More challenging than the destination is the agenda. The Bush administration remained committed to U.S. domination in Asia just like everywhere else. Multiple alliances were to be strengthened, potential adversaries were to be contained, client states were to be defended, U.S. leadership was to be asserted.
But domination will be increasingly hard to maintain. China has started from a low economic and military base and faces enormous social challenges as it develops, but is not inclined to passively accept U.S. hegemony along its border or elsewhere. Helpless dependence on Washington once characterized South Korea and Japan, but nationalism has stirred in both countries, whose interests will increasingly diverge from that of America. India is moving from a south Asian to an Asian power, and, like Beijing, has larger global ambitions.
All of these developments may make Washington policy makers uncomfortable, but none threaten fundamental U.S. security interests. Only since World War II have American administrations been able to routinely dictate orders to anyone other than helpless Central American and Caribbean states. Only with the collapse of the Soviet empire could Washington imagine directing world affairs largely unimpeded. The end of Charles Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment” was inevitable. It just seems to be coming a bit more quickly than most observers expected.
Thus, rather than attempt to shore up a disappearing past, Secretary Clinton should use her trip to Asia to begin adapting U.S. policy to the looming future. The Obama administration’s overarching theme should be one of regional responsibility.
That message should be delivered with greatest clarity in Tokyo. This great trading nation remains a military midget, hesitant to use its modest “self‐defense” forces to do much more than act as international social workers. That is Japan’s prerogative, of course, and it is not Washington’s place to say what Tokyo must do.
However, Secretary Clinton should paint a portrait of the future in which the United States will not be guaranteeing Japan’s territorial integrity or access to Pacific sea lanes. With the world’s second or third largest economy (depending on the measure used), Tokyo no longer to needs rely on America. And with World War II having ended more than six decades ago, Tokyo’s neighbors should welcome greater Japanese efforts to promote regional stability. The Japanese are frustrated when their opinions are disregarded, as in the case of North Korea. That will change only when they demonstrate both the ability and will to do more of their region’s security heavy lifting.
Secretary Clinton should impart a similar message in Seoul, though with a somewhat different twist. First, Washington should in effect turn over the issue of North Korea to the South. America got involved in the peninsula only as World War II came to its messy close; reluctant U.S. policymakers had trouble locating Korea on the map. Since then American forces have been on call to defend America’s ally from the Soviet Union’s ally.
But the cold war has disappeared in Asia as well as Europe. The Republic of Korea is well able to construct the military units and form the diplomatic relationships necessary to deter North Korean aggression. Whether the best approach to Pyongyang is the “Sunshine Policy” of the previous two South Korean governments or President Lee Myung-bak’s harder line is up to the ROK to decide. But there’s no longer any need for U.S. forces stationed in South Korea or nearby to backstop that nation’s defense. With forty times the GDP and twice the population of its erstwhile adversary, Seoul should take over responsibility for its own defense.