President Obama visits Japan next week while Vice President Joe Biden heads to Ukraine. Both countries urgently seek American help to fend off a bigger neighbor from taking their land. Russia has already snatched Crimea from Ukraine and could take more. China, meanwhile, keeps sending ships and planes around Japan’s Senkaku Islands, claiming ownership and risking a confrontation.
Yet during these visits, more will be at stake for Japan and Ukraine than simply US aid in protecting the integrity of their territory.
Yes, the United States has the military means to help each country. By treaty, it would be obligated to defend Japan. But the US is also being courted for its leadership in various alliances, such as NATO and the Group of Seven (G7), which are dedicated to such universal ideals as the peaceful settlement of disputes and individual liberty.
When like-minded countries link arms to support these values, they can have as much strength as military arms. That was true during World War II and the cold war, when “the West” set up values-based alliances and bodies, and it remains true today in dealing with an expansionist Russia and China.
The hard power of the US military or NATO remains essential. But with the destructive power of modern warfare, nations must also lean on the soft power of alliances built on shared values. That includes inviting more countries into those alliances. In fact, next week’s trips by the two US leaders should not only deal with helping Japan and Ukraine bolster their security but also offer ways to open the door for Russia and China to someday join many of these alliances.
After the cold war, Russia was given limited partnership with the G7 and NATO. But in annexing Crimea, its ties to both bodies have been effectively suspended. China, too, has enjoyed membership in several Asia-wide bodies. But its neighbors are now forming military alliances in opposition to China’s aggressive territorial claims. And Beijing is not yet included in talks to form a new regional trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The crisis in Ukraine began last fall because the country sought to join the 28-nation European Union. That effort didn’t suit President Vladimir Putin’s design to create a political union out of former Soviet states. His plan, however, is failing. It is not rooted in universal values, such as equality between nations, but rather Russia’s interest in lining up compliant buffer states along its border. Ukraine was to be the largest compliant state.
Alliances built on shared ideals are stronger than those based on narrow national interests. One reason for the start of World War I was that Europe’s alliances were too weak and based on preserving or expanding empires. After World War II, the US and its allies helped design broad international institutions, as well as NATO and other military alliances. They were often meant to sublimate the interests of nation-states into collective, higher goals.
In the wake of the Chinese and Russian aggression, more nations are firming up their alliances, not just as a defensive move but to assert common values in a broad front. Ukraine deserves to be on track to join the EU someday. And Japan can firm up its trade and security ties with the US. When nations rise above themselves for the sake of something grander, it is a force to be reckoned with.