This Is How You Lose: Against Political Pressure by Militarism

The story is familiar: US sees Asia as a strategic region for reinforcing its military hegemony, prompting its “pivot to Asia” policy. China views the US as a competitor for regional dominance. Long-time American allies Japan and South Korea see the US as a deterrent to possible Chinese coercion. Southeast Asian nations do not take explicit sides but opt to use the great power rivalry as a hedge against dominance by either power. We hear debates about US responsibilities to allies, China's need to reassure neighbors and be reassured and such. Yet, in all this, militarization is left unquestioned as the preponderant policy tool although it underlies all those critical issues. US-Asia relations have become increasingly characterized by its military dimension, as if countries have become accustomed to find security in their respective destructive capacity.

A critique of militarism is not a critique of the military. Rather, it is a protest against the knee-jerk recourse to military power as a state’s means of securing autonomy and influence. In a region fraught with tension, US military engagement and Asian arms competition likely do more to stunt the development of security institutions than give them breathing space. In some cases, hypersensitivity to military strength has dissolved and replaced practical negotiations about real issues with wasteful defense spending. For instance, Japanese experts on China issues recently voiced how an excessive policy focus on Sino-Japan military tension has led to a decline in Japanese exports to and investments in China that undercuts Japan’s global competitiveness. Militarism has destabilized the region and threatens to destabilize it further, while distracting from critical issues like trade, national debt, underemployment, environmental protection, and human rights. It reduces foreign policy to the hollow, never-to-be-fulfilled threat of war.

An Ethical Look at Power

The devotion to military primacy has a fundamentally ethical undercurrent because it involves the metric by which countries relate to each other. Any given country in the US-Asia interaction judges the relative power of any other country primarily based on their defense capabilities and military presence in the region. Smaller Asian countries are responding to Chinese maritime assertivenesss with defense spending, especially on offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). Japan’s politics have revolved almost solely around securing maritime access, a largely political and economic issue they are addressing through military spending. While this course of action has obvious drawbacks, Japan faces clear pressure from China to ensure “regular access to sea lanes,” claims Japanese naval expert Alessio Patalano.

Naturally, countries can uphold security through force, and countries with that force, with the capability to exercise force, will do so in a way that reflects their own best interest. Countries, particularly the US, that actively pursue a security role guarantee that they have priority in doing this, and thus can use it as a means of control. Other countries that do not have such capabilities have to concede to those that do, and cannot ensure that the exact details by which the powerful countries uphold security align with their beliefs and goals. In a system where the powerful countries helped form a security community this would pose less of a problem, but the US has not fostered such a relationship with Asia leading to a deficit of trust. This ethical challenge has been exacerbated by US regionalist initiatives’ exclusionary tendency; security arrangements that usually focus on particular sets of states, rather than being widely open to those actors found within the region. This environment has induced those countries to militarize to guarantee their autonomy and influence. The use of military force has become a means of exerting a pressure most counterable by reciprocal military force.

Focusing on this particular type of power acquisition has led to a limited normative perspective of it; to attain power, primarily one route exists: militarization. This imposes a certain ethical constraint. Reducing the domination of military force in foreign policy involves loosening this constraint and favoring a more useful metric for power, one that will mutualistically benefit the US and Asia, one that will efficiently utilize resources and encourage progress from Asian countries as opposed to wasting resources and derailing progress. Nations need to re-establish normative metrics for power that yield autonomy and influence to countries that deserve it. They need to develop a new language for their international discourse that involves more than just the implication of military force as control.

The ethical notion of power in political arenas goes far back to the 17th century with Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (and before), distantly predating the current arena of international politics. To compare people in national politics to states in international politics,

“He who attempts to get another man [sic] into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him....for where-ever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law, the end whereof being to protect and redress the innocent, by an unbiassed application of it, to all who are under it; where-ever that is not bona fide done, war is made upon the sufferers...”

Power through violence has irrevocable drawbacks that invalidate it from being an ideal system. Currently, the US and Asian countries use militarism to garner power - not “absolute power” but relative power - and similar drawbacks are manifesting. Locke goes on to suggest that “to avoid this state of one great reason of men’s [sic] putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal.”

Locke suggests an institutional approach to avoiding a state of war, namely, by establishing an authority that protects and enforces an ethical metric of power. But this does not prescribe a means for doing so, i.e. while it may sound like it, this does not suggest an institutionalist approach to international policy over a realist approach. Instead, note that this is in itself the challenge faced within US-Asia relations, and that, more generally, it should be addressed in a “limited and conditional” way (invoking Ockham’s Razor alongside numerous Lockean ideals). Some totally laissez-faire method may exist for establishing a new metric, such as through nations identifying and adopting policies that are otherwise in their favor as well, with no need for the overhead of some centralized authority. These policies might produce means of establishing power that naturally supersede military power.

It is frankly embarrassing that the current international political arena has degenerated into a macroscopic yet impotent version of this state of war: functionally unable to fulfill itself through all-out war, yet still, for some reason, valued, and wielded as if it were effective. A new system needs to develop that will replace this and refocus the progress of humanity, as contributed to by the US and the many Asian nations, among the most influential in history.

The Limited Coercive Utility of Brute Force

Proponents of militarization may argue that the political stakes in Asia necessitate having military potency. Indeed, brute force is the surest way to secure a number of political objectives. This includes acquiring territories, seizing resources and overthrowing regimes, reminiscent of the colonization of Asia. However, times have changed. The legal equality of nation-states and with it, the principles of sovereignty and noninterference form the cornerstone of modern international relations, codified in the United Nations (UN) charter. This has fundamentally persisted even with the onset of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Might no longer justifies action.

Further, upon closer inspection, many political objectives require the compliance of the target country in order to be achieved. No regime can be physically forced to change its foreign or domestic policies. The US failure to coerce North Vietnam and create a viable, independent, non-communist South Vietnam despite having military superiority is a case in point. Military strategic interaction aside, the actual human and material cost of forcing a change through artillery attacks is often underestimated by political leaders and is likely to exceed their cost tolerance. This yields an end-result where political vulnerability such as domestic public backlash imposes a withdrawal prior to ultimate military victory.

A country’s ability to extensively project military power could even be counter-productive to international bargaining or cooperation. At first, this notion may seem contrary to the conventional wisdom that coercive threats are more effective when coming from a great military power. However, coercive diplomacy extends beyond the use of threats to secure interstate agreements and is a complex balancing of concessions, sanctions and credible commitments. Multilateral support also plays a crucial role, but it is the credibility of reassurances that the desired change is in policy, not regime, that makes or breaks deals involving a mutual interest. A threat-issuer’s military primacy heightens the target country’s anxiety that the former will be emboldened to make additional demands in the future if an agreement is reached, precisely because of the backdrop of military force as a means to induce acquiescence. According to a game-theoretic theory of reputation-building, hoisting military power can prevent the threat-issuer from correctly evaluating the incentives of a target. Threats that are not designed to procure information about the goals of a target instead obscure those goals. As such, relying on military power as a means of coercing targets drives a stake between the future as perceived by both parties. The threat-issuer hopes to seal a path toward its own goals, while the target country is encouraged to develop a cost-tolerance to war and to avoid acquiescence, concerned about the slippery slope to full submission and “future exploitation.” Sechser sums up the policy implication nicely by noting that “successful coercive diplomacy requires not only a sharp sword, but the ability to sheathe it.”

At the very least, North Korea’s recalcitrance demonstrates the futility of straight-on intimidating a lesser power into compliance. More specifically, a reexamination of the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993-94 reveals that the only partial coercive successes occurred in conjunction with conciliatory diplomacy. Jimmy Carter might have been able to reach an agreement with Kim II-Sung to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to stay at Yongbyon among other terms because the impending alternative was hostile UN sanctions. However, the Clinton administration’s persistent failure to compel or coerce North Korea to refrain from collecting more spent fuel rods that could be weaponized shows the necessity of conciliatory diplomacy that signalled benign intent. Either way, interstate bargaining requires a nuanced approach that militarism is more likely to undercut than help.

In view of the riskiness, costliness and unlikelihood of invoking a military response, militarization is a skewing of national priorities that may unnecessarily divert resources away from the people. This is most pertinent in Asia where arms spending have been on the rise even when worldwide spending have declined. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s military spending rose by 175 per cent in real terms 2003-2012 while Indonesia saw an increase by 73 percent and Vietnam’s spending escalated by 130 per cent in the same period.

Specifically, Southeast Asian military purchase include ‘fourth-generation’ or ‘fourth-generation-plus’ fighters, submarines and main battles tanks, air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, anti-ship cruise missiles, and reconnaissance systems.” One strains to identify actual use cases for the purchased equipment, especially in light of the pacifist, non-interference, and overall friendly discourse within ASEAN. Uses do exist but mostly lie on traditionally political and economic turf, such as the use “of new naval vessels to patrol territorial waters and enforce exclusive economic zone (EEZ) rights.” Richard Bitzinger, an Asian defense specialist, suggested that the purchases might have “reinforce mutual insecurities and suspicions,” and that they can “be very expensive and ultimately even imprudent...siphoning scarce government funding away from more urgent social needs.” (Many of these arms purchases spanned long periods of time or were delayed because of insufficient funding, suggesting that when funds did exist, they were, for some reason, prioritized for defense spending.) Undeniably, if such spending does nothing more than uphold the status quo, it is unnecessary; if the spending is put to use, it can have a range of impacts on security dynamics, likely destabilizing in nature.

A Regional Order Destabilized

The current militaristic shade of US-Asian security relations encourages regional rearmament, which triggers uncertainty about neighboring countries’ intention and worsens the regional trust deficit. Asia is the locus of numerous fault-lines prone to conflict eruption with tensions between China and Taiwan, and North and South Korea. As weapon sophistry increases and new capabilities present the potential to change the nature of warfare, even acquisition as part of arms modernization could upset military balance and add to greater insecurity.

The arms race between China and Taiwan in particular demonstrates how as militaries become more capable in a precarious situation, tension is likely to escalate as each side tests each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Just about two weeks ago, Taiwan’s five-day Han Kuang exercises sought to test 145 different types of equipment such as navy frigates, and anti-ship and anti-air missiles, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops were stationed along the Taiwan Strait, together with hundreds of warplanes and 1,000 tactical ballistic missiles. This showcases the perils of thinking of security in predominantly military terms. Yet, US Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told American troops based in Japanese Yakota air base that “the best way to avoid war is to prepare for it.”

It is unclear why an open-ended arms build up is often advocated as if it the cheaper way to achieve security and reduce uncertainty than means of institutionalizing the status quo. What is clear, however, is that the pervasiveness of militarization has hurt more often than it has helped bilateral and multilateral US-Asian relations. A world without military force may be an utopia but to obsess about force is to lose sight of true interests.

Alexandra Khoo
University of Chicago
Nationality: Singapore

Sean Laguna
University of Chicago
Nationality: USA


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