As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
The following dispatch comes from Mark Selden, coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus and a research associate with the East Asia program at Cornell University. His books include War & State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and the Asia Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century.
Guns Before Butter: Why America Is Losing Clout to Asia
America’s domination of the Pacific after World War II hinged on the combination of direct control of Japan, Okinawa, Korea, and the Philippines—and Micronesia in the form of a US trust territory—and the associated network of US military bases. While the bombs had ceased pummeling European cities, Asia remained a critical zone of hot war. After Japan’s defeat, the US intervened in the Chinese Civil War in 1947, followed by the Korean and Vietnam wars—both of which directly or indirectly pitted the US against China and the Soviet Union. It was in Asia that the US learned the limits of power, if not the limits of arrogance. Defeated in China and Indochina, it was fought to a standstill in Korea despite overwhelming technological and resource dominance.
These wars revealed that old-style colonial occupation was unsustainable in Asia and elsewhere, even where bolstered by nuclear weapons and a network of military bases. US terror bombing of Korean and Vietnamese cities, the napalming and cluster-bombing of civilians, and the destruction of dams and defoliation of forests inflicted heavy casualties and sent powerful messages to any who might dare to challenge American power. Yet these tactics did not secure victory.
Asia was not merely the center of global warfare in the decades after WWII; it also experienced the most rapid economic development of any continent, starting with Japan, then Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and, subsequently China and Southeast Asia. Far from an economic miracle or product of US largesse, this growth is best understood as the reconstitution of an East-West economic balance disrupted by European and Japanese colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The critical moment of transition was not the Soviet collapse in 1990 but the US-China opening of 1970, facilitated by US defeats in Indochina, the collapse of the American dollar, and the end of the postwar world economic boom—together with a shared US-China perception of the Soviet Union as the primary threat.
China’s entree into the heart of the capitalist world allowed it to break the post-1950, US-led blockade that had kept it economically isolated, and enabled its transition from state socialism to state capitalism. The opening of relations was also pivotal in East Asia’s transition from a region of perpetual war to one of cultural and economic flourishing and relative peace, which further aided China’s reemergence as a regional and global power.
Still, US leaders remained deeply divided over China. If Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon facilitated China’s coming out, the Bush-Cheney administration targeted the country as a long-term threat to American hegemony. That threat has justified extravagant US military budgets at a time of cutbacks in all other areas; 9/11 led to a shift in the primary zone of engagement from China to the Middle East and Central Asia, though not the dismantling of the US-Japan alliance or the military posture keyed to the China threat.
Just as the Korean and Vietnam wars sapped US global power and credibility, the post-9/11 preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has weakened the US globally, undermined a fragile domestic economy, heightened domestic social tensions, and created a situation of permanent warfare. For five decades, the US exercised strong influence over world energy without bases or wars in the oil zone of the Middle East. The 9/11 attacks changed that logic, given the absence of any powerful state rival, and did so with disastrous consequences for the US and the region.
Six years into current wars, with America’s global network of bases extended throughout the region and into Russia’s immediate periphery, the US is immersed in a permanent “war on terror” that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, displaced more than 5 million and sowed the seeds of permanent discord among ethnic groups in Iraq—with no prospect of American victory. The likely consequences include a US strategy that combines “Iraqization” (the withdrawal of US combat forces) with the attempt to maintain permanent US bases staffed by tens of thousands of soldiers and many more mercenaries.
Given the fears fueled by 9/11, US leaders have chosen military intervention to take direct control of the world’s oil, and to assure the security of Israel—goals whose contradictory implications underline the permanent war that the US has embarked on. China, by contrast, has intervened as an investor, recently putting up $3 billion for oil development in Iraq and $3.5 billion for copper development in Afghanistan. These contracts, among the largest in either country, open a new page in the US-China relationship—although the ongoing violence may prevent the deals from being fulfilled any time soon.
Chalmers Johnson’s contribution to understanding the nature of American global power lies not so much in his rich documentation of the structure of the US network of bases as in the analysis of the tragic consequences of the permanent militarization of the United States for world stability and American democracy. To this we must add the present administration’s undermining of the American economy and the welfare state, both of which contribute to the decline of American global power.
The unwitting beneficiaries of these policy prescriptions could include China and Asian economies if they can escape being dragged down by an American economic meltdown. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the global network of bases and permanent stationing of troops abroad has become the Achilles heel both of American democracy and the nation’s global geopolitical supremacy. Only the emergence of powerful new forces in American politics can avert these outcomes.