Japan Plays America for a Sucker : *With the Cold War over, we no longer need to subsidize allies’ defense while they industrialize.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of the forthcoming "Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World."

Nations rarely say publicly what they think of the U.S. But it’s pretty obvious what Japan sees when it looks at America: a sucker.

At a time when American officials have been attempting preserve America’s military presence in Japan in the aftermath of the rape on Okinawa, the Japanese Cabinet has decided to downsize its military. The army will reduce force levels from 180,000 to 145,000, the air force will cut an F-4 squadron and the navy will eliminate some destroyers and antisubmarine aircraft and an escort division. The Cabinet simultaneously endorsed the U.S.-Japanese security treaty and America’s bases.

Tokyo’s stance--we’re going to save money with the end of the Cold War, but we expect Uncle Sam to continue to defend us--mirrors that of Germany. In 1993, Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced to an audience that included U.S. Defense Secretary Les Aspin that Bonn intended to cut its military by 40% over the following three years and that American troops should remain in Europe. That Japan, Germany and other nations want to take advantage of America is not surprising. Harder to understand is the willingness of U.S. officials to let foreign nations play them for fools.


Consider Japan. Tokyo is spending less than 1% its gross domestic product on defense compared with America’s 4%. This multibillion-dollar annual subsidy has allowed Tokyo to concentrate on economic development. Such a U.S. sacrifice may have been justified in the early stages of the Cold War, but it made little sense as Japan turned into a technologically advanced economic powerhouse. This policy is nonsensical after the collapse of the Soviet Union and hegemonic communism.

Japan faces no serious security threats. Russia’s Pacific fleet is rusting away, China lacks a blue water navy and actually fears Tokyo and even a united Korea would be years away from developing the capability to attack Japan. Moreover, Tokyo is capable of maintaining a sufficient force to deter any potential enemy. Yet the Clinton administration insists that the U.S. must continue to protect Japan along with a host of other well-heeled allies.

It is apparent that the administration believes circumstances are irrelevant to American troop deployments. The president’s defense strategy paper, the Nye Report, makes it clear that American troops will remain irrespective of the threats facing the U.S., the capabilities of America’s allies and anything else. Whether or not there is a Soviet Union, whether or not there is a Cold War, whether or not Japan is defenseless and whether or not there is a Communist North Korea--all are irrelevant. Washington must keep 100,000 troops in East Asia.

In short, alliances have become ends rather than means. With the administration telling everyone near and far that the U.S. intends to stay forever and no matter what, essentially begging its allies for the opportunity to defend them, other nations have gotten the message: Play Uncle Sam for a sucker.

Lest that language seem too harsh, consider Japan’s response last year to Washington’s request that it provide minesweepers and antisubmarine aircraft to aid U.S. naval forces should a conflict erupt with North Korea. Tokyo said no, that its constitution--which Japanese governments routinely interpret as they see fit--forbade an operation that was not strictly defensive. But one look at the map shows which nation has the most at stake in Korea. Clearly, Tokyo has sized up the Clinton administration and feels free to treat it with utter contempt.

Of course, some U.S. officials privately argue that the real reason they want to keep American troops in Japan is to contain Japan. They view Tokyo not as loyal ally but as potential aggressor. No evidence of an imperial revival, even as the Japanese government decides to cut the military, is ever cited, nor is how the presence of a few U.S. troops could stop a slide toward militarism ever explained. In fact, the argument is intellectual blather, propagated by officials desperate to preserve a Cold War military and international presence in a post-Cold War world.


As long as American officials routinely sacrifice the interest of American taxpayers to subsidize foreign allies, they will hand a powerful issue to candidates like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. Someone in Washington needs to begin adjusting America’s military commitments to a changed world. Someone in Washington needs to stop Uncle Sam from being an international sucker.