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On US Military Strategy: Lessons from the Meiji Era

The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War

By Sarah Paine

Cambridge University Press (2017)

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © 2007
Japanese soldiers near Chemulpo Bay during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.

American grand and operational strategy has been in flux since the end of the Cold War. The unipolar world constantly shifts U.S. priorities and has made warfighting particularly difficult. Professor Sarah Paine, of the U.S. Naval War College, brings her expertise in East Asian history on what makes warfare succeed and why nations fight in The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. U.S. military leaders can apply lessons from Meiji-era history and attempt to prevent future quagmires by understanding Paine’s first thesis arguing the necessity of speed and objectivity in warfare. Her second thesis, however, on the nature of maritime powers suffers from comparative analysis against the modern United States. Particularly, binary assessments of powers’ continental or maritime legacy does not determine their grand strategy. Nonetheless, both theses apply to modern U.S. military strategy.

During the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Japan stumbled upon good fortune, a collapsing rival, and a relatively benign occupied populace. Speed and wartime objectives were the key aspects of Japan’s success in the conflict and are the forefront of Paine’s analyses throughout the Meiji-era. Her analysis of the Japanese war plan focuses on its rapid advancement and dogmatic adherence to benchmarks. By deploying and advancing to Manchuria in short order, Japan fulfilled its preordained objectives and moved to end the conflict upon operational victory.

Ten years later in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan exercised the same honed strategy. Through planning, diplomacy, and decisive battles, Japan defeated Russia in Manchuria, but this time by an unnoticed, miniscule margin.

Her assessment of successful Meiji-era Japanese war policy applies to modern conflict. The War in Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. Matched with the Iraq War and subsequent involvement in the region, both conflicts continue to be a drain on the U.S. budget. More so, in 2010 Former Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen stated, “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” The debt as of that date is set to double within the next several years. The length and cost breaks Paine’s requirement of rapid conclusion to war. Additionally, objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan have been regularly changed and, arguably, ill-defined to meet capabilities instead of intentions. Victory is therefore difficult to attain.

Historically, Japan too lost sight of speed and objectivity in war. This led to Paine’s second thesis arguing the failures of a continental world order. As the economically dominate power in Asia after the Russo-Japanese War, Japan began exercising greater authority and lost its appreciation of maritime dominance which Paine argues is the correlation between great power hegemony and longevity. Japan began to transition to continental dominance as its presence on mainland Asia grew. Running up to the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1931-1941, many Meiji Restoration leaders died and were replaced with leaders adherent to Japanese military roots and the doctrines of Shogunate Japan. The government ignored diminishing financial and political capabilities throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War. Sheer strength outweighed good judgment and operational planning throughout the conflict. Obsession with more territory, greater glory, and continental ambition drove overextension and foreshadowed impending failure by mid-1942.

Paine argues continental powers ensure security through dominance over preferably unstable neighbors. Additionally, she argues continental powers perceive international affairs to be “a negative-sum global order [that] guarantees conflict” whereas maritime powers pursue a “positive-sum order in pursuit of economic growth which all members can share.” While free trade has certainly benefited the world throughout the 20th century, placing nations states into negative continental and positive maritime camps is arbitrary and lacks nuance. Indeed, free trade agreements are a relatively modern principle when compared to the millennia of great power politics. More so, free trade has been a hegemonic objective of the British Empire and United States over the last 150 years.

There is far too little data to assume maritime powers are intrinsically altruistic and more interested in peaceful, positive-sum economic orders. The United States is unarguably a maritime power given its reliance on trade and the physical barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific. Nonetheless, since the end of the Cold War, a short 26 years ago, the United States has engaged in armed conflicts or wars with more than a dozen nations. Although these interventions or invasions were arguably conducted with good intentions, the modern United States disputes Paine’s second thesis.

Professor Paine’s first thesis explores valuable lessons on wartime realities. World leaders would be wise to find value in her arguments for wartime speed and objectivity. Conversely, however, her second thesis stumbles to broad, binary arguments and subsequently fails to find equal application. Continental powers can be as peaceful as maritime ones—the Congress of Vienna is excellent proof. Even during Japan’s period of maritime world order adherence, it instigated two wars. British and American history, exemplars of defending the maritime world order, are rife with conflict. Even though maritime powers may remain aggressive, Paine still has much to offer their strategy.


David Stoffey

David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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1 Comment

  1. Muhammad Ahsan Ullah on September 25, 2017 at 1:06 am

    What the US is doing a mistake in Afghanistan is sidelining Iran and the total shia population at any of it’s efforts. Israel is the main hindrance here.This country may put US on the Verge of bankruptcy by instigating a lot of baseless fears.Sunni Arab monarchs should be discared and Israeli foreign policy should be realistic.

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