The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have radically altered the policy priorities of the United States, which could have wide-ranging international implications for years to come, according to American experts taking part in a recent seminar in Tokyo.
“Since Sept. 11, the United States has spent much less time on East Asia than anyone had anticipated (prior to the terrorist attacks),” Kurt Campbell, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense in the administration of Bill Clinton, told the Nov. 11 symposium, organized by the Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo.
The attacks redirected U.S. concerns to the Middle East, Europe and the domestic front, said Campbell, now senior vice president and director of international security programat the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The most important thing for Japan to think about is that the U.S. in the future — and indeed today — will be a little bit preoccupied and is not likely to spend the sort of time and attention focused on Asia (that was anticipated just a few months before Sept. 11),” he told the audience at the symposium, titled “The present state of Japan-U.S. relations.”
Citing the recent cancellation of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s planned trip to Asia as a result of the deepening Iraqi crisis, Campbell said, “We’re going to see more of that going forward, rather than less of it.”
Within Asia, he went on, the U.S. focus has been more on southeast Asia than on northeast Asia, because of growing concern over the movement of radical Islamic fundamental groups in the region.
“The Bali bombing is the most recent example of the threat that this trend presents to all of us — not only in the U.S. but in Japan and southeast Asia as well,” he said.
Campbell predicted that U.S. engagement in the region will continue for at least the next four to five years. “We can no longer relegate a country like Indonesia to the back burner.”
Meanwhile, U.S.-China relations, initially feared to be headed for perhaps the worst period since diplomatic ties were normalized in the 1970s, have improved dramatically, he observed.
Whereas the Bush administration before Sept. 11 did not consider China to be a major market for the U.S. but more a “strategic competitor,” Campbell said there is now “recognition in Washington that there are many important international issues that cannot be solved without support — or at least the understanding — of China.”
This shift in direction is obviously the result of the September 2001 attacks, but Campbell also noted that it follows the pattern of past U.S. presidents reshaping their policy toward China after roughly 20 months in office.
As U.S. policy toward Asia has been radically reshaped, he said, one significant element has been missing — the economy.
“There has not been a kind of economic vision about the U.S. interaction with Asia of the kind that we have seen over the last decade,” Campbell observed. “Just as the Bush foreign and security policy team has punched above its weight . . . I believe his economic team has substantially underperformed.”
The war on terrorism
Analyzing also how U.S. foreign policy has changed before and after Sept. 11, James Steinberg, vice president and director of the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution, observed that President Bush and his advisers initially advocated “selective engagement” — limiting U.S. commitments abroad.
Bush was also calling for ties to be cemented with traditional U.S. allies — Japan, Europe, South Korea and Australia — while holding a very skeptical view toward Russia and China, he said.
Militarily, the focus was on missile defense, a greater involvement in outer space and a greater ability to project power abroad — by sending forces from the U.S. instead of relying on overseas bases.
Very little attention was paid, however, to transnational issues: terrorism, international crime, health and disease and the environment, he observed.
Looking back on the 15 months since the Sept. 11 attacks, how have these policy priorities changed?
“Terrorism, which was barely mentioned in the early days of the Bush administration, has now become the central feature — and the organizing principle — of U.S. foreign policy,” he said.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Steinberg noted, “President Bush made it clear that the basic test is going to be ‘Are you with us or against us?’ in the war on terrorism.”
Past relations did not count for a great deal; what mattered was how other nations would deal with the issue in the future, he observed.
The Bush administration’s initial emphasis on “promoting democracy” in other countries was set aside as the focus shifted on terrorism.
This shift in emphasis is apparent in U.S. relations with South Asia and Central Asia, he said. Despite its military leadership and development of missiles, Pakistan became a key ally in the war on terrorism and the operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The U.S. is now basing its military forces in Central Asian countries — “which, in anybody’s estimation, could not be qualified as democratic” — but are obviously strategically important, he added.
Dramatic changes have also taken place in U.S. relations with China and Russia. On the other hand, traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have become “increasingly questioned in the U.S. for their failure to deal with the problem of terrorism,” said Steinberg.
“How has it affected our traditional allies — NATO, Japan, (South) Korea and Australia? First (the terrorist attacks) have created a great sense of solidarity between the U.S. and its allies,” he said. “But since then, deep new tensions (have emerged) after the Europeans questioned the overall U.S. strategy in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the U.S. has questioned the importance and the value of its allies in dealing with the threat of terrorism.”
On the other hand, the willingness of the Japanese government to play a role in the operation in Afghanistan “helped demonstrate where you are now in the war on terrorism (irrespective of where you were during the Cold War),” he observed.
“But what is important about this is that the value — even of traditional U.S. allies — is not because of the long historic connections but rather because of the willingness to support the U.S. in its current priority.
“It is what Defense Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld called ‘coalitions of the willing’ — situations where it does not matter what your position is on other issues if you can join the United States in this particular fight . . . and if you are not prepared to do this, then you are not part of the overall coalition,” said Steinberg.
He quoted Rumsfeld as saying “the mission defines the coalition” rather than the “coalition defining the mission,” which he described as a different approach to allies from the days of the Cold War.
“With that, there is a greater sense that the U.S. is and will be prepared to act unilaterally, because we will assemble coalitions based on a decision that we have already made, and now go to other countries and say, ‘This is what we are going to do. Will you be with us in this effort?’ “
Home front psychology
Many of the panelists at the symposium agreed that perhaps the biggest impact of the Sept. 11 incident was on the American psychology — that the U.S. mainland would not be invulnerable, despite the nation’s status as the world’s sole military superpower.
“For the first time in 50 years, the United States is worrying about the vulnerability of the homeland, and questioning whether the tradeoffs we made in the past about opening our society to the rest of the world and facilitating globalization does not pose too much of a risk (to the country),” said Steinberg.
Scott Gould, president and CEO of The O’Gara Company and expert on security issues, said the sense of vulnerability, threat and risk of terrorism were “all new to American lives.”
As the U.S. government reviewed its strategy on homeland security, it became aware that 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is owned by business, he said. “Therefore, the business sectors must respond and join the government in addressing the critical security issues.”
The government has also secured hefty budgetary appropriations, $37.5 billion for fiscal 2002-2003 alone, introduced massive programs to secure aviation security, and plans to create a new federal organization for homeland security.
Gould said the threat to homeland security is substantial, as illustrated by terrorist attacks that have been witnessed in other parts of the world even though no further attacks on the U.S. have taken place since Sept. 11. “Attacks on the U.S. mainland are expected in future.”
“Over 2,000 marine shipping containers enter the United States every hour. Less than 2 percent of them are opened and inspected before they enter the country,” he said. “The figure is an example of the enormous risk the country faces.”
Major challenges the U.S. faces in beefing up homeland security include: sustaining the American resolve in the face of the country’s short attention span; balancing the risk and the free flow of commerce; balancing the need for government intrusiveness and individual rights to privacy; and the enormous cost, with over $200 billion already budgeted for the next five years.
Gould also emphasized that U.S. homeland security is not just an American problem, but has substantial international implications.
“We are part of a system of systems,” he said. “A weak link in that system means increased risk.”
It could also result in serious economic damage, he warned, noting, for example, how a recent labor dispute at a port in California stopped ships entering the U.S., seriously compromising the profitability of companies involved.
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