Trump’s “Peace through Strength” and the Japan-U.S. Alliance Revisited

On January 20, 2021, Joseph Biden is scheduled to assume the next U.S. President succeeding Donald Trump who had taken presidential leadership since January 20, 2017. It has been observed that foreign and security policy under the Biden administration vis-à-vis Japan may be more predictable unlike the case of President Trump who demanded Japan increase the amount of the host-nation support for the U.S. troops in Japan while threatening to withdraw the U.S. Forces from Japan, and even considered the termination of the Japan-U.S. military alliance. However, crystal-gazing of Biden’s strategy and diplomacy is not an easy task at this stage, and therefore, it is meaningful to revisit the foreign and security strategy of the Trump administration.

In investigating the strategy of a country in a systematic manner, it is important to employ a certain analytical framework. Edward Luttwak, a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who served as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, proposed “five levels” of strategy in his book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. The five levels of strategy are: 1) grand strategy, 2) theater strategy, 3) operational, 4) tactical, and 5) technical. By applying Luttwak’s five levels of strategy, this opinion essay re-examines the security strategy of the United States under the Donald Trump administration and considers its implications for the Japan-U.S. military alliance under the upcoming Biden administration.

The Grand Strategy

First, as a “grand strategy,” it is fair to argue that President Donald Trump set forth “peace through strength” strategy as a foreign and security policy on the basis of his “America First” doctrine, notwithstanding the domestic criticism pointing out the lack of a grand strategy under the Trump administration.

The strategy of the Trump administration is similar to that of the Ronald Reagan administration in the Cold War, as opposed to that of the Barack Obama administration. In concrete terms, Trump insisted that the U.S. government should increase its military budget to deal with international terrorism. In addition, Trump ordered to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea against an airbase of the Syrian Air Force in April 2017, and carried out a series of missile strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities in April 2018, since the Syrian government had reportedly utilized chemical weapons against its civilians. Trump, moreover, terminated Obama’s strategic patience policy vis-à-vis North Korea, and deployed a set of aircraft carriers, such as supercarrier Carl Vinson, Ronald Reagan, and Nimitz to the South China Sea.

The Theater Strategy 

Second, from a perspective of regional and “theater strategy,” it can be observed that the Trump administration abandoned the rebalance strategy or strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region facilitated by the Obama administration, and adopted the so-called free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, which was originally proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2016. The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) formulated under the Trump administration in December 2017, recognized China as a “geopolitical rival” and decided to reinforce its military commitments to the Indo-Pacific region. In May 2018, the Trump administration renamed the U.S. Pacific Command as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command “in recognition of the increasing connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

The Operational Level

Third, the Trump administration has strengthened its military activities on the “operational level.” Trump has reinforced maritime military operations, especially freedom of navigation (FON) operations as a measure against Chinese maritime expansionism in the South China Sea. The U.S. Department of Defense once proposed the controversial joint air sea battle (ASB) concept as a military strategy, but the ASB could be regarded as a military “operation” rather than strategy. Rather than the ASB concept, the Trump government decided to prioritize the implementation of the FON in order to achieve the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy at the operational level. For Japan, the FON in the Japan-U.S. alliance system has strategic significance for its defense and territorial integration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

The Tactical Level

Fourth, Trump strengthened military alliances and strategic alignments with its allies and partner states on the “tactical level.” Aegis Destroyers of the United States and Japan, for example, have shared tactical data links through military drills. Likewise, Trump invigorated security cooperation with Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, through Talisman Sabre improving the tactical level cooperation. Moreover, the U.S. Forces and Japanese Self-Defense Forces conducted a joint military drill – Iron Fist – in preparation for recapturing Japan’s remote islands in the event of an emergency. Furthermore, the United States conducted Pacific Vanguard, a cooperative military exercise with Australia, Japan, and South Korea in the waters off the coast of Guam. These joint military drills enhanced the military cooperation and sent strategic messages to geopolitical rivals. Trump strengthened these kind of security alignments with Indo-Pacific partner countries on the tactical levels.

The Technical Level

Fifth, the Trump administration has continued prioritizing its defense technologies in line with the “third offset strategy.” The third offset strategy facilitated by the Pentagon aims to reinforce its military weaknesses by making the best of its military strengths on the “technical level” or “technological level,” especially application of artificial intelligence (IA) to military technology including semi-autonomous weapons systems. The term, third offset, was not specifically mentioned in the 2017 NSS, but the Trump administration invested in new military technologies (space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum) which are all related to the third offset strategy. For this reason, Japan has improved and will continue its military cooperation with the United States on technical/technological levels including space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic domains, in particular.

Trump has strengthened the U.S. military capabilities under the peace through strength strategy on every level of its strategy in cooperation with its allies and partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Then, what will happen to the U.S strategy of President Joseph Biden? The Indo-Pacific strategy is likely to remain because “Trump and Biden hold virtually indistinguishable positions on the Indo-Pacific.” Although Biden attempts to tweak Trump’s FOIP strategy as “secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific strategy, “reversing Trump’s regional strategy now would be confusing and wasteful.” From a Japanese perspective, Biden is expected to maintain the conventional U.S. strategy, such as application of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and to invigorate Japan-U.S. relations in general in the post Covid-19 world.