Aaron Friedberg has a piece in The Diplomat today: "America Cannot 'Lead From Behind' in East Asia." It is a critique of what he takes to be a shift in US policy toward China, a softening of the US "pivot" toward Asia. I think he is overstating things, and avoiding some more important issues.
Friedberg complains that recent trips to the region by Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have sent a conciliatory signal to Beijing that could undermine the US commitment to its allies - Japan, South Korea, the Philippines - and thereby weaken the American counterbalance to Chinese power in the region. But two key points, which Friedberg ignores, suggest that a period of rhetorical softening does not undermine the broader strategic orientation.
First, the US pivot to Asia has, at its core, a redefined deployment of US military power globally. In managing reductions in military spending, President Obama has identified Asia, and obviously the military rise of China, as the key strategic issue of the future and has come up with plans to shift US military power, especially naval power, in that direction:
Panetta said: “By 2020, the navy will re-posture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent spilt between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines.” The objective would be to “rapidly project military power if needed to meet” the US security commitments in the region, despite China’s fast- growing military might.
It takes a long time to effect these kinds of changes, but as a short-term, symbolic gesture to signal the new US stance, a small contingent of US Marines has been stationed in Australia.
Now, we can argue about the merits of this change in policy (it seems sensible given the growing significance of the Chinese military) and we can disagree about the quantity of resources the US should focus on Asia, but what seems incontestable is that this policy remains in place. The US is in the midst of planning to redeploy its global military power in roughly the way Panetta originally stated. The rhetorical shift by Clinton and Panetta is just that, rhetorical. They are using words to ease the way for the underlying strategic shift. On the face of it, it does seem a bit absurd to argue to the PRC that the pivot is not about them. It obviously is. But diplomacy often involves this kind of spin. What matters, however, are not the words, but the actions. Thus, I think Friedberg is wrong. I don't think the change in rhetoric reflects a change in policy. He would have to show us how the undelying policy has, in fact, materially changed, and he doesn't do that.
Secondly, this is a time for more conciliatory speech. The islands disputes that have heated up of late between China and Japan, and China and the Philippines, have roiled regional relations. Friedberg seems to think that now is the time for the US to come out and clearly state, in a show of strength, that it will commit itself to war against the PRC over islets claimed by Japan and the Philippines. He writes:
Having sought at first to stiffen their spines, Washington now aims to put some distance between itself and its allies in Asia, reminding them that it takes no stand on the ultimate resolution of their maritime disputes with China. A striking case in point is the administration’s repeated refusal to clarify whether it would come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of an attack on its forces in the South China Sea.
In the first place, regarding the China-Japan dispute, the US has, since at least 1971, taken the position that it has no position on the determination of ultimate sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands. So, it would seem that Friedberg believes that precisely now, in the midst of the worst tensions over those conflicting claims in recent decades, is the best time for the US to change a long-standing policy in a manner that would obviously inflame Chinese passions more. That strikes me as rather ill-considered.
Regarding the Sino-Philippine dispute, Friedberg must realize that the US must be careful in its statements, so as not to leave the impression that it is giving a carte blanche to its ally. War with China would be a grave matter for the US, and we should not cede the decision over the commitment of US power to that end to politicians in other countries, even good friends like the Philippines.
Now, Friedberg might want to argue that the US has a Mutual Security Treaty with the Philippines and that we should be willing to clearly state our willingness to go to war to live up to that treaty. But the treaty language itself (sometime Wikipedia is good!) is actually rather fuzzy:
Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
There is no clear commitment there for the US to go to war over the Scarborough Shoal. Recognizing the danger of a Chinese take over of those rocks is rather different than a clear commitment to defend them.
Long story short: Firedberg is making more out of a diplomatic softening of a relatively consistent US policy than is warranted by the situation at hand. Moreover, he is also miscalculating likely Chinese responses. If the US raises the rhetorical heat, - Friedberg seems to yearn for "muscular, martial rhetoric" - what would the PRC do? My sense is that in a time of more passionately mobilized popular nationalism, PRC leaders would most likely feel it necessary to demonstrate their resolve to assuage public opinion. More US chest-thumping, particularly at this moment, really will not accomplish anything tangible in terms of US interests. Best to keep the rhetoric happy and continue to pivot strategically.
But there is a bigger issue here, one that Friedberg elides, and that is the clear limitation of US power. Neocons - and Friedberg is, at least, a fellow neocon traveler from his days as Dick Cheney's foreign policy guy - never want to recognize that the US is limited in what it can do in the world. They have not learned from the failure in Iraq. And the failure to manage regime change there came well before the financial crisis of 2008, which has cut the economic rug out from under US power more generally. Friedberg seems oblivious to the new global (it is not just a US problem!) economic realities:
Even more important, it [the US] needs to make costly, long-term investments in the military capabilities that will be needed to counter China’s own.
This, of course, requires a broader budgetary policy, one that would, you know, actually raise the revenues to cover such costs. It might be unfair to demand that Friedberg, a foreign policy specialist, solve that rather big problem. But it is a very, very big problem, and I would have more confidence in Friedberg's analysis if he weren't an active member of the Mitt Romney campaign. Romney has no answer for the crushing financial problems facing the US, because his, and his party's, ideological stance against taxation make a solution impossible. So, Friedberg cannot be taken seriously here: he says that costly investments are necessary, but he has no plan for doing that in a way that preserves US economic power, which, after all, is central to US power more generally.
And that is why the US, ultimately, must "lead from behind" in East Asia. Now, Friedberg and other neocons deploy "lead from behind" as a critique. It is, for them, a sign of weakness, an unwillingness to step up and do the manly stuff of leading from the front. But that fundamentally misconstrues what leading from behind is all about.
We can get a better sense of it from the Daodejing (the invocation of which, I imagine, Friedberg would also take as a sign of weakness). Consider this excerpt from passage 66:
Oceans and rivers become emperors of the hundred valleys because they stay so perfectly below them. This alone makes them emperors of the hundred valleys.
So, wanting to rule over the people, a sage speaks from below them, and wanting to lead the people, he follows behind them,
then he can reign above without weighing the people down and stay ahead without leading the people to ruin.
It should be noted immediately that this is not presented as a recipe for surrender. Rather, the writers of the DDJ are here telling a leader how to be effective in his or her leadership. The "sage" wants to "rule over the people" and "lead the people." The sage seeks to "reign above" and "stay ahead." This is all about subtle but effective leadership.
And what is that effective leadership? It is based on an understanding of evolving circumstances and context. The leader tries to get some understanding of where the "people" are naturally going and then he or she facilitates that organic process. An attempt to to impose a "solution" or "goal" that is wholly external to the particulars of the context is likely to fail. Rather, effective leadership works with what is possible in the immediate moment.
In terms of the US in East Asia this might suggest careful, incremental steps, not imprudent and aggressive moves. Let the situation develop. Indeed, there is a natural response taking shape already. The PRC is over-playing its hand in its territorial assertiveness, creating a greater likelihood that other countires in the region - Vietnam and Indonesia as well as Japan and South Korea and the Philippines - will move in a counterbalancing direction. This is a long game. The PRC will, undoubtedly, gain in power. But that gain will shift the strategic context in ways that will limit PRC power. The US does not need to force the issue. It can maintain its close ties with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, continue its strategic ambiguity on particular island claims, cultivate closer relations with Vietnam, quietly redeploy naval assets in an economically more efficient manner, and preserve its own recources as much as possible.
Leading from behind does not mean doing absolutely nothing. It is, rather, an approach that values contextual prudence over impulsive intervention.
The US tried to force its will militarily in Korea in 1950 after the status quo ante had been regained, and it failed horribly. It tried to impose a "solution" in Vietnam and it lost ignominiously. It invaded Iraq in 2003 to very bad results. In these cases the US led from the front in a "muscular, martial" style. How many of these kinds of failures do we have to suffer before the virtues of leading from behind are made evident?
And if quoting the Daodejing seems a bit too mushy, how about Sunzi:
He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious. (3.24)