Three Strikes against U.S. Global Presence

Decisions by the governments of Japan and Great Britain and the passage of the bankrupting health care bill in the US spell the coming end of America's overseas basing and ability to project power. Should these trends continue, the US military will lose its European and Asian strategic anchors, hastening America's eventual withdrawal from its global commitments and leaving the world a far more uncertain and unstable place.

The first strike comes from Asia. For the past six months, the new government of Japan has sought to revise a 2006 agreement to relocate a Marine Corps Air Station from one part of Okinawa to a less populated area.

The upshot of these three trends will likely be a series of decisions to slowly, but irrevocably reduce America's overseas global military presence and limit our capacity to uphold peace and intervene around the globe.

Though the agreement was reached only after a decade of intense negotiations and with Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government has instead suggested numerous alternative sites for the base, most of which were rejected during the previous negotiations and none of which would allow the same type of training and operations necessary for the Marine Corps' air wing.

Now, American officials are privately wondering whether the ruling Democratic Party of Japan wants to allow the US the same level of access to bases in Japan, without which America would be incapable of providing regional security guarantees and serving as a force for stability in Asia amidst the growth of China's military capacity and North Korea's continuing nuclear developments. Indeed, the former head of the Democratic Party of Japan has publicly mused whether the US 7th Fleet is sufficient for alliance purposes, thus raising the specter of the withdrawal of US Marines and Air Force from Japan.

On the other side of the globe, a special House of Commons foreign affairs committee this week has concluded that Great Britain must learn to say no to Washington and exercise more independence, or risk further harm to the UK's image abroad. Most worrying, the committee recommends a "comprehensive review" of current arrangements for the U.S. use of British military facilities at home and abroad, singling out such strategically crucial bases as Diego Garcia.

Reacting to reports of the CIA's use of such bases for rendition purposes in the war on terror, the committee is calling on the government to drop the term "special relationship" to describe the US-UK bond and to more realistically recognize the "ever-evolving" nature of the relationship, which observers can safely interpret as putting greater distance between Whitehall and the White House.

The final strike in this geopolitical puzzle comes from Washington, D.C., where both Republican- and Democratic-run governments have blown up America's budget to unsustainable levels, all but ensuring that US defense budgets will decline in coming years.

The $1 trillion health care take over by the Obama administration is but the latest assault on America's financial integrity; combined with other multi-trillion dollar fiscal waste, such profligacy is already resulting in defense budget cuts and the cancellation of some of America's most sophisticated weapons systems, including the F-22 fighter.

As America's debt-to-GDP ratio reaches 90% in just ten years, now projected by the Congressional Budget Office, economic growth will slow down further and the military budget will all but certainly be further slashed in order to provide entitlements that Americans cannot live without.

The upshot of these three trends will likely be a series of decisions to slowly, but irrevocably reduce America's overseas global military presence and limit our capacity to uphold peace and intervene around the globe. And, as we hollow out our capabilities, China will be fielding ever more accurate anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced fighter aircraft, and stealthy submarines; Russia will continue to expand its influence over its "near abroad" while modernizing its nuclear arsenal; and Iran will develop nuclear weapons, leading to an arms race or preemptive attacks in the Middle East.

Under such conditions, global trade flows will be stressed, the free flow of capital will be constrained, and foreign governments will expand their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies in order to fund their own military expansions.

For the past six decades, global stability was assured in large part by an expensive US commitment to maintain credible forces abroad, forge tight alliances with key strategic countries, and devote a significant, though not onerous, part of national treasure to sustaining a military second to none. Rarely in history has a country shouldered such burdens for so long, but the succeeding decades of growth and avoidance of systemic war proved the wisdom of the course.

Are these three strikes the writing on the wall, the blueprint for how American power will decline in the world, with a whimper and an empty purse? The choice to reverse these trends will grow increasingly difficult in coming years, until we reach a point of no return, as did Great Britain and Rome.

The result, unhappily, will not be a replay of the 20th century, when Washington stepped up after London's decline. It will almost certainly be the inauguration of decades, if not centuries, of global instability, increased conflict, and depressed economic growth and innovation. Such is the result of short-sighted policies that reflect political expedience, moral weakness, and a romantic belief in global fraternity.

Happily for us, perhaps, is that the lessons of history still hold, and that we can chose to fight the dimming of our age if we but understand the stakes at hand.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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