If American policymakers want to keep America out of a war with China in the Pacific, they should start by reading Thucydides’ account of the origins of the Peloponnesian War. At least that’s what the Diplomat’s James Holmes thinks as he advises policymakers on how to go about revising the defense agreements with Japan.
Holmes notes that the Peloponnesian War began with a fight over the city of Epidamnos, which, like the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, was little known and otherwise distant from the concerns of Athens and Sparta. Yet the conflict over this seemingly inconsequential city drew the entire Greek world into a disastrous war that ultimately brought down the mighty Periclean democracy of Athens.
The parallels with the current conflicts in the China Seas are obvious, but Thucydides’ History contains a number of deeper insights as well, exploring how ideas such as fear, honor and national interest motivate a country and lead it into war. The History also shows how naval conflicts and a constantly shifting alliance system with a group of small, prickly allies can confuse and frustrate a great power.
All of this is applicable to the current challenge facing American and Japanese military leaders. At the moment, there is uncertainty over how far the U.S. will go in defending disputed, Japanese-administered territories like the Senkaku Islands. The current defense guidelines date from 1997 and are insufficient to dispel the vagueness surrounding the extent of American commitments to the islands in 2012. The revision of the defense guidelines is an ideal opportunity to discuss and clarify the alliance. Otherwise, Prof. Holmes warns us, we could slowly be dragged into a conflict that nobody wishes to see:
Like classical Athens, America could find itself dragged into conflict or war against a peer competitor if it commits itself too firmly to a smaller ally for secondary—to Washington—objectives. The law of unintended consequences applies. Or, like Corcyra, Japan maybe better off building up its own naval might, and thus its capacity to act independently, rather than entrusting its interests to a strong yet ambivalent patron.
Washington would doubtless honor its promise to defend the Senkaku Islands, for instance. But it would fight less to perpetuate Japanese control of some flyspecks on the map than to preserve an alliance that anchors the U.S. forward presence in Asia. That’s a significant difference, implying different priorities and serious prospects for discord in stressful times. Discerning, candidly acknowledging, and working around such disparities will serve the allies well. Let’s take the long view of alliance politics.
Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first time that ambiguity concerning our committments to our allies has drawn the U.S. into a war. At Via Meadia we second Prof. Holmes’s advice that Pacific policymakers would do well to go back to the classics.