The Iraq Study Group has proposed withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq by 2008, but the armed services are under great strain today.
Washington needs to look for other, and quicker, sources of relief. By encouraging Japan to become a normal nation with normal defense responsibilities, Washington can shed some of its outdated Asian military commitments.
America’s relationship with Japan remains heavily freighted by history, including Article 9 of the so-called peace constitution, which formally bars creation of a military. But Japanese pacifism soon lost its appeal to Washington in the midst of the Cold War and Tokyo creatively reinterpreted the document, allowing development of a potent "self-defense force."
Increased wealth has generated pressure on Tokyo to play agreater international role. Even more important has been a growing sense of vulnerability from North Korea and China.
Alas, several of Japan’s bilateral relationships have become more truculent. Some wounds have been self-inflicted: Japanese officials, including Abe before his elevation to prime minister, have continued to visit the Yasukuni war shrine.
But it isn’t all Japan’s fault. Countries like China and South Korea themselves are increasingly nationalistic and have used anti-Japanese sentiment for political advantage.
Neither can seriously believe that Tokyo will again invade and occupy them. Beijing’s stench of hypocrisy is particularly strong, given its own historical public amnesia.
Even as it begins to do more, Japan hopes to hold onto its American defense subsidy. After taking office, Prime Minister Sinzo Abe proclaimed: "The Japan-United States alliance forms the foundation of our foreign and security policy."
First, every security commitment is expensive, since the U.S. has to create force structure to make good on its defense promises. That’s an important reason why Washington now spends as much as the rest of the world combined on the military.
Second, defense guarantees risk war. Washington’s promise to fight is expected to deter anyone else from risking war. However, deterrence can fail, in which case American involvement is inevitable, or almost so.
Moreover, providing superpower backing encourages allied states to engage in potentially irresponsible behavior. They certainly have less incentive to invest in their own militaries.
Finally, acting as everyone’s protector puts Washington in the front lines of virtually every regional controversy. There is no intrinsic reason why America should, for instance, care who controls the Paracel, Spratly, or Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. But if its defense clients care, the U.S. is inevitably involved.
In short, military alliances risk becoming transmission belts of war — in this case with the People’s Republic of China.
In a future world of an assertive, powerful China, is the U.S. better off with a gaggle of weak allies dependent upon it, or a coalition of strong, independent friends able to constrain Beijing on their own? Obviously the latter.
American foreign policy should be adjusted to fit changing circumstances. In the aftermath of World War II, Washington had little choice but to shield friendly states. Today, South Korea and Japan, in particular, could defend themselves.
Washington should phase out its current troop presence in Japan, already scheduled to drop by 8000 in 2012. At the same time, the two countries should reach an accord maintaining base access for U.S. air and naval forces.
There also might be value in prepositioning some equipment in readiness for unpredictable contingencies. Moreover, Washington should use its diplomatic offices to help smooth the way for a more significant Japanese role.
Some wonder whether Tokyo could be trusted with the bomb. Do they mean compared to unstable Pakistan or authoritarian China? The Japanese do not possess a double dose of original sin.Moreover, the U.S. government now risks Los Angeles to protect Tokyo. Facing down China in a crisis would not be the same as confronting Serbia or Iraq. Americanizing and nuclearizing disputes between China and its neighbors is a policy of potential catastrophe.
There are many reasons for Washington and Tokyo to remain close friends, and many issues upon which the two nations can cooperate. However, the alliance needs to be updated for a new age.
Japan should become a normal nation with normal defense responsibilities. The transformation won’t be easy, but it is both necessary and inevitable. Washington should make the process as smooth as possible.
Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy for Citizen Outreach. His most recent book is "Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire" (Xulon).