How many angels fit on the end of an SM-3?

James Auer, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for US-Japan Studies and Cooperation, spoke tonight at Temple University Japan to a large audience composed of US and Japanese diplomats and policymakers, scholars, and others interested in the US-Japan alliance.

Auer is one of the elder statesmen of the alliance, having served in Japan while in the US Navy (including time spent as a liaison officer between US Naval Forces Japan and the Japanese political community), formulated US Japan policy while serving as Special Assistant for Japan in the Office of Secretary of Defense for nearly a decade spanning the Carter and Reagan administrations, and studied the alliance as a scholar, not to mention mentoring alliance leaders from both countries, including many of the defense policymakers responsible for the alliance during the 1990s. He is steeped in the lore of the alliance, and it would not be an exaggeration to call him the alliance’s oral historian.

It was for this last reason especially that it was interesting to listen to his talk. But the question-and-answer session dissolved into a classic “angels-on-pinheads” discussion of Japan’s position on its non-exercise of the right of collective defense, illustrating just how stunted the alliance is.

Unlike NATO, the members of which having debated since the end of the cold war the meaning of the alliance in the absence of a clear external enemy, the US-Japan alliance has not really moved beyond debates about how the alliance can fully meet its primary purpose: the defense of Japan, as enshrined in Article V of the Mutual Security Treaty. (Auer argued, with good reason, that the terms of the security treaty constitute de facto collective defense.) While some policymakers and intellectuals would like the alliance to be more global in scope, and Japan to bear a greater burden as a global security provider, the alliance is far from being able to address that question adequately, because policymakers from both countries — but Japan in particular — still debate the theology of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau‘s constitutional interpretation. Collective defense, especially in the limited cases being considered by Abe’s advisory group (most significantly for the US the case of a missile that may be bound for the continental US), is still more about enhancing the ability of the US to defend Japan, not about projecting bilateral power in the region or neighboring regions. (Note how little discussion there is of how collective defense might work in an Article 6 situation, involving the “maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.”)

At the same time, it seems that alliance transformation is stuck, because without some discussion of what the alliance will be for beyond the mere defense of Japan, if anything, the process of reconsidering how Japan should contribute to the alliance is inadequate. The Japanese debate has been and will continue to be more concerned with figuring out what Japan cannot do than devising a new legal framework to support what Japan, in concert with the US, has decided it wants to be able to do.

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