U.S.-Japan alliance will become a more normal alliance. The United States is committed so far not to do less — although it may reposition its forces and draw down its force levels in both Asia and Europe — and therefore Japan needs to do more if this alliance is to become more balanced.

On the issue of how a more normal U.S.-Japan alliance might fit into a regional security architecture, various proposals have been made over the last several years. Some have referred to the possibility of creating an Asian equivalent of NATO — a formal alliance mechanism drawing together the democracies of the region. On the other hand, others have described the creation of a possible inclusive multilateral regional institution, perhaps building on the mechanism that has been created to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, having at least five of the six parties to the Six-Party Talks as the core of some regional security institution.

The idea of an Asian NATO would obviously face considerable political obstacles. It doesn’t seem to be on the table right now. The second idea the concept of a multilateral regional institution, an inclusive kind of “Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia” modeled on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for which there is much enthusiasm in some circles, could have its uses. But it would also not address our real security concerns. The inclusion of diametrically opposed interests would preclude collective action on the region’s most important issues.

We need something that falls in between these two extremes, and that something could be described as a loosely integrated network of overlapping strategic linkages, including alliances but also less formal ties among states sharing interests, and yes, values — the United States and Japan, obviously the United States and Korea, the United States and Australia, but also the United States and India, Japan and India, Australia and Japan, Australia and India, Japan and Korea, and so on.

What I have in mind might be described as having an open architecture into which various pieces might fit depending on circumstances — instead of hub and spokes, perhaps something more organic — a web. And many pieces of this web are beginning to fall into place.


The third question is what concrete steps must we take to enhance U.S.-Japanese strategic cooperation? This is a technical question, but it obviously includes a wide range of issues from the harmonization of national strategies to enhanced cooperation in designing and building new weapons systems. There are two outstanding facts.

First, the “software” in these arrangements is going to be as important as the hardware; so in addition to talking about weapons development and very concrete issues, the U.S. and Japanese governments need also to talk about intelligence sharing, increasing joint planning, increasing joint training, development of convergent concepts of operations and doctrine and so on.

The second point is that if it is true these softer elements are going to be extremely important over time, then we in both the United States and Japan need people on both sides who understand the cultures, languages and styles of operation of the other. And although we have had a close alliance for many years, we still have much work to do, certainly in the United States, to raise a new generation of such people.


Finally, what obstacles do we face and how can they be best overcome? It is historically the case — realist predictions to the contrary notwithstanding — that states should cooperate with one another based upon clear interests in doing so, but in fact don’t always do so. Or they don’t until it is almost too late. Certainly, the example of the United States and Britain in the interwar period is one such cautionary tale.

If we think about where we stand and the many obstacles we have faced in just the last decade, it is clear there are many potential obstacles on both sides to moving forward. The United States and Japan have been lucky thus far this decade because of the relationship the leaders of our two countries have formed. But those two leaders will not be in power forever, and it is conceivable that their successors could lack the sense of engagement and commitment that they possess. There is also always a danger of inertia and bureaucratic rigidity. In the absence of a powerful push from the top, those forces have a tendency to take hold and to block further progress, particularly on difficult tasks.

Economic constraints will be important on both sides; the United States and Japan now each face major budget deficits. Likewise, there is always the possibility — although it doesn’t seem likely or imminent — of renewed economic friction, which in the past has stood in the way of more rapid progress toward strategic cooperation.

Domestic political factors are clearly important and are playing a role at slowing down what should be more rapid progress in moving forward with the alliance. And here, it is extremely important for leaders on both sides to explain to their people, to their publics, why it is necessary, why it is valuable, why it is worth the costs and the difficulties of doing the things that will need to be done in order to strengthen our alliance.

What needs to be kept in mind is the possibility of divisive diplomacy by those who don’t want to see us succeed. We need to be prepared to think and talk with one another about how best to counter those obstacles thrown in our way.

There is much work to be done. It will take a long time to do it. And if the United States and Japan delay — if we don’t succeed in moving forward and institutionalizing the progress already made — we may not get where we need to go. We need to make faster progress to prepare for the dangers we face already and those looming just around the corner.