There is a paradox at the heart of U.S. security policy in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration must show its commitment to the region to facilitate the restructuring of security architecture in ways that look like the U.S. will be doing less.
Lindsey Ford, formerly of the Brookings Institution and now re-ensconced in the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, and Zach Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute mined the experience of the Guam Doctrine (U.S. President Richard Nixon’s call in 1969 for regional allies around the world to do more as the U.S. reduced its overseas force presence after the Vietnam War) for lessons on how to pull that off.
Ford and Cooper argue that an ally’s reaction to Nixon’s statement depended on its assessment of two factors: threat perceptions and U.S. reliability. If threat perception was high and belief in U.S. reliability strong, then an ally would double down on the alliance in a tendency they called “anchoring.” Japan adopted this policy. If threat perception was high, but there were doubts about U.S. reliability, the ally would “autonomize,” or strengthen its own ability to deal with those threats. They identify South Korea as an autonomizer.
If it thought the threat was low, but had faith in the U.S., then the ally would augment: strengthen ties with the U.S. along with those with other security partners. Australia fit that model. And if the ally perceived the threat to be low, but judged U.S. reliability to be low as well, then it would accommodate the adversary. Thailand is the avatar for this response. (And yes, Ford and Cooper know that allies’ responses were hybrids with a bit of this and a bit of that, and their characterizations are sure to irritate some in each capital. Still, the argument works in general.)
They culled four lessons from their reading of history. First, the threat of disengagement doesn’t encourage allies to get in line, but rather compounds the inclination to hedge. They explained that the Guam Doctrine “accelerated an ‘Asia for Asians’ narrative that implicitly defined the United States as an outsider. By fueling the belief that America’s exit from Vietnam was simply the precursor to a larger retreat from the region, U.S. leaders reduced their leverage to shape allied decision-making.” They agree with Kori Schake, a former Defense Department official and clear-eyed strategist, who put it well: “When the United States steps back, its allies step back even further.”
Second, central to the U.S. role in the region is economic engagement, and Asian allies are as focused on Washington’s economic policy as its security policy. A transactional approach to allies reinforces that focus since U.S. demands tend to be monetary in nature (or reflect financial burdens). A successful long-term Asia policy will devote as much time and attention to economic issues as hard security concerns.
Third, any successful U.S. policy requires congressional support. Allies watch with dismay as divisions in Washington widen and they note the accompanying tendency for policy to swing. They know that executive power is more sweeping in foreign policy but consistency and reliability demand consensus among branches of the U.S. government.
Finally, they underscore the importance of structural factors in shaping decisionmaking among America’s regional allies. While the Guam Doctrine was articulated over a half-century ago, Ford and Cooper see similar reactions in Asian capitals to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands that allies contribute more to their alliances with the United States.
They attribute this continuity to enduring, structural factors: geography (i.e., proximity to or distance from China, the principle threat) and the role each ally assumes in U.S. force projection or in the great power competition. Japan and Australia are weighty in both cases; the ROK and Thailand less so. (Before Korean readers protest, U.S. forces in that country are for its defense; restrictions on their use in other regional contingencies are a source of tension in the alliance.)
Let me add three lessons to this list. First, the U.S. and its allies must recalibrate expectations regarding regional security architecture. In 1960, after the U.S. alliance network was established, the U.S. was the predominant military power in the West but it also controlled 40% of the global economy. No other nation was even close. Those gaps have closed. That change in relative wealth means that the cost of alliance maintenance to the U.S. has gone up. Fortunately, allies can contribute more.
Closing this gap is natural and proper. It would be unnatural and dangerous for the U.S. to continue to monopolize wealth and power more than a half century after the end of World War II. That would be the clearest sign of a U.S. failure to lead rebuilding efforts and construct a more democratic international system. The relative weakness of the U.S. is more properly an indication of wisdom, foresight and successful policy to build a more just world. From that perspective, reworking the regional security order is to be expected and should not raise questions about U.S. credibility or commitment.
Second, that U.S. allies have four options should remind us that those countries have agency. Theirs are not purely binary choices — a simple dichotomy of picking sides between the United States and China. Simplification does those countries a disservice, obscures important choices that they have and reduces their decisions to crude forms of boosterism.
It also hides important features of the regional security environment; if we could see those nuances better we would think differently about options for security architecture. For example, a geopolitical scorecard that has just two columns — U.S. or China — misses the implications of a decision to autonomize. Those allies are not choosing China and a successful regional security structure would acknowledge and accommodate those decisions.
Which brings me to the third important lesson. We need to reassess the optimal solution to regional security challenges. There is a preference for anchoring when thinking about how to adjust security architecture. This reflects a belief that shoring up or recreating the old order is best and that the U.S. remains the indispensable power.
There is plenty of talk about equality, burden sharing and coresponsibility — but old habits die hard. The U.S. remains vital but regional governments, the U.S. among them, must think harder, more seriously and more creatively about augmenting to construct a security order that better distributes responsibilities and leadership. I don’t know what that looks like but folks smarter than I are examining options. Work like that of Ford and Cooper will help them.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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