The Debate

Will the U.S. Defend Japan? More of a Definite Maybe

Recent history ought to teach us the dangers of assuming a ‘slam dunk.’

Will the U.S. Defend Japan? More of a Definite Maybe
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Page via

The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed, “[P]olitics is an argument about the future, and no one knows that future.” Despite this warning, in recent weeks Jun Okumura and I have both tried our hand at predicting a future that neither of us can be confident in knowing. Still, the gravity of the event that we are both speculating about – the landing of Chinese troops on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the concomitant reaction of the U.S. government – is such that it needs to be discussed and debated. That is why I am grateful for Mr. Okumura’s thoughtful response to my article. Although he no longer works for the Japanese government, those in leadership positions in Japan likely share Mr. Okumura’s understandings. Therefore, if I am right and Mr. Okumura is wrong, then perhaps the Japanese government’s actions are being guided by a false and therefore dangerous impression.

While allowing that U.S. President Barack Obama may consult with Congress if time and the situation allows, Mr. Okumura implies that the U.S. president does not need the “authorization” of Congress to come to the aid of Japan, since the War Powers Resolution does not use that word. In fact, although section 3 of the law requires only consultation, section 5 specifically demands a declaration of war or “a specific authorization for such use of United States Armed Forces” if troops are to remain in harm’s way for more than 60 days. In practice, when presidents are going to seek this authorization, they do so before, rather than after initiating actions. This is what President George W. Bush did, for example, before attacking Iraq. The reason that Obama did not seek this authorization when establishing a no fly zone in Libya was because, despite the advice of his own Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, he did not think his actions in Libya amounted to “hostilities” triggering the procedures of the War Powers Resolution.

Now, past presidents have used the military without congressional authorization. President Bill Clinton supported NATO airstrikes over the conflict in Kosovo even though the House of Representatives deadlocked when asked to authorize the action. More recently, Obama has ordered airstrikes in Iraq without first getting permission from Congress. Yet when Obama wanted to use force in Syria last year, he sent a letter to Congress asking them to authorize the use of military force. Only when it became apparent that he did not have the votes did he suspend the request. Tellingly, he did not take any action.

If Obama does go to Congress, as I suspect he would, the situation becomes very unpredictable. Japan has many supporters in Congress, and the administration’s conclusion that the Mutual Defense Treaty covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago will carry some weight. Still, a recent Pew survey found that a majority of Americans think the U.S. ought to “mind its own business internationally.” Fewer than a third of Americans held a similar view just ten years ago. The lack of support for action in Syria is evidence that this creeping isolationism is gaining ground on Capitol Hill. It is also clearly reflected in the views of Republicans and Democrats such as Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren who are considered potential standard bearers for the parties in the 2016 presidential contest. It seems foolhardy to ignore this increasingly significant theme in U.S. politics when trying to predict the actions of Congress, whether one is talking about the Middle East, or the East China Sea.

Mr. Okumura is right to focus on the damage that a lack of a U.S. response would do to U.S.-Japan relations. The problem is that, given the insignificance of the islands, at least in the eyes of most Americans, this is really the only argument that Japan’s supporters will be able to make. Moreover, the argument can be turned around. Will Japan want to risk losing the protection that the Mutual Defense Treaty offers to Tokyo because the Congress refused to extend it to a set of uninhabited islands to the south?

To be clear, it is not so much that I disagree with Mr. Okumura’s analysis as that I do not share in his confidence. That is why my original article was in the form of a question, rather than an answer. Recent history ought to teach us the dangers of assuming a “slam dunk,” when the situation is much less clear.

Paul Sracic is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University in Ohio, where he also directs the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center.