Be Prepared to Contain the Carthage of the 1990s : Japan: America’s financial and technological edge already has been silently surrendered to Tokyo. Is world supremacy next?

<i> Christopher Layne is a fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government</i>

Vice President Al Gore visits Japan at a time when the U.S.-Japan alliance is seriously strained. But behind the headlines something far more fundamental is taking place in the relationship between the two countries. While U.S. strategists obsess about the threat from China, Japan, in one of history’s most stunning strategic reversals of fortune, is poised to wrest international supremacy away from the United States.

If China does not disintegrate internally and if its high growth rates continue over time--problematic assumptions--it might someday threaten the United States. Japan, however, already is perilously close to closing the power gap with the United States. Indeed, earlier this year, when the dollar reached its nadir in relation to the yen, Japan’s GNP was just two-tenths of a percent less than America’s.

That Japan eventually could overtake the United States, as many economists forecast, is a fact of strategic, not merely economic, importance. States that emerge as great powers economically invariably become great powers geopolitically. Although Japan is not customarily regarded as a great power militarily, it is on the verge of becoming one and already is a de facto nuclear power.

When a rising power emerges as a clear challenger to a heretofore dominant state, world politics turns dangerous. The logic of international politics is ironclad: Such states are fated to be rivals. In the ancient world, Rome and Carthage found themselves locked in a competition of this type, which caused Sen. Marcus Porcius Cato to conclude all his speeches with the admonition: Carthage must be destroyed (“Delenda est Carthago”).


The U.S. leadership has presided over the silent surrender to Tokyo of America’s economic, financial and technological prowess. America’s obliviousness to the Japanese challenge is explained by the fact that the foreign policy Establishment is a prisoner of its own illusions. American policy-makers reject the idea that a purportedly friendly, free market, democratic Japan could ever become a geopolitical rival.

This conventional wisdom is orthodox but undiscerning, and wrong for three reasons. First, great powers have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies; they have only permanent interests. Second, Japan is not a democracy; democracy’s outward trappings mask the rule of a bureaucratic elite committed to enhancing the Japanese state’s external power. Finally, Japan is a mercantilist nation. Just as war is too important to be left to generals, Japanese policy-makers understand the creation of wealth and technological supremacy--the basis of a state’s geopolitical weight in international politics--is too important to be left to businessmen. Japan’s strategic approach to economics contrasts jarringly with the American foreign policy Establishment’s naive belief that security and economics are discrete realms that do not impinge upon one another.

Japan cannot be prevented from becoming a great power but it can be contained. To turn back the Japanese challenge, the United States must rediscover its strategic trade tradition. This means the United States must aim at increasing its relative economic power while simultaneously reducing Japan’s. Similarly, U.S. grand strategy should weaken Japan’s relative power by subtlety exploiting it strategic vulnerabilities: proximity to potentially hostile powers (China, Russia and Korea) and dependence on imported raw materials. The unilateral American security guarantee to Japan should be phased out and Tokyo should be left to confront its security dilemmas on its own.

Current U.S. policy, designed by outgoing Asst. Defense Secretary Joseph S. Nye, Jr., clearly is unprepared to respond to the Japanese challenge. Nye warns against using U.S. strategic leverage to extract economic concessions from Tokyo. His Alice-in-Wonderland argument is that by defending its interests, the United States would provoke Japan into reemerging as a hostile great power. The contention that the United States must abstain from pursuing its own interests and should walk on eggshells to avoid Japanese economic and political retaliation smacks of appeasement.

In the early 21st Century, having awakened belatedly to the Japanese challenge, American leaders may reach the same conclusion about Japan that the Romans reached about Carthage: Delenda est Nipponica. By then, however, it will be too late for the United States to prevent Japan from gaining geopolitical preeminence. Fifty years from now, historians may well wonder how it was that the United States, which turned back the challenges of fascist Germany and then of the Soviet Union, with scarcely a whimper, allowed the mantle of world leadership to slip irretrievably from its grasp. Never in history has a dominant great power acquiesced so passively to its own decline and in a rival’s corresponding rise.