One word you will hear a lot more in foreign policy and national security debates is “offensive.” There will be dire warnings about the dangers of passivity in an era of ubiquitous information and instantaneous communication, and exhortations of the need to dictate the pace of events. Expect to be told that we “cannot let the other side take the offensive.”
While there is a new reality to threats in the digital era, we must pay close attention to how the word “offensive” is being used. Today, it has two very distinct meanings that apply in very different contexts, and it is dangerous to confuse the two. One use may raise eyebrows, but the other should not. As Japan begins critical discussions on national security, clarity and concision are essential. There is far too much at stake to indulge in sloppy logic or language.
The first use of the word “offensive” is the most obvious. It refers to anticipating an opponent’s behavior and pre-emptively moving to blunt its impact — going on the offense means acting first. It is a clear contrast to a defensive posture that allows an adversary to take the initiative.
The term is already being used in Japan as the country debates a pre-emptive strike capability, which is sometimes called an “offensive strike” option. This phrasing has special power in a country that, as the Defense Ministry insists, has an “exclusively defense-oriented policy as its basic strategy of defense.” Again, to be clear, it may be controversial but this capability is legal domestically and internationally (in the proper circumstances) and only makes sense as part of a mix of offensive and defensive options undertaken in cooperation with the United States as an ally.
The missile defense debate will be the most obvious application of this word, but there are two other national security contexts in which “offensive” will prominently figure.
The first is cybersecurity. U.S. national cybersecurity efforts are based on the concept of “defend forward,” which calls for “cyberspace operations to collect intelligence and prepare military cyber capabilities to be used in the event of crisis or conflict.” Actions such as surveilling systems or planting malware will occur in foreign networks to “stop threats before they reach their targets.” “Defend forward” also seeks “to disrupt or halt malicious cyber activity at its source.” In other words, militaries will take actions that are defensive in nature, but because they take place before hostilities commence and occur within an adversary’s networks, they will look like offensive operations.
While “defend forward” is a U.S. concept, Japan agreed in the last Security Consultative Committee meeting (in April 2019) to work more closely with its ally to strengthen bilateral cybersecurity cooperation. That is a smart decision but it will trigger debates in Japan about the meaning of “offensive” and how this policy can be reconciled with its “defense-oriented” posture.
A more forward-leaning approach is evident throughout national security planning of the U.S. and that is the second important context in which Japan will encounter the “offensive.” The U.S. is excoriated daily for ceding to China the initiative in regional affairs. Beijing’s extensive artificial island building program in the South China Sea is Exhibit A, although the aggressive economic diplomacy of the Belt and Road Initiative is also seen through this lens.
China is transforming the context in which national security decisions are made, and the U.S. and its allies and partners are merely responding. Washington has been applauded for recognizing the reality of the China challenge and for understanding the need for a more confrontational approach. Part of this new strategy is going on the offensive to force Beijing to respond to its initiatives. As its closest ally in Asia, and a backer of a more hard-edged (if not openly confrontational) approach to China, Japan must be prepared for more “offensive” operations to shape the region.
There is another use of the word “offensive” in the national security context but is, in fact, rarely spoken. This usage goes beyond merely shaping the environment, and consists of genuinely aggressive, pre-emptive actions to unbalance an adversary.
In this case, the U.S. and its allies identify a country’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities and actively target them. For example, just as foreign adversaries exploit social media and social division in Western democracies, those democracies would find similar cracks in adversaries’ societies and try to widen them. A genuine “offensive” would make real the paranoia that foreign governments have about Western interference in their countries. I see no signs that such an option is being discussed, but then I wouldn’t expect to: It is an incendiary option that should be deeply hidden and only deployed as a last resort.
There is a second, more general context in which strategists discuss “offensive” policies, and this use should be much less controversial than the others. In this case, offensive refers to a suite of options that are designed to build national capabilities, rather than merely protect against the degradation of the advantage that a country has. This is most commonly heard in discussions of technology and innovation. Critics rightly charge that too much emphasis is put on defense — restrictions such as export or investment controls that are intended to protect intellectual property, to safeguard the technological lead that it confers, and to prevent misuse if it should leak.
These policies are necessary, but they are not enough. Instead, governments must do more to build capabilities, nurture innovation and facilitate idea diffusion. So, for example, Anja Manuel and Pavneet Singh urge policymakers in a paper for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University to “go on the offensive” to better compete in the race to develop and exploit new technologies. Generally, that means increasing national government spending on R&D, promoting talent and workforce development and pursuing global diplomacy to create new norms for technology.
Those policies are a natural and easy fit for Japan. There is no need to be scared off by going on the offensive, even in “defense-oriented” Japan.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”