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Global Overextension or “Hegemonic Imperialism”? Differing Perspectives on US Political and Military Involvement in Contemporary East Asia

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A Book Essay on Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000.

North American students of geopolitics and global conflict generally have a much firmer grasp of trouble spots in Europe and the Middle East than of bones of contention in East Asia. Due to both traditional historical ties across the Atlantic Ocean and sheer inertia, protracted conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Balkans,  and the Middle East have garnered much more North American media coverage than long-standing disputes across the Taiwan Straits or on the Korean peninsula. Yet since the end of World War II, the region where North American soldier have tended to get hogged down in long and virtually unwinnable military conflicts has been East and Southeast Asia, not Europe or the Middle East. The United States could only manage lo maintain the political status quo in Korea through a grueling military stalemate in the early 1950s, and departed in defeat from South Vietnam approximately two decades later. Well aware of the dangers of American military intervention on the East Asian mainland. former President Harry Truman wisely fired General Douglas MacArthur when the latter insistently called for widening the war against North Korean aggression to include direct allied attacks on military bases in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Half a century of direct or indirect U.S. protection of Taiwan and South Korea, from their militarily, powerful, communist rivals, the PRC and North Korea, respectively, has helped set the stage for their impressive democratization.1 as one time dissidence who formerly suffer dearly for their opposition to previous authoritarian regimes in Taiwan and South Korea, Presidents Chen Shuibian and Kim Dae-jung now preside over governments that enjoy, incomparably, more depth of popular participation and support from the old-fashioned one-party dictatorships that still rule in Beijing and Pyongyang.2 Beijing has experimented with public elections merely at the level of village governance: elections at the township level are projected to be phased in no earlier than 2005, which would still leave Beijing decades behind Taipei, along the path of progress towards bona fide democracy, or what Deng Xiaoping once decried as “big democracy“.3 Notwithstanding the hopes for reproach meant in the week of the summit between Kim Jong-il, and Kim Dae-jung, Pyongyang’s Stalinist leadership is more hidebound still, maintaining its firm control over what is arguably, the world’s most closed society, and most rigid command economy – and one’s still plagued by recurring famines.

Although U.S. patronage deserves at least some of the credit for the past half century’s rise of multiparty politics and democracy in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, a number of contemporary trends in U.S. policy towards this region are very worrying.4 In the early 1990s, U.S. leaders seriously considered the drastic step of bombing a large North Korean underground nuclear facility to smithereens until alarmed opposition from the governments of South Korea and Japan, and a special mission to North Korea by former President Jimmy Carter, opened the door to a negotiated compromise solution.

Since the mid-1990s, a number of leading figures from both major U.S. political parties have downplayed warnings from both major allied governments and the world’s mainstream scientific community and lobbying, for the Pentagon’s still hypothetical missile defense system – the dressed-up contemporary version of former President Ronald Reagan‘s Strategic Defense Initiative, (whose fanciful conjurings of massive space space laser, guns earn did the episode of (“Star Wars”).  In the week of the PRC‘s intimidating missile firings near key Taiwanese seaports just before the island’s 1996 presidential election, the U.S. pressured Japan into signing onto its blueprint-stage theater missile defense (TMD) system, which is no more technically feasible than knocking down one bullet with another bullet – and which would almost surely catalyze the kind of dangerous global nuclear arms race that the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 has heretofore helped restrain.5

A pattern of increasingly reckless and high-handed behavior on the part of the self-styled “lone superpower” seem to emerge in the late 1990s with the shocking and poorly justified 1998 U.S. missile attacks on a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, along with the mujahideen campsite in Afghanistan.6 And to the alarm of America’s allies, and even the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1999 the U.S. Senate cavalierly rejected the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, in spite of assurances from the Pentagon that ongoing advanced computer simulations of nuclear explosions are wholly adequate tests of the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s readiness. This hawkish move could perhaps be seen as an encore to President Bill Clinton’s caving into the rigid Pentagon demand that the U.S. refuse to sign the 1997 international covenant outlawing landmines, unless a special exception were made for the Korean peninsula; the international community could obviously not permit any signatory to attach such territorial escape clauses, and the U.S. thereby refused to sign.7

Taking a cue from historian Paul Kennedy’s concept of “imperial overstretch,” the East Asian policy expert Chalmers Johnson has penned a pungent and controversial critique of what he sees as the “imperial” hubris of overly rigid U.S. policies towards East and Southeast Asia even a decade after the end of the Cold War: Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire.8 “Blowback” is an old CIA term that refers to negative unintended consequences, especially in a military or intelligence operation, that somehow explode backwards in the very direction of the “sleuths” who can talk to the scheme in the first place.9 Unlike the fringe of neo-Marxist academics who pen predictable and one-sided jeremiads against the U.S. “imperialism” and “hegemony” and trendy academic journals like Social Text, Johnson’s critique is quite levelheaded and informed by a wide range of source materials, including documents in Japanese and Chinese.

Although Johnson is understandably critical of the recent triumphalist rhetoric that dubs the US “the lone superpower” and “the indispensable nation,“ he is careful to voice measured praise for U.S. policy towards Europe, and seems favorably disposed to the leading role the U.S. has played in NATO for five decades.10 Nor is Johnson on a crusade to denounce various past American imperialist activities in Latin America, or the Philippines – he acknowledges that the US has in fact reversed many of its past interventionalists policies there.

Johnson goes on to admit that terms like “hegemony,“ “empire,“ and “imperialism” have “often been used as epithets or fighting words,” and carry overtones of racism and Marxist-Leninist connotations of callous economic exploitation. Johnson insists that he is not speaking of “empire“ in this traditional ideological sense, but rather to reflect modern-day attempts by both the USSR and the U.S. to impose their “social systems“ on “satellite regimes“ within their spheres of influence.11 To contrast these two spheres of influence, Johnson claims that all seven of the former Soviet Union’s satellites were in Eastern Europe: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania.12 On the other hand, he places all of America’s “satellites“ in East and Southeast Asia, including present or past regimes in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.13 Although many scholars would have reservations about the inclusion or exclusion of certain countries in Johnson’s list of “satellites” of the two great military powers of the latter half of the twentieth century, his warnings about what Orville Schell has aptly called American “global overreach“ are well founded and worthy of serious consideration.

In chapters on Okinawa, South Korea, North Korea, China, and Japan, Johnson attempts to substantiate his argument that America’s “imperial politics“ in Asia mostly takes place “below the sidelines of the American public…within the military and intelligence communities,” and thus should be characterized as “stealth imperialism.”14 Johnson charges that the imperialist legacy of extraterritoriality was behind the three-week delay between the time the Okinawa police filed a warrant for the arrest of three U.S. servicemen who had abducted and brutally raped a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl on September 4, 1995 and the time that the American military authorities finally handed over the three suspects to the local police on September 29.15 While there is some cogency in Johnson’s interpretation, it would be more accurate to invoke former Senator J. William Fulbright’s critique of “the arrogance of power,” which, in this case, has led the U.S. military to maintain its tactic conquerors’ prerogatives in Okinawa far too long.

The agreements between the U.S. and Japanese government should have been adjusted long ago to stipulate that U.S. service personnel who are served an arrest warrant for alleged criminal violations not directly related to their military duties should be handed over without delay to the local police and prosecuted by the local authorities. Such measures as these, along with a gradual but significant downsizing of U.S. forces in Okinawa, in line with the end of the Soviet threat, would likely receive a better hearing from the U.S. government than Johnson’s charges of “colonization” and his call for total and rapid U.S. withdrawal from Okinawa. After all, American military strategy for defending South Korea against a possible North Korean invasion is predicated upon rapidly reinforcing the relatively small contingent of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, with troops stationed in Okinawa.

To Johnson’s credit, he adroitly summarizes a number of reasons for the Okinawans’ widespread dismay with gobaken-sama (Honorable watchdog), the tens of thousands of American troops on dozens of U.S. military installations on the island: the firing of shells containing uranium-238 at local artillery ranges, increase crime, pollution, jet noise, worsened road congestion, the U.S. occupation of choice island real estate, and the lack of local government revenue from the tax exempt American bases.16 In the face of a strong desire in both Tokyo and Washington to maintain the status quo in Okinawa, it is understandable that Johnson has resorted to rather militant phraseology like “colonization” and “imperialism”; the major problem is that many American government insiders and mainstream reviewers of Johnson’s book will summarily reject his arguments on the basis of such fighting words, instead of pondering his considered analysis of U.S. global overreach.17 He is on sounder ground when criticizing various hypocritical, ill-informed, or myopic aspects of the U.S. policy in Okinawa and elsewhere in East Asia; his exasperation over the dearth of Asianists in high-level positions in the National Security Council, and other crucial U.S. foreign policy and intelligence organizations is particularly worthy of note.

Johnson’s chapters on China also contain much contrarian wisdom. He astutely points out that U.S. leanings toward adopting theater missile defense and extending its supposed “umbrella“ to Taiwan represent a greater danger to maintaining the near-term status quo in Taiwan and its long-term prospects for unification with a presumably less authoritarian China of the future.18 Like many Chinese dissidents and scholars of East Asian human rights, Johnson dares to address the issue of Tibetan statehood in a fair and historically informed manner, in contrast with “sinophiles at many foreign academic institutions and ministries of foreign affairs, [who] continue to advise their political leaders that Tibet has always been a part of China, which is simply not so.”19

Unfortunately, a problem arises when Johnson criticizes the PRC‘s “imperium over Tibet,“ including its “openly racist policy of state-sponsored Chinese emigration” to Tibet and the forced sinification of “what is left of the Tibetan people.”20 Decades of PRC propaganda and nationalistic scholarship have defined “imperialism“ and “racism” as only something the other nations have done to China, never the other way around – the Chinese military invasions and occupation of Tibet in the 1950s and its military clashes with Vietnam in 1974, 1979, and 1988 seem practically immune to the charges of “imperialism,” especially within China. Establishment scholars and policy makers in China would be even more inclined than their American counterparts to dismiss such charges of “imperialism“ out of hand, rather than to re-examine the assumptions behind some of their more hawkish or harsh policies towards certain minorities or specific foreign governments. The substitution of more precise and ideologically neutral terms, like “great power domination“ and “secretive policy formation and implementation” for loaded fighting words like “imperialism“ and “hegemony” would enable an informed critique of great-power maneuverings in East Asia, like Johnson’s to gain the broader hearing that it deserves.

Instructors of undergraduate and high school courses dealing with modern East or Southeast Asian history or international relations will find Blowback a readable and well-argued contrarian perspective on U.S. policy towards this region. Johnson would be a good foil for major mainstream scholarly introductions to security issues in foreign relations between Japan and the U.S. (such as by Carroll Gluck) as well as between China and the U.S. (as in David Shambaugh).21

Instructors need not assign all or even most of Blowback, for the majority of Johnson‘s chapters originated as journal articles, and thus can be profitably assigned and read in isolation, much like the numerous individual chapters in important anthologies, like Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching (co-edited by Gluck) and The China Reader: The Reform Era (co-edited by Shambaugh). An area specialist might limit the reading assignments to Johnson‘s chapters about either Korea or Japan, while the world historian exploring potential sources of global conflict in the twenty-first century might assign most or all of the book, in order to contrast Blowback’s criticism of America’s strong-arming its Western Pacific clients with the critique of rising PRC ultra-nationalism in Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro’s The Coming Conflict with China.22 In any case, Blowback is certain to provoke lively classroom discussion and challenge students to re-examine a number of common American assumptions about security imperatives in the Western Pacific region.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday