The Dependency Trap
One of the cardinal principles of American conservatism is self-reliance. In 1795, Edmund Burke, grandfathered into the American conservative cause, argued (during a famine!) against putting people on the dole. Ralph Waldo Emerson—not generally considered a conservative, but positively Barry Goldwater with sideburns when it came to being his own man—wrote the book on self-reliance in 1841, arguing against the herd and in favor of the solitary genius of the nonconformist. Our founding national document is the Declaration of Independence.
When I drive around small towns in America sometimes I see flags reading “Come And Take It,” a taunt of defiance against Mexican forces during the war for freedom in Texas. More often, I see flags which say, “Don’t Tread On Me,” the equivalent of a vexillary mooning directed toward the government and just about everyone else. If you’re an American conservative, then, like me, you probably want Washington to stay out of your home, your healthcare, your bank account, and your personal business in general.
Agreed. Then why are so many of the same people who argue for self-reliance at home in favor of rank dependence abroad? Why, also, is it that the farther away a country is from America, the more it must depend on D.C.?
Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met online with Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa and Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo recently to hammer out details for a planned five-year agreement focused on developing defense technology.
“Austin reaffirmed the importance of the [Japan-U.S.] alliance,” Defense News put it, “and said the two countries are taking ‘bold steps’ to strengthen its readiness and deterrent power.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Alliances can be good things. But in my years of living in Japan and seeing just who “manages” the Japan-U.S. alliance, I have become rather skeptical. So skeptical, in fact, that I now see the Japan-U.S. alliance not as an alliance at all, but as a dependency trap. Forget Thucydides. What will really undo the peace in East Asia is the fact that Japan, and plenty of other nations in the region besides, is stuck in the quicksand of permanent reliance on Washington.
The way this works is by renaming dependency to something that sounds better, like “security”. “Security” is the name of the game in Japan. There is never enough security. However much one has, some people—they’re always the ones tasked with running the security business, oddly enough—keep shouting that there must be more. And the way to get more security is to have more joint-research ventures and general-to-general hotlines and intelligence sharing and so forth with the Pentagon. Militaries do joint exercises, American troops rotate in and out of country, ships flying the American flag turn foreign harbors into home ports, and the secretary of State and the secretary of Defense hold 2+2s with their counterparts in Tokyo. Makes a great photo for the papers, all of it. Take an Asian bureaucracy, add some jarheads and flyboys on loan from Washington, throw in a little song and dance from Austin and Blinken, and, presto. Security.
But security is not what militaries are for. The Japanese have been had. The purpose of funding a military is not to have more and more bases, and then to keep those bases for longer and longer periods of time. If that is happening—that is, if bases are proliferating in number and growing deep roots in the same soil year after year—then the military is not being used efficiently at all. Because the whole point of having armed forces is to destroy an enemy. If you are not trying to destroy an enemy, then you are fundamentally misusing your military power. A force assembled to meet and overwhelm an attacker, and then to destroy the attacker’s ability ever to do such a foolish thing again, is the best way to marry violence to purpose. Everything else is a waste of time and money, and a temptation which no politician or other brand of scallywag will ever be able to resist.
The string of American bases around the world, in other words, is not proof that the American military is great, but that it is pointless. If the Pentagon was serious about security, it would destroy its enemies. It would form an alliance for fighting, not for endless drill. It would get it over with, for goodness’ sake.
It does not do this, though. Instead, it pretends that it has no enemies. It sees the Chinese Communists as “strategic competit[ors],” for example. If the Chinese are strategic competitors, then why all the bases?
Hannibal and his elephants were a “strategic competitor” of Rome. In response, the Romans didn’t send a fleet to bob off the north African coast for a century. The Romans burned Carthage to the ground and enslaved whoever was left standing. (Before that, the Romans had made Carthage—you guessed it—dependent on Rome for defense.) “Security” is a mirage when generals do not understand who the enemies are and have no intention of fighting anyone in the first place. Fine words about strategic competition will buy time, but they won’t buy peace.
No fighting in the war room—that’s not a dark joke, that’s a sad fact.
In the past, the United States had a Department of War. That is a very easy thing to understand, a Department of War. I’ll give you three guesses what it’s for.
But in 1947, after having cleared the field of its British imperial competitor and set up a Washington-centered system across half the world, the United States changed the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense. Now, defense and war are opposites. Defense is waiting things out, moving pieces around, running out the clock. Defense is no strategy at all. It is a confession that one has no idea how to wage war. No idea how, and no intention. The name of the law which set up the Department of Defense, by the way, was the “National Security Act of 1947.”
This logic of “defense” has sapped American thinking about war. We have a gigantic military, but we do not use it to defeat anyone. It’s just a counterweight to leverage more money into the bureaucracy. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War in this way, by driving the upside-down logic of the Department of Defense to its absurd conclusion. He spent more money than the Soviets. Despite all that hardware, the real contest was accounting-ledger attrition, pencil-pusher vs. pencil-pusher. Reagan won the war by not fighting it. (And by getting others to fight—the mujahideen in Afghanistan, of all people.) By inflating the budget of the “Department of Defense” and raising the ante on the general absurdity of the age, Reagan was able to overwhelm the other absurdity, the Cold War, the war that no one fights.
This absurdity continues today. We have the best-trained and best-equipped military in the known history of the universe. But we lose. Security, you see, has nothing to do with fighting. Witness what happened when we went up against the Taliban not so long ago. The Taliban wear plastic sandals and carry guns that look like they haven’t been cleaned since General Boris Gromov crossed the Bridge of Friendship. But the Taliban—that Taliban—beat us. Not because Americans don’t know how to fight. Because the Pentagon has no intention whatsoever of fighting, much less winning anything so final as a war.
It should be obvious to anyone who watched the Afghanistan news that having American bases in-country is to enhancing security what wearing a blindfold is to success in boxing. The more focused you are on “security,” the more dependent you become, and so the less actual security you have. I hope you’re paying attention, Japan. (And, no, you can’t borrow our copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Because it was stolen by the Chinese.)
Along the way, the American Empire convinced even American conservatives that dependency is strength, that keeping people reliant is the key to building up their social mettle. This is a strange argument for American conservatives to have entertained at all, given all the Burke and Jefferson that crowd espouses. But now they shout it like it’s Biblical truth. I was in a debate recently with a self-professing “American conservative” who thinks the American military ought to be in East Asia forever. Well, our military has been out here for nearly 80 years, I rejoined. Isn’t that long enough? If we were going to win any wars, I added, I think we would have done so by now.
But when I uttered this, I was declared anathema. A traitor! This same American conservative would squeal with glee if someone criticized government intervention in Detroit. The criticisms of such “Democrat plantations,” favored by black conservatives (criticisms with which I wholeheartedly agree), are ever on the lips of conservatives such as my erstwhile interlocutor. “Get the deep state out of our neighborhoods!” Hear, hear.
But then, why must the deep state be in Panmunjom? That’s someone’s neighborhood, too. The whole Korean peninsula could be a good neighborhood, if Washington had been in the business of winning wars in the early 1950s. But that was after 1947, when all we were allowed to think about was defense. General Douglas MacArthur had a plan to take the fight to the enemy, to end the whole thing once and for all. President Harry Truman pulled back hard on the reins. “Whoa, boy. Whoa.”
To be fair to Truman, MacArthur’s plan was a little crazy. He wanted to use nukes. And here we come to the rub. For nukes put war outside of all bounds. Nukes make war unwinnable. John von Neumann game theory paralyzes us. The only way to win is not to play. Hence, the shyness about fighting among the brass. Hence, security. Again, no more fighting in the war room.
But isn’t this a bit silly? If we’re not going to fight, then why have the bases? “We yield the initiative to the enemy. Because von Neumann.” That is modern “defense”. And it hamstrings our “allies” even worse than us. The major Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun pointed out an important fact about the recent Japan-U.S. alliance-boosting talks. “The joint declaration issued after the meeting [between Austin and Blinken, and Hayashi and Kishi],” the Sankei wrote:
explicitly mentioned that, in its strategic review process, Japan would “examine all options necessary for national defense including capabilities to counter missile threats.” This was an indication that, amidst the discussions concerning burden sharing between Japan and the United States, Japan will consider…possession of the capability to attack enemy bases.
The Japan-U.S. alliance was first inked in 1951 and underwent a major overhaul (replete with huge protests in Tokyo) in 1960. And yet, in all that time, Japan has not had the legal capability of attacking enemy bases. The constitution the conquering Americans imposed on a prostrate Japan in 1946 guarantees dependency, having shorn Japan of the right to belligerency. This is “security,” which I think for the sake of honesty we had best call “dependency.” We won’t fight, and Japan’s not allowed to. All hail the Japan-U.S. alliance!
As the recent talks between Tokyo and Washington attest, the Japanese government continues to hang the bulk of its military strategy on the American Empire. This is not a good deal for Japan. The American Empire is dependency. If you want freedom, then cry, “Come and take it! Don’t tread on me!” Don’t farm out the shooting to the Hessians.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.