Joseph Gerson is director of programs at the American Friends Service Committee and the author of Empire and the Bomb amongst other works. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the Pentagon's new strategic guidance document.
The Pentagon’s new Guidance, 'Sustaining US Global Leadership: priorities for 21st Century Defense' states that the US will focus on “rebalanc[ing] toward the Asia-Pacific region…empahsiz[ing] our existing alliances.” What accounts for the renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region and what policies are likely to flow from this reorientation?
Joseph Nye, who served as the number three Pentagon official in the first Clinton Administration, and who has played major roles in shaping and implementing U.S. Asia-Pacific foreign and military policies for the past twenty years put it succinctly in a recent article, writing; “Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework.”
The situation is in many ways reminiscent of the 1890s when, midst an economic depression and related civil unrest across the Untied States, the U.S. elite concluded that they could increase their wealth and ensure “social peace” if they could conquer the holy grail of capitalism: the China Market. This would keep U.S. factories running at full capacity, and it would lead to something like full employment. The need for fueling stations and related military bases led to the conquests of Guam and the Philippines, conquered from Spain, and the annexation of Hawaii.
The U.S. now has hundreds of military bases and installations in Korea, Japan, Guam, and Australia, as well as “access agreements” with the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. It is working to expand and deepen these alliances, and is certainly reconfiguring its arsenals to “contain” China. All of this provides the artificial foundation for the U.S. economy and serves the delusional dream of U.S. “exceptionalism” and (White Christian) “manifest destiny.”
What strategic role do US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia play in the region?
Japan has long been described as the “keystone” of U.S. power in Asia and the Pacific, and a former Japanese Prime Minister described the country as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the United States.”
In many ways, the U.S.-Japan military alliance, imposed on Japan as a condition for ending the U.S. post-war military occupation, has been as central to U.S. Asia-Pacific power as NATO has been for the U.S. in Europe and the Middle East. The more than 100 U.S. military bases and installations in Japan (the greatest number concentrated in Okinawa, but with major U.S. air and naval bases in and near Tokyo, the national capital) have served as jumping off points for U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Take a look at the map, and you will see that Japan’s strategic location makes it possible for the U.S. to block Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian, naval access to the Pacific. The bases also play critical roles in intelligence gathering and in preparations for nuclear war fighting. The U.S. has also taken advantage of Japan’s high-technology capabilities and military-related industries, drawing on them to assist in the design, construction, and functional subsidies of U.S. weapons production.
All of this has come at an enormous cost to the Japanese people in the forms of seizures of people’s homes and land, environmental degradation – including terrifying sonic booms, crimes and sexual harassment, national sovereignty, and even financial support for the bases by Japanese tax payers, who help to pay for the bases even as the country struggles with the catastrophic legacies and costs of last year’s earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima melt downs.
The situations are analogous in South Korea and Australia. With its military bases across South Korea, and until the late 1980s U.S. support for military dictatorships there, Washington has maintained a functional military occupation. To this day, in the case of a war on the Peninsula, a U.S. general would be the military commander of South Korean military forces. South Korea serves as a geopolitical obstacle to Chinese access to the Pacific, and, like Japan, it serves the U.S. encirclement of China, including so-called “missile defenses” designed to “neutralize all of China’s missiles.”
The U.S. Navy has long been the hegemonic power controlling the sea lanes across the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca, and the South China Seas, over which the Middle East oil that fuels East Asia’s economies must pass. This provides the U.S. a hand on the jugular veins of their economies. More recently, as oil, natural gas and other mineral wealth has been found under the South China Seas’ (West Philippine Sea from the perspective of Filipino nationalists) sea beds, there has been an increasingly militarized competition for these resources. China has begun building a blue water Navy to equalize power relations in the area (and perhaps to dominate the South China Seas resources.) The decision to base 2,500 U.S. Marines in Australia, the tacit U.S. alliance with India, the new opening with Myanmar, and the U.S. naval build up in the India Ocean are all designed to reinforce U.S. hegemony over these sea lanes and resources.
With the Obama Administration’s Trans Pacific Partnership initiative – the negotiation of the world’s most demanding free trade agreement which would exclude China – the U.S. is seeking to further integrate Japanese, Korean, Australian and other Asia-Pacific nations’ economies and societies into the U.S. dominated system, at China’s expense.
The guidance emphasizes collaboration with the Gulf Cooperation Council states in countering Iran. Can you comment on the US alliance with these states and their shared objectives with the US regarding Iran.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. succeeded the colonial powers Britain and France as the hegemonic power in the Middle East. The region has since been described as the geopolitical center of the struggle for world power due to its massive and critical oil reserves.
The U.S.-Saudi alliance was sealed with a handshake between President Franklin Roosevelt and the Saudi monarch at the end of World War II. The U.S. has since provided weapons and other military and diplomatic support to monarchies, dictatorships, and repressive governments to reinforce its domination of and control over Middle East oil. On a number occasions (1946, 1956, 1958, 1967, 1972, 1973, 1980, 1991, and 2003) the U.S. has prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war to reinforce its Middle East hegemony. And, we see a blatant example of these counter-democratic commitments in U.S. silence over the Saudi military intervention to silence the Arab Spring in Bahrain – home to the U.S. 5th Fleet.
A CIA backed coup brought the dictatorial Shah of Iran to power in 1954, and the U.S. long supported him during a period when U.S. power in the region was enforced by the Israeli “hammer” and Iranian “anvil”. This alienated a generation of Iranians from the U.S. and contributed to the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The repressive Iranian government, whose heritage includes the Persian Empire and which sees itself as the protector of Shia Islam, has sought to maximize its power and influence at the expense of the neo-colonial United States and its repressive allies. Saudi Arabia, the major power in the Gulf Cooperation Council, has particular concerns about Iran because oil-rich eastern Arabia, across the Persian Gulf from Iran, is primarily populated people professing Shia Islam and who feel themselves to be second class citizens. This is a situation ripe for turmoil, resistance and possibly secession. The U.S. government thus sees the GCC as a natural ally against Iran and is providing it with tens of billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons to off set and contain Iranian power and influence. And, let’s not forget the coincidence of interests and ambitions that have led Israel and the GCC to be partners of convenience with regard to Iran.
In contrast with China the guidance is notably conciliatory regarding Russia stating that "our engagement with Russia remains important, and we will continue to build a closer relationship in areas of mutual interest and encourage it to be a contributor across a broad range of issues." Does this signal a rapprochement with Russia or does the Russian state remain a strategic competitor?
The Obama Administration has been clear that it seeks to push the “reset button” with Russia, a policy which was pursued with considerable success until recently.
In the second half of the 20th century and the first decades of this century, the struggle for power and dominance of Eurasia (which former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has described as the ultimate prize of the struggle for world power) is best understood as a three-sided “game.” Nixon’s opening to China in 1971-72 split the Russo-Sino alliance and creating a tacit U.S. alliance with China against the Soviet Union. In the Post-Cold War era China and Russia have found they have common interests in close cooperation to limit U.S. domination.
After the early successes with the reset button which included negotiation and ratification of the New START nuclear arms reduction agreement, the continued U.S. commitment to NATO expansion and its insistence on deploying “missile defenses” around Russia’s periphery have poisoned U.S.-Russian relations. Just this week Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov has described Russian relations with the U.S. as being at a nadir and Moscow’s relations with China the best ever.
However, Russia’s increasing social and economic integration with Europe, especially its economic dependence on exporting natural gas to, and importing technology and consumer goods from the West necessitates stable relations with NATO nations, including the United States. Further, the Russian conquest and relatively sparse settlement of eastern Siberia is a relatively recent phenomenon. Vladivostok, for example, became Russian in the 19th century. With China playing an increasingly dominant economic role in Western Siberia – including growing Chinese migration that could over time become a majority population, Russia’s control over a significant portion of its continental empire is thus less than certain, and long-term Russo-Sino cooperation is thus less than guaranteed.
In these circumstances, some U.S. and NATO strategic thinkers dream of splitting Russia from China and incorporating Moscow into the global system designed to manage and contain China’s rise. A condition for such deepening U.S./NATO ties with Russia includes significant democratic reforms, not the least of which would be the institutionalization of the rule of law.
The document indicates a future reduction in the scale of the American nuclear arsenal. What do you make of that possibility?
The guidance makes reference to reducing the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons but makes the ridiculous claim that U.S. nuclear weapons are “safe”. It futher asserts that the U.S. will to continue to maintain what is in fact an omnicidal arsenal.
Behind the scenes, a highly secret review of the U.S. nuclear guidance has begun and will be completed in several months. This review, some details of which will be leaked with the usual spin, will identify the minimum size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its structure that the U.S. military establishment believes necessary for deterrence and for terrorizing nuclear threats during future international crises and wars. The highly secret review will serve as the foundation for future U.S. arms control negotiations. For example, the G.W. Bush era guidance, which set the number of nuclear weapons needed to implement war fighting doctrines lower than the number deployed, served as the foundation of the U.S. approach to the New START Treaty negotiations. We can certainly expect that, as with the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, nuclearists in the military establishment and their political allies will press to maintain the largest and deadliest nuclear arsenal possible.
We shouldn’t over estimate the significance of the possible reductions in the Pentagon guidance. That said, it is possible that the President is truly committed to eventual elimination of the world’s nuclear arsenals, despite having accepted the $185 billion increase in spending to expand U.S. nuclear weapons production facilities and to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems, demanded by Republicans as the extortionist price for New START ratification. If this is the case, the Pentagon guidance may signal a reverse course on the spending increase and a commitment to at least minimally chip away at the size of the nuclear arsenal, whose use would bring on nuclear winter.
One other factor to bear in mind is that to successfully pursue its nuclear non-proliferation campaign, the United States must be seen as taking meaningful measures toward disarmament and implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT.) Article VI requires “good faith” negotiations for the elimination of the world’s nuclear arsenals. The world’s nations are long past tolerating the double standard by which the U.S. and other declared nuclear powers insist on their rights to possess and threaten to use their omnicidal arsenals while insisting that other nations cannot possess these terrorizing weapons. In this regard, even small reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be ballyhooed as a major initiative in order to undermine forces pressing for proliferation prevention and international pressure on the United States as the 2015 NPT Review at the United Nations approaches.
It is stated in the guidance that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operation" - does this signal the end of the classically imperialist phase (sustained military occupation of enemy states) of the United States?
The Obama Administration, if not all of the candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination, have taken some lessons from the nationally self-destructive invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Along with the Bush-era tax holiday for the super-rich, these wars and occupations are the principle cause of the national deficit, which in turn undermines the U.S. economy and society as a whole. It’s a classical case of imperial over reach.
Nations need not be militarily occupied to bend them to Washington’s will. Terrorizing threats of military attacks, and as we saw in Libya high-tech weapons targeted against low-tech societies can suffice. Further, in order to ensure “U.S. leadership” for the 21st century, the Pentagon Guidance points to two means to ensure continued U.S. full spectrum dominance: the ability to dominate any nation, anywhere, at any time, at any level of power, including even China:
The first, described in relation to NATO but which is certainly also the case in Asia and the Pacific, is “burden-sharing.” The Libya war serves as a model, with U.S. allies assuming greater financial burdens for U.S. led wars and doing more of the fighting. Across the world, in Asia, we see that Japan continues to violate its peace constitution, providing military assistance to the United States in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deploying troops to Southern Sudan, and in shaping its military to confront the number one strategic threat identified in Japan’s Defense White Paper: China.
Midst Europe’s economic crisis, this hardly seems to be a winning strategy. But, Washington will be turning the pressure on its NATO allies when their leaders come to Chicago this May for the NATO summit. In Asia, over the longer term, Japan may find that its economic interests dictate improved relations with China rather than tying its fate to an empire in decline. Time will tell.
The second approach is the U.S. commitment to high-tech warfare capabilities. The Guidance dictates U.S. superiority in cyber and space war capabilities. Its Prompt Global Strike attack vehicle is being designed to destroy any target anywhere in the world in an hour or less. Further, it should be remembered, that the Pentagon’s annual research and development budget estimated at $82 billion is more than any nation spends on its entire military.
It is also reported that the U.S. had the technological means to completely disarm Libya’s anti-aircraft missiles, but that the Pentagon decided that rather than display this and other military technology to potential adversaries, it would save its premier war fighting technologies for higher stakes battles, say with North Korea, Iran, or China.
Bottom line: the new Pentagon Guidance actually undermines real security for the U.S. people. Instead of investing in building the 21st century infrastructure our children and grandchildren will need for economic security, and instead of using the nation’s resources to stanch the flood of housing foreclosures and to ensure access to higher education for the nation’s young people, the Guidance provides the rationale for endless wars and endless subsidies to the military-industrial complex. It is a tragedy beyond Shakespearian proportions.