The trouble with collective self-defense

Yomiuri ran an editorial on reviewing the prohibition on the right of collective self-defense today, arguing that debate “ought to deepen.”

The occasion for this editorial is the government panel’s recommendation that MSDF vessels be permitted to counterattack if, when sailing with US warships, the US vessels come under attack. In this case and the case of a missile potentially bound for the US, the panel, rather than simply declaring that collective self-defense is permissible, has suggested that the right of individual self-defense and the provisions of the JSDF law permit a Japanese response, regardless of the prevailing interpretation of the right of collective self-defense.

Not being a lawyer, I am not in a position to question the legal soundness of the panel’s recommendations. What interests me is the politics of collective self-defense, and what it means for the US-Japan alliance.

At the heart of Yomiuri‘s position is the argument that failure to allow collective self-defense in some form will destroy the alliance: “For example, if Japan, by virtue of constitutional restrictions, was an idle spectator to an attack on the US, the alliance would collapse.” I do not disagree with that assessment. Once Americans realize that the alliance is actually a one-way alliance, their tolerance for it would disappear quickly, particularly if that realization came about in the aftermath of an attack on the US.

My problem is the idea that the solution to the collective self-defense problem is Japan’s simply changing the constitutional interpretation (or revising the constitution). The Japanese people, insofar as they think about collective self-defense, are undoubtedly concerned that changing the interpretation could result in Japan’s being forced to march alongside the US in American wars of choice (or war that may be necessary for the US, but not exactly in Japan’s interests). This obviously transcends the limited cases under consideration, but it is an essential problem when looking at the road to a more active US-Japan alliance.

The politics of the alliance are such that it is hard to envision Japan standing up in the UN and publicly disagreeing with the US on the need for a war. (I am thinking, of course, of the actions of certain European allies prior to the Iraq war.) Wars of choice ought to mean that allies have a choice too; indeed, that seems to have been the lesson of the Iraq war, given that transatlantic relations seem to be steady again.

Accordingly, the alliance needs to change politically to be capable of handling collective self-defense.

The key is probably Japan becoming more capable of defending itself without the US. As long as Japan needs US military power for its own defense — even excluding nuclear deterrence — collective self-defense will feel like Japan is being press-ganged into helping the US because it feels it has no choice lest it risk the US loosening its commitment to defend Japan. This kind of anticipatory reaction was certainly a part of Japan’s commitments to coalition efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq (which leads me to wonder how long Japan will be able to resist pressure from the US to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan). As a result, collective self-defense would be less the product of two allies working together than one ally feeling pressured to help as a way to ensure its security.

All changes flow from this, because as long as Japan depends on the US for its security, it is assigned, implicitly if not explicitly, a subordinate position politically. Creating an alliance council equivalent to the North Atlantic Council in the absence of Japan’s being able to defend itself without the US would be futile, because the same psychological pressures that shape Japan’s decision making vis-a-vis the US today would come into play.

Of course, the process of Japan becoming able to defend itself largely without the US is a process fraught with risk due to the likely reactions of Japan’s neighbors, and constrained both by constitution interpretation and the budget. Indeed, these challenges have been enough to retard the process to date.

But the time is come to make Japanese self-reliance an explicit goal, and work to overcome the aforementioned challenges as much as possible.The US need not be a “cap in the bottle” any longer. It should want a capable, relatively equal ally, an ally that is able to articulate and defend its interests, even if there is divergence with the US. The goal should not simply be for Japan to become a more capable, subordinate ally. As such, permitting collective self-defense beyond the most basic cases, without a major shift in the balance between allies, will ultimately be politically unsustainable in Japan. The risk of being pulled into a US war that the Japanese people feel is not their concern will be enough to derail it. But if the Japanese government were positioned to articulate those fears publicly in the event of a crisis, collective self-defense would mean not an unconditional arrangement whereby each ally promises to aid the other in any and all cases, but an arrangement whereby the allies are capable of airing concerns and opting out if need be (for example, if Japan were in a skirmish with China or Korea over contested islands).

Creative thinking on the alliance is needed as Japan considers how to change its defense posture. Repeatedly restating commitments to one another — renewing vows over and over again — may have been fine during the 1990s, but it is no longer good enough today.

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