JPRI Critique Vol. VI No. 7 (July 1999)
A New U.S. Grand Strategy for the Asia-Pacific Region
by Alan Tonelson

The term "grand strategy" sounds pompous, but all it really means is an approach to world affairs that prioritizes and harmonizes in a sustainable way the varied interests that any nation--especially a great power--has, and mobilizes resources plausibly capable of securing them. In my view, these are tests that U.S. policy in the Asia Pacific region fails today, and has failed for decades.

The main problems are first, that American foreign policymakers have steadily lost the ability to think coherently and even sensibly about national interests; and second, that they have misinterpreted America's fundamental geopolitical and economic circumstances. Under two post-Cold War presidents, policies resulting from these problems have generated a bewildering range of results: trade wars, trade agreements, economic conferences, alliance reforms, gunboat diplomacy, and absolutely phenomenal levels of domestic economic activity. Despite some differences between the Clinton and Bush administrations, I am struck by the similarities. The most important similarity by far is the belief that the United States has no choice but to achieve its objectives in the Asia-Pacific region through efforts to shape actively and in extraordinary detail the region's political, economic, and security development. The upshot is that both administrations have been determined to provide most of the public goods--and pay most of the price and bear most of the risk--to preserve the status quo in the Asia Pacific region.

However sensible--even inevitable--this approach may sound, it is poorly suited to a country with America's distinctive combination of strengths and weaknesses. The record of the last decade alone should raise many questions about the viability of this approach. Nearly ten years after the Cold War's end, many of America's most serious Asia-related problems remain: lopsided and harmful economic flows, costly and dangerous defense commitments, and scant progress toward greater burden sharing. Many other problems have worsened or emerged full-blown--including heightened tensions with a North Korea probably possessing nuclear weapons, the growing power of China along with its intensifying doctrinal, if not yet overt opposition to America's regional role, and of course the continuing Asian financial crisis and its political and social fallout.

What Is Our National Interest?

The national interest is an idea that is widely misunderstood. A country's national interest cannot be measured or weighed. It has no fixed definition but is, inevitably, the product of a series of judgment calls that reflect a synthesis of resources and will. And resources and will are often functions of each other. For example, we could surely solve our military problems in the Balkans in 24 hours by leveling every man-made object in Serbia. We choose not to. We could try to buy off North Korea with 75 percent of our national wealth. We would say we can't afford it, but in the end, that is tantamount to saying that we choose not to. In addition--and this is particularly relevant to U.S. foreign policy today--defining the national interest entails more than identifying intrinsically desirable objectives--e.g., stability and democracy in a region like Asia. Without assessing costs and risks and acknowledging that there are trade-offs, objectives are meaningless.

Even though assessing the national interest will always entail judgment calls, we can still identify some guidelines that can increase the odds of reaching sound judgments. We are likeliest, for example, to act most effectively and efficiently if we pursue tangible goals rather than abstractions. This means that if a region is not strategically located, does not possess great military power, and is not a major market or source of key materials, products, or technologies, we can probably safely assign it a low priority. If an objective can't be achieved in some readily identifiable time frame, then either our effort is inadequate (and should be increased) or we're better off foregoing it. Payoffs that keep receding into the future have a nasty habit of never arriving at all. And--something I wish policymakers today would remember more vividly--international institutions have almost no capacity to affect power realities or bridge political and cultural divides on their own. At best, they can only reflect these realities.

Today's conventional wisdom seems to hold that a great power is defined by its activism, by what it does on the world stage--by how many armies it can raise and send all over the world, how many alliances it forms or leads, how many international organizations it joins, how many treaties it signs, how many peace agreements it brokers, and how much foreign aid it hands out. I think it is much more sensible to conclude that a great power is defined by what it is--by the assets it can bring to bear on the opportunities and dangers it faces. And since one of power's great benefits is the creation of options and flexibility in an unpredictable world, the simple possession of power in all its dimensions--and by extension its preservation and enhancement--is the best guarantor of American security, prosperity, and independence.

A Realist Asian Policy

The United States can approach world affairs with a host of advantages enjoyed by few if any others. Combined with our favorable geographic position (and distance and two ocean barriers still count for a lot in international security) this creates a remarkable paradox. Precisely because the United States is powerful and self-sufficient--precisely because we often can adopt a 'take it or leave it' approach to most international problems--we have the leverage to secure favorable terms of engagement with the rest of the world. Nowhere is this more true than in the Asia Pacific region.

The hard reality is that for the U.S. to fight a major war in Asia would bring far more potential damage than benefit to us, leaving us with this inescapable conclusion: the United States has few compelling security interests in the Asia Pacific region. We have even fewer interests in who controls the region politically. Our critical interests in Asia involve helping our companies and workers export to Asian markets, and facilitating investment in Asian economies where sound business considerations--not Asian trade barriers--so advise. By far the best way for the United States to achieve these aims is to remain wealthy and technologically advanced enough to serve as a major actual and potential market for and provider of capital and technology to the Asia Pacific region, and to condition Asian access to these assets on Asian economic openness--as we define this concept, not the Asians. There is every reason to believe that this approach will work no matter who Asia's hegemon is.

If a modest level of forward-deployed U.S. forces can add marginally to Asian stability--by providing a hand-holding function--then let us keep some there. But they will have to be much less vulnerably deployed, and we should be under no illusion that even the present level of 100,000 U.S. troops can, in effect, keep the lid on half of mankind during an unusually turbulent period in the region's history.

The main problem with our current China policy is that we have tried to organize it around what political scientists call functional issues. We have simply assumed that progress on these functional issues will ipso facto promote our interests. Various groups would like to make trade or human rights or containment the touchstone of our China policy. Predictably, because they each represent only one dimension of our interests in this large, complex relationship, these approaches have all failed when they've been tried. I would propose a different organizing principle: we oppose and counter Chinese policy when it directly and immediately affects American security and prosperity. And we do little, if anything, about Chinese actions that do not have such effects.

This approach would entail using our vast economic leverage with China to reduce or eliminate predatory Chinese trade practices--which of course means no permanent extension of Normal Trade Relations status and no admittance of China into the World Trade Organization under any foreseeable circumstances. My approach would also entail sanctioning China for its still dangerous activities in fostering the spread of weapons of mass destruction. After all, the rogue states to which China transfers these weapons and their technologies have already challenged U.S. national security interests in various parts of the world. Of course, this sanctions policy would need to be broadly applied to be effective, which means that Washington needs to do a much better job of getting its major allies on board. My approach would remove human rights considerations from the bilateral agenda, except for worker rights issues--which after all directly affect trade flows and investment decisions.

I am not one who believes that the Chinese are aggressively moving to control East Asia. And however much I admire Taiwan's political and economic progress, I would strongly oppose defending Taiwan with the U.S. military because I cannot imagine our country emerging from a military conflict with China healthier and happier than before such a war. Instead, I would let Beijing know that the more provocatively it acts toward Taiwan or any of its neighbors, the more and the better the conventional weapons we will sell to these countries. I would also discourage Taiwan's moves for independence--as President Clinton has apparently been doing. But unlike President Clinton, I would insist on a big quid pro quo from China.

When it comes to Korea, the most insightful analysis of its importance to the United States came in the late-1940s, when Pentagon planners concluded that the big Cold War prize in Asia was Japan, and that Japan was easily defended no matter what happened to Korea. Today, it is hard to argue that this reality has changed much. Moreover, the Cold War threat is no more. Yet, not only are there some 40,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Korea (air and ground units), but 5,000 of them are stationed at the DMZ, right next door to a regime that is widely considered dangerous, unstable, and perhaps irrational. The mission of these 5,000 troops is to serve as a "tripwire," a euphemism for "dying." Even worse, their mission is to die in order to draw the United States into a conflict with a nation that possesses not only weapons of mass destruction, but increasingly a long-range delivery system.

Again, the issue is not whether stability in Korea is desirable or important. It is highly desirable, and arguably of some importance. The issue is whether it is worth the growing dangers to which U.S. policy has exposed American soldiers and even the American mainland. My personal view is that it is not. Instead we should take advantage of the overwhelming interests of local powers such as China and Japan in preventing a greater North Korean nuclear build-up and our own remoteness from the situation, and permit them to take the lead on dealing with North Korea.

Well before the Asian--now third world--financial crisis, there was a growing awareness among the U.S. public that the unbalanced U.S.-Asian economic flows were harmful to U.S.-based producers (companies and workers alike), although they were very profitable for U.S. multinational companies who often served U.S. markets from Asian production bases. What troubles me about U.S. policy toward the current financial crisis is that we seem to be determined to restore this unacceptable status quo ante. From the standpoint of global financial stability, these pre-crisis trade flows were unsustainable--as Treasury Secretary Rubin and the IMF have obliquely acknowledged. Indeed, they were so lopsided that they contributed heavily to the excessive and reckless investments made in East Asia. I am also worried about the U.S.'s already sagging employment and wages in manufacturing industries and all that this implies for our future as a nation with a large, vibrant middle class. Restoring the status quo ante in U.S.-Asia trade can only produce bigger, more dangerous financial crises in the future. A far wiser course would be to reduce U.S. trade deficits with Asia now, permitting U.S. and especially Asian growth rates to settle at less robust but more durable levels.

A final reason why I believe we must rethink American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is that there is strong and growing public opposition to the large-scale use of U.S. military force for strategically questionable or marginal reasons. And there is even stronger opposition to current U.S. trade and other international economic policies. The silver lining in all this is that we have ample opportunity not only to make a virtue of necessity, but to make a strategy of it as well.

ALAN TONELSON is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, Racing to the Bottom: How the New Global Economy is Impoverishing Most Americans, and Why Washington's Responses Won't Help (Westview). These remarks were made to the JPRI conference on U.S. Defense Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region, Washington, DC, May 25, 1999.


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