Bush Favors Tried-and-True Power Politics

May 14th, 2001


In December 2000, right after his victory in the U.S. presidential election was confirmed, George W. Bush decleared that his administration will work with allies of the United States, and in his inaugural address in January he flatly denied the possibility of the Bush administration plunging into isolationism, stating, “America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice.”

The new president added that his commitment to continued U.S. engagement in world affairs has the aim of “shaping a balance of power that favors freedom,” thus clarifying the basic diplomatic principle of the Bush administration.

Has the term “balance of power” ever been referred to in any U.S. official statement in nearly a century of diplomatic history of the United States since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson?

As far as I know, there was no occasion at all when the term was used even under the administration of President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger.

I remember Dr. Kissinger, while informally talking with me, mentioned the term, but noted that it was “unpopular” in the United States.

The 20th century can be characterized as the era of the emergence of the United States in the international arena. During that century, Germany, Japan and Russia all experienced the vicissitudes of history. U.S. influence proved decisive to the fate of each of these three countries.

The United States suddenly appeared on the international scene in the last century as a player with vast potential. With its ideals differing from those of other countries, and with its policies frequently shifting due to changes in its domestic political landscape, the other powers of the world found themselves confronted with situations unparalleled in history. Unable to work out ways of dealing effectively with the new giant, these powers swayed in the wind of changing circumstances.

Power Politics vs Wilsonianism

Japan, for its part, during a period of about 50 years from the 1853 visit by Commodore Matthew C. Perry to the dawn of the 20th century, obtained a complete mastery of the rules of the game of imperialism that was the world’s preponderant trend in those days.

At the turn of the century, the U.S. Republican administrations of President William McKinley and his successor Theodore Roosevelt had an imperialist approach to foreign policy. Japan at that time, therefore, had little trouble in ironing out differences in bilateral national interests.

In July 1905, Prime Minister Taro Katsura and U.S. Secretary of the Army William Howard Taft reached an agreement, under which Japan agreed to let the Philippines be governed by the United States, while in exchange the United States supported Japan’s suzerainty over Korea.

What was recognized under the Katsura-Taft agreement was Japan’s status as a state qualified to control the foreign relations of Korea, but stopping short of having sovereignty over its internal affairs.

Later, however, Roosevelt supported Japan’s outright annexation of Korea.

“Korea is absolutely Japanese,” Roosevelt said, adding, “To be sure, by the Treaty it was solemnly covenanted that Korea should remain independent. But Korea is helpless to enforce the Treaty itself, and it is out of the question to suppose that any other nation would attempt to do for the Koreans what they are utterly unable to do for themselves.”

The remarks by Roosevelt reflected his cool-headed judgment. What constitutes the foundation of international relations is nothing but power. It follows that international relations should be considered as power relations, according to Teddy Roosevelt.

This logic of power politics, however, ceased to be viewed as valid under and after the 1913-1921 administration of Wilson.

In addition, the United States by that time had established itself as undoubtedly the world’s mightiest country.

This mode of thinking represented by Wilson became influential, partly because it was morally irrefutable, to the extent that no other country could think lightly of it. This is due mainly to the fact that Britain cooperated with the United States on foreign policy in the belief that doing so would be in line with Britain’s top-priority national interests.

According to Wilsonian principles of diplomacy, military alliances should be rejected as evil practices of the old world. Under Wilsonianism, peace was to be attained not by pursing hegemony through balance-of-power maneuvers, but by having nations agree on and abide by a set of universally valid principles.

The Wilsonian trend spelled the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance that had been concluded in 1902.

This bilateral alliance was the best possible pact in the interests of this country.

Japan and Britain, both insular countries, had the world’s most potent naval capabilities in those days. The alliance ensured Japan absolute security and allowed the country access by sea to natural resources all over the world.

In the atmosphere of security and prosperity that followed, it was only natural that freedom movements arose, as evidenced by the series of democratic reforms referred to as Taisho Democracy during the 1912-1926 Taisho era. They represented the fruition of what had been sought in the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement of the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Era Devoid of Alliance

Under pressure from the United States, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was terminated in 1923.

Commonwealth nations, such as Australia and New Zealand, had wanted to see the Anglo-Japanese Alliance continue, since they thought it desirable to have Japan friendly, not hostile, to them. In light of subsequent historical developments, that way of thinking seems marvelously prescient, but their views were not accepted at the time.

Japan thereafter was provided in place of the alliance with Britain a framework called the Four-Power Treaty involving this country, Britain, France and the United States.

As demonstrated by later history, the Four-Power Treaty arrangement was utterly useless.

At about the same time in Europe, France, afraid of a possibly resurgent Germany after World War I, wanted to restore its wartime alliances with Britain and the United States, but had to settle for the Lucarno Treaty with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, etc. It, too, proved altogether useless.

Had the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the alliance between Britain, France and the United States been kept intact, World War II might never have happened.

The relationships among world powers ultimately splintered as each was deprived of the means of ensuring its security on the strength of a balance of power that could have been maintained through military alliances. The only two countries that continued to be ensured of security under these circumstances were the United States, blessed with 48 states in itself and the ability to adopt what was called the Monroe Doctrine, and Britain, with its hold on the Commonwealth.

New U.S. Isolationism Unlikely

When a country tries to ensure its security on its own, it inevitably becomes heavily armed and cannot help but seek to have its boundaries redrawn as broadly as possible. This was the case with the Soviet Union just prior to its collapse in 1991. Similarly, Japan expanded its lifeline to Manchuria from the Korean Peninsula.

Japan and other countries were baffled by the isolationism embraced by the United States at that time. In spite of its major role in establishing the League of Nations, which was supposed to be the guardian of world peace in place of alliances, the United States failed to join that body.

Also, U.S. isolationist foreign policy in the 1930s sent the wrong signals to Japan and Germany regarding the extent of the risks they would run if they opened hostilities against the United States.

The question now is whether the Bush administration’s emphasis on balance of power and its stress on ties with allies can be deemed as marking an end to a century of Wilsonian trial and error.

Is it likely that a future U.S. administration will return to Wilsonian principles of diplomacy? I doubt it.

Bill Clinton had to yield to a more realistic foreign policy in the last half of his administration. Current U.S. foreign policy can be viewed as a deliberate continuation of the policy switch in the previous U.S. administration.

During its initial stages, the Clinton administration showed a conspicuous inclination toward Wilsonianism and a concomitant belittling of ties with allies, mainly because Clinton took the helm of the U.S. government immediately after the end of the Cold War.

The foreign policy of the Clinton government, however, was gradually modified in line with the realities of international politics.

In Europe, dovish calls for the appeasement of post-Soviet Russia in order to encourage reformers and prevent a Communist resurrection succumbed by degrees to a logic that favored securing fruits of victory in the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion eastward was thus put into force.

In Asia, a scenario, that would have led to a repetition of the nightmare during and after the 1920s, was at times whispered, suggesting that the Japan-U.S. alliance be replaced by a four-nation peace covenant among Japan, the United States, China and Russia.

Discussions on the subject, however, boiled down to the reconfirmation of the pivotal importance of Japan-U.S. security arrangements.

China’s tenacious propaganda to the effect that the Japan-U.S. alliance should be considered outdated once the Cold War was over was dismissed and the two countries decided in 1996 to adopt new guidelines on bilateral defense cooperation.

The Need to Bar Unilateralism

Perhaps it finally can be said that a century of trial and error in U.S. foreign policy has been brought to an end.

Prospects for world peace will enjoy a stable basis if liberal nations maintain an overwhelmingly dominant position over the rest of the world, in light of the premise that nations espousing freedom and democracy are peace-loving by nature.

This can best be described by the phrase “shaping a balance of power that favors freedom,” that was coined by Bush. There is no doubt that such a U.S. policy will be desirable for Japan.

The only cause for anxiety on the part of U.S. allies is not any probability of the resurrection of Wilsonianism, but the possible emergence of unilateralism on the part of the United States as the world’s only superpower.

It goes without saying that durable allied relations hinge on whether both parties to an alliance live up to their responsibilities.

While the United States should bear in mind the need not to lean toward unilateralism that would endanger its alliances, U.S. allies, for that matter, should also be aware of their own responsibilities not to goad the United States into moving toward unilateralism.

Should U.S. allies fail to respond effectively to U.S. initiatives calling for mutual confidence and cooperation, it will be inevitable for the United States, the mightiest country in terms of both military and economic strength, to be driven to unilateralism.

Japan should do some soul-searching in this respect as this country, with various domestic constraints involving security, has the propensity to plunge into immobilism, or inaction to change itself.