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Donald Trump, Barbarian Emperor
How the GOP presidential front-runner totally misunderstands Japan -- and the value of supporting (not extorting) our allies in Asia.
Many view Donald Trump as simply reckless, saying anything to generate attention. But as Brookings’ Thomas Wright has shown, Donald Trump does actually have a consistent world view: in 1987, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times criticizing President Reagan’s national security policy and he continues to propagate those same views. He believed then, and says again now, that America’s allies are taking advantage of us and we must force them to do more. Specifically, Trump insists he would renegotiate the U.S.-Japanese defense alliance. The Republican presidential frontrunner sounds indistinguishable from the government of China, demanding tribute from the worried and weak while using power and leverage to the disadvantage of others.
Trump says Japan expects us to defend them, but won’t defend us. And it is true that the Japanese Constitution prohibits war as a tool of Japanese foreign policy, something we imposed on them after World War II. But over the past 15 years, Japan has slowly acclimatized a largely pacifist public to take an increasing role contributing to international security. Japanese military forces assisted U.S. operations in Afghanistan, contributed troops to the coalition in Iraq, and participate in anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden. The Shinzo Abe government passed legislation making explicit Japan’s ability to defend allies under attack, including the United States, and is providing training and weapons to other American allies and friendly countries in Asia (a defense agreement with the Philippines will be signed on Monday). None of these things would be possible without the reassuring foundation of the U.S.-Japanese defense alliance. We want Japan’s help in the world and they are increasingly giving it; abandoning them is counterproductive.
Japan endures the stationing of more than 50,000 American troops, concentrated on 83 bases and facilities. Some 25,000 Marines rotate through the island of Okinawa; our bases take up 18 percent of the island. But the government of Japan also pays for that privilege; because of the generous contributions the Japanese government makes, the cost of stationing forces forward in Japan is roughly equivalent to stationing them in the United States. Having them in Japan anchors America’s role in Asia and reassures a region that until recently was as worried about aggression from Tokyo as they were from Beijing. Forward stationing also gets American forces much faster into the fight, whether the fight is defense of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, or any other contingency in Asia.
Isolationists like Trump may say we shouldn’t be defending any of those countries. But will they like an international order in which China’s shadow is cast over all of Asia? How will the United States negotiate better trade deals when we do not get credit for protecting countries fearful of Chinese influence? How will we gain cooperation when a China — stronger for stepping into the vacuum we leave behind — penalizes countries for their involvement with us?
Japan is the country in Asia considered the most important current and future partner by others (even more so than the United States or China). It is the country considered most reliable by others, and 90 percent of people in ASEAN countries consider Japan’s more active involvement valuable. Alienating Japan will not just be costly in the direct U.S.-Japan context, but also damaging to American standing in other Asian countries.
A rising China has unsettled Asia. Calling American security commitments into question will lead countries friendly to us and supportive of our interests to believe they have no choice but to find accommodation with Beijing. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have all pulled closer to the United States in recent years because of China’s threat. Even Japan and South Korea are not immune to Chinese sway if they feel unmoored from us, as has already been demonstrated by South Korea’s flirtation with a China-first approach to dealing with North Korea until the recent DPRK nuclear test. If you think letting a stable Middle East slip from America’s grasp was expensive, imagine the cost of doing the same in Asia — the region through which passes the majority of world trade and which fuels 60 of global growth.
There is some reason in Trump’s frustration with America’s allies. We have allowed the United States to accrue a disproportionate responsibility for others’ security outcomes. The most egregious example may well be in Europe, where our NATO allies spend too little and are much more able than they acknowledge to manage the challenges of a declining but dangerous Russia. Trump’s reason rhymes with the Obama administration’s “leading from behind” in that both foist onto others primary responsibility for outcomes.
What they both have wrong is their starting point that allies are a net drain on American strength. In fact, it is allied contributions that make the American order sustainable. They share the burden and validate the outcomes of our rules, making us stronger over time. President Obama’s policy in the Middle East has demonstrated that when the United States does not set the rules, other states will, and those states will grow stronger by doing so.
The U.S.-Japan alliance is a model of the benefits of steady American engagement in the world. Forged in the aftermath of a war even more brutal in the Pacific than it was in the European theater and that ended with the only use of nuclear weapons, the U.S.-Japanese alliance not only provided for the rehabilitation of relations between the two countries, it has become essential to peace and to prosperity in all of Asia. Donald Trump envisions a very different set of U.S. relationships in Asia; he postures himself as a great dealmaker who would use other countries’ reliance on us to induce them to turn a profit for us. But his approach would instead sow insecurity and dramatically raise the costs to the United States.
Photo credit: Steve Pope/Getty Images