Thinking About the Unthinkable: A U.S.-Japan War


The first Japanese-American War ended in 1945. Since then it has been an axiom of international relations that another such war is unthinkable. As happens so often and tragically in history, we are again approaching a point when imagining the unimaginable is necessary.

For the past 45 years, U.S. power was so overwhelming that Japan could not possibly challenge American hegemony in the Pacific. More important, war between the United States and Japan was unthinkable because neither nation feared the other as much as each feared the Soviet Union.

Even today, when economic competition has become brutal, no one has raised the obvious question: can the rivalry between the United States and Japan be confined to economics? Economic rivalry in the 1930s led directly to the first Japanese-American war. Why won't this happen again?

Japan has been important to American strategy. It blocks the Soviet fleet from access to the Pacific. During the Korean war, Japan served as an air base, supply center and manufacturing plant for United Nations forces. Thus, a strong, vigorous Japan ,, has been important to the United States, and the U.S. has encouraged its economic growth. During the oil crises of the 1970s, the U.S. was almost as concerned with Japan's vulnerability as it was with its own. The U.S. has been committed to protecting Japan from invasion, subversion and economic dislocation.

While the Soviet Union was a threat, the U.S. tolerated Japanese economic expansion, even encouraged it. Indeed, even during the 1980s, when the imbalance of trade began to cost the U.S. nearly 1 percent of GNP annually, the United States refused to limit radically Japanese access to the American market and was unwilling to coerce Japan into opening her own markets fully to American goods. The strategic benefits of a strong Japan outweighed lagging U.S. car sales.

For Japan, friendship with the United States was a guarantee that it would have access to essential raw materials and critical markets. The U.S. was willing to assure this, even if those materials turned into Hondas and Toyotas. Both sides were willing to endure increasingly fierce economic competition out of self-interest. But the Soviet Union, once a global power, is now struggling merely to hold onto its own territory. The Soviet Union cannot be considered a superpower any longer, except that it still has a nuclear force.

As the Soviet Union disintegrates, the foundation of the Japanese-American alliance dissolves. In a more general sense, the end of the Cold War heralds the end of the free trade system that has dominated international economic life since the GATT agreements of 1945. The U.S. sponsored the free trade system not as an end in itself, but as an economic buttress of its anti-Soviet alliance system. The U.S. guaranteed allied countries access to the largest consumer economy in the world, its own, as well as creating a general framework for the prosperity that enveloped the alliance in the post-war world.

As allied economies matured, Japan's included, the U.S. endured increasing pain in order to maintain the alliance. Given the threat that the Soviet Union posed, given the importance of the encirclement of the Soviet Union, the United States acted rationally in allowing the free trade system to function. The U.S. traded a degree of economic well being for political and military security; a fair trade, on the whole.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-war equation has collapsed as well. Enduring the economic pain without a Soviet threat is no longer rational. Why should the U.S. care if Japan's economy malfunctions?

A Soviet-Japanese alliance in 1975 would have been terrifying. In 1991, it is a poor joke. Economic distress and social chaos in Japan would have been frightening in 1980. Today, it would be Japan's problem. Without the Soviet threat, the American motive for enduring Japan's economic encroachments lose their force.

Let us raise an even darker thought. By weight, Japan imports about 70% of all the minerals it needs for its industry, including almost all of its iron ore, bauxite, copper and oil. For every pound of Toyota Japan exports, it must import 8 pounds of raw materials through waters controlled by the United States Navy.

This last point is perhaps the most important politico-military fact in today's world: the U.S. controls the world's oceans more completely than any Navy in history, including the Royal Navy. Should the U.S. decide that Japanese behavior is intolerable, it has a simple solution: blockade. After all, wars have started over more trivial matters than trade friction.

We have this paradox: The lifeblood of Japan's economy flows there under the protection of Japan's main economic enemy. In the Persian Gulf crisis, the Japanese got their first taste of a world in which the U.S. was generally indifferent to Japan's interests.

In 1973, during the embargo, a key element of U.S. policy was securing oil for Japan; in 1990, the U.S. was willing to play with the life's blood of Japan's economy. Japan imports about 65 percent of its oil from inside the Straits of Hormuz. Had things gone badly, Japan's economy would have been in a shambles.

American indifference to this possibility stunned the Japanese. American demands that Japan finance the American adventure added insult to injury. That the war has left American forces in control of the richest oil fields in the world, with only good intentions preventing an American hammerlock on Japan's economy, is perhaps the final straw. No nation can survive depending on the good intentions of another; all rational nations must prepare for the worst in their relations with other countries.

The tragedy of this situation is that neither the United States nor Japan wants war. At this point, neither can even imagine such a war. This failure of imagination is no comfort. The logic of economic competition must lead to political and military competition. Trade wars lead to political spheres of influence, which, in turn, must be defended.

No one gains when war is dismissed as unimaginable. Japan and America have fought one bloody war over similar issues and there is no reason to believe that another war is impossible. We must stop acting as if this mutual economic brutalization can be confined to polite trade talks. As rhetoric increases, we must begin again to imagine the unimaginable, if we are to avoid repeating history.

George Friedman, professor of political science at Dickinson College, and Meredith LeBard, a free-lance writer, are co-authors of "The Coming War with Japan."

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