For Abe, it’s still February 2003

Gordan Chang, the anti-China polemicist writing at Commentary‘s Contentions blog, has a very different take than I on Mr. Abe’s dangerously irresponsible community of Asian democracies.

Abe’s proposal, Chang thinks, is simply grand: “Is Tokyo becoming the leading proponent of a free world? Since July of last year, Japan, among the democracies ringing the Pacific Ocean, has adopted the most resolute foreign policy positions on Asia. For instance, the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs were unsatisfactory, but they would have been weaker still if Tokyo had not persuaded Washington to adopt a stiffer attitude. Now, Abe is pushing a grand coalition that Washington should have proposed.”

Abe is “the most interesting leader in the free world.”

To Chang, the Bush administration has been cowardly, sucking up to China and Russia in an effort to, I don’t know, keep the peace. Instead it seems that the US should be needling those enemies, ensuring that they have even less interest in maintaining some semblance of order in the region, and bravo to Shinzo for doing what Washington has lacked the courage to do.

For Chang — and his admirer Ampontan, it seems — it is still early 2003 and the US and allies can do anything they please when it comes to promoting the spread of democracy abroad. Remember what President Bush said at the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003:

Much is asked of America in this year 2003. The work ahead is demanding. It will be difficult to help freedom take hold in a country that has known three decades of dictatorship, secret police, internal divisions, and war. It will be difficult to cultivate liberty and peace in the Middle East, after so many generations of strife. Yet, the security of our nation and the hope of millions depend on us, and Americans do not turn away from duties because they are hard. We have met great tests in other times, and we will meet the tests of our time.

We go forward with confidence, because we trust in the power of human freedom to change lives and nations. By the resolve and purpose of America, and of our friends and allies, we will make this an age of progress and liberty. Free people will set the course of history, and free people will keep the peace of the world.

Democracy promotion is a luxury from a more carefree age. After four years of learning just how limited American power is as a transformative force, returning to such rhetoric is dangerously naive. Mr. Bush may want to, but with the shift in the balance of power in his administration — at least as far as Asia policy is concerned — the US is less apt to rely on the heady rhetoric of liberty and democracy for all in East Asia. The US has more urgent interests at stake.

Mr. Abe, however, never got the memo about scaling back the democracy rhetoric, outlining how too much rhetoric coupled with too little action (or even worse, wholly counterproductive action) actually diminishes a country’s influence and ultimately its security.

The (most interesting) leader of the free world? More like the most dangerously naive leader in the free world. At a time when the shifting international environment — especially in Asia — demands nimble foxes, Mr. Abe is a stubborn hedgehog, a relic from a time when the developed democracies thought they could do whatever they wanted without having to sully themselves in dealings with unsavory regimes.

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