At an earlier point in my intellectual development, I might have praised Japan’s pushing for an organization of Asian democracies, with a significance leadership role for Japan. But at this point, this gesture is futile, and as a concept it might be shorter-lived than Mr. Abe’s government.
First, on a personal level, I have a problem with Mr. Abe’s calling for an organization of democracies when it is clear from his book (and his actions over the past month) that he has only a passing acquaintance with the meaning of a democratic society. As seems to be his wont, Mr. Abe is once again trying to play Winston Churchill. (As much as I admire Mr. Churchill, I sort of hope someone will write a new, devastatingly revisionist account of Churchill that will diminish his reputation for a while so that the moral midgets governing democracies today will stop trying to appeal to his legacy.) It is more than a little pathetic for Mr. Abe, criticized at home even by his own party for failing to acknowledge the clear message sent by the people last month, to stand at the rostrum in New Delhi and hold forth about the virtues of democracy and the need for democracies to cooperate.
Second, as I wrote on Wednesday, I’m not exactly clear on how Japan or any other country would lead such an organization, because US leadership may not be forthcoming thanks to the black hole that is Iraq (more on this later).
Third, whether on a regional or a global scale, an organization of democracies suffers from the simple problem that it is wholly unclear to me what a “democratic” foreign policy is. No democracy conducts a purely democratic foreign policy; realpolitik in some form or another is unavoidable. Had Mr. Bush been more sensitive to this, he would not be talking of himself as a frustrated dissident. What exactly will an organization of Asian democracies be able to achieve that the member states won’t be able to achieve within the other international organizations that dot the Asian landscape?
Fourth, what of China? Defenders of this idea might argue that it is a natural response to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Is the best response to China’s cooperation with the countries in its continental periphery really an organization of (maritime) democracies with a vaguely defined purpose that could rather easily take on the form of an anti-China military bloc? Will this community be strictly economic? If so, how can it exclude China, with which each democracy in the region has substantial ties? Will it be a security organization? If so, how will it avoid giving China the impression that it is being encircled?
Fifth, what of the US? Is the US in a position to commit the time and energy to make such an organization work? Washington is having a hard enough time cooperating with preexisting Asian organizations; there is little reason to believe that it will suddenly be able to dedicate substantial support to an organization that is redundant and/or dangerously provocative. Also, given that the environment in Washington of late has favored the “responsible stakeholder” approach to China, it seems that the Bush administration would be disinclined to go along with this at a time when it is trying to work with China on financial issues and the bilateral economic relationship, and North Korea. Now if Mr. Abe called for an organization without the US, that would be one thing, but calling for the US to be involved — borrowing US leadership to paper over the significant differences between Asian democracies (between Japan and South Korea, for example) — risks turning it into an anti-China bloc by another name.
At most, his scheme will result in yet another talking shop in the region to join the myriad already extant. The reality is that the region’s democracies have no alternative to working with China to manage the region, and no regional power should harbor illusions to the contrary. Is there a substantive issue in the region that can be solved without China’s involvement? All effort should go to making preexisting arrangements more effective and binding upon China, not excluding it from regional leadership and forcing it to make its own regional organizations and thus play by its own rules. If the US, Japan, and others want China to play by the rules, they have to let China participate in the rule-making process.
We should not, of course, forget the role played by Mr. Abe’s domestic circumstances in producing this proposal, because Mr. Abe undoubtedly believes that appearing statesmanlike on foreign stages makes him appear to be a better leader back home. Or it could simply be that Mr. Abe likes being treated as an honored guest by foreign legislatures, instead of facing the hostile legislature waiting back home.
Whatever the case may be, I do not expect that we will hear much more of Mr. Abe’s “broader Asia” democratic partnership after he returns home for his ongoing lesson in democracy.