Commentary

Alliance of Democracy?

American alliances supposedly are founded on shared values, and above all, a respect for democracy. But the recent resignation of the Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, raises questions of how democracy is seen in Washington.

When campaigning for office last year, Mr. Hatoyama promised that, if elected, he would revisit the agreement reached between the United States and Japan that permitted the U.S. to keep a military base on Okinawa, albeit in a different location. The people of Okinawa do not want a base at all, and Mr. Hatoyama pledged to try to fulfill their hopes.

After he was elected, however, he found the Obama Administration unwilling to change the agreement, forcing him to choose between satisfying the U.S. government or fulfilling his campaign promise. Unwilling to force a crisis in relations with Japan’s foremost ally and protector, he reneged on his promise, offering the people of Okinawa his “heartfelt apology for causing much confusion.”

American officials seem satisfied that this situation is behind them, but such confidence may be misplaced. When Hatoyama offered his apology to the people of Okinawa, he was greeted by cries of “go home.” Yoshiyasu Iha, the mayor of the city where the large U.S. base at Futenma is located, said that the change of government gives the opposition movement an “opportunity for a new start.”

Consequently, it is unlikely this issue will now disappear. It will fester, perhaps more quietly, but it will erupt again at some time in the future. And it begs a basic question: Why is a base in Okinawa so important?

During the Cold War, the answer was obvious. The U.S. had a series of alliances surrounding Eurasia to contain its principal adversaries — Russia and China. Not all of these alliances survived the Cold War, notably SEATO, which was a casualty of the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam.

But NATO and the U.S.-Japan alliance endured. The U.S. tells Russia and China these alliances are no longer directed against them, but these assurances are viewed skeptically.

“Mrs. Albright talks about NATO tanks as if they are really friendly things,” Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party, said in 1998, referring to the then Secretary of State. “And I talk to my constituents about these friendly, rose-colored, flower-strewn tanks, but if there’s one thing Russians understand, it’s a tank aimed at our country.”

“Historically, we have seen many examples of seeking security through the formation of alliances and confrontation among different alliances, which often severely undermined the security of other countries and brought heavy burdens to the allies themselves,” General Ma Xiaotian, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese Army, told the Shangri-La Conference on June 5. “Exclusive military alliances are outdated. Furthermore, they are not helpful for building trust and are perilous.”

It is worth recalling George Washington’s warning that military alliances should not be allowed to become permanent.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” he told the American people in his Farewell Address. “Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

The logic was simple. Alliances are a response to a threat. Once the threat — the extraordinary emergency — is dealt with, the alliance should be disbanded. Otherwise the U.S. risks creating the impression of a continuing confrontation which could increase rather than reduce the risk of conflict.

It is unfortunate that the U.S. has not followed George Washington’s advice; by doing this it risks dividing the world again. Russia and China, seeing the U.S. emphasize its alliances, have formed their own organizations: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China).

For Washington’s foreign policy establishment, none of this seems to matter. The Japanese have been brought round, and things can continue as before.

But it is not so. The resentment in Japan will grow. And how will U.S. claims of an alliance of democracies remain credible when it is opposing the will of the people?

“There is zero chance” the new base will be built, says Susumu Inamine, the new mayor of Nago, a city in Okinawa that is supposed to host the new facility. “I cannot hide my rage.”

An alliance of democracies cannot long defy the will of the people. The U.S. should recognize that its strength is founded on its values, and should act accordingly. It might suffer some temporary reversals, but, as George Washington also argued, in the long run it will be better off.

Stanley Kober is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.