The vanishing ally

Candidate Clinton has penned her contribution on foreign policy for the ongoing feature in Foreign Affairs on the foreign policies of the major presidential contenders.

I haven’t found much of value in the contributions thus far, and Senator Clinton’s is no exception. Her world view essentially emphasizes “power and principle.” I’m not entirely clear how that differs from, say, Francis Fukuyama’s “realistic Wilsonianism” — which perhaps says more about the narrowing of American foreign policy options in the waning months of the Bush administration than it does about Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy perspective.

But Tokyo is paying close attention, because Mrs. Clinton writes, “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.” That may be disconcerting for Japan, used to hearing US officials insist on the importance of the US-Japan relationship, but it also happens to be true. The Japanese government should be more concerned that Japan receives even less attention than India, in a section purportedly about America’s alliances. Note that India isn’t an official ally — and is struggling over whether to accept the Bush administration’s gift to India that offers civilian nuclear cooperation, potentially a kind of down payment on a more formalized partnership.

Indeed, in foreign policy statements like this, Japan increasingly appears simply as one ally among many, a tool in the US foreign policy toolbox that no longer merits special attention. This is a shame, because the US-Japan relationship could be an essential part of the US approach to China, helping smooth China’s ascension to regional and global leadership (and hold China accountable). Senator Clinton hints at this — she mentions cooperation on clean energy — but no policymaker or presidential candidate has discussed a Sino-US-Japanese triangle.

Japan, it seems, will have to demonstrate its value to the next administration, at least if the Democrats win.

How did it come to this? Some may be tempted to blame Japan, particularly following the bizarre spectacle that is the feud over the MSDF refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. But the US — and the Bush administration — are far from blameless. For all the talk about deepening alliance cooperation, it is clear that the purpose of deeper security cooperation has been to make Japan better able to serve Washington. As Ambassador Schieffer’s response to DPJ opposition to the refueling mission shows, the Bush administration has expected Japan to follow along quietly; under Messrs. Koizumi and Abe, Washington wasn’t disappointed.

The implication of Senator Clinton’s essay is that this kind of relationship, in which Japan is seen and not heard, is unsustainable and of not particular value to the US. Henceforth, for Japan to merit special attention from Washington it will, ironically, have to find its voice and learn to act more independently of the US. It will have to demonstrate its ability to undertake political initiatives independent of and even (occasionally) in opposition to the US. Meanwhile, Japan must have a serious discussion on security policy, determining just how dependent Japan should be on the US for its security as the US reconfigures its presence and just how prepared Japan is to contribute its forces abroad, if ever. Any discussion on security policy must be accompanied by a discussion on how Japan can pay for it all — no small matter.

The next administration can play a role in this discussion, not least by changing the tone: no more bullying, no more demanding. Instead, Washington and Tokyo urgently need to discuss the political ends of the alliance, the “constitution” of the alliance in the post-9/11 era. What are the ends to which the US expects Japan to contribute with the JSDF, and to what ends is Japan willing and able to contribute? The gap between the two visions must be openly acknowledged, and shrunk through negotiation as much as possible — but it is in that gap that Japan’s future as a political power in East Asia lies, the role to be played outside the formal bounds of the alliance. The more the allies acknowledge that their interests diverge, the more space for Japan to articulate its own interests and carve out its own leadership role in East Asia.

Japan, of course, has often been more than pleased to free ride, because while the US has occasionally tried to cajole Japan to do more, it has never tried very hard or for very long. Demanding that Japan be independent — forcing Japan to be free, as it were — and treating Japan as an equal partner in the alliance (whatever the actual disparities) may be the only way to make Japan think about political ends and means and the role of the alliance in its foreign policy, and raise its value to the US as an ally.

One thought on “The vanishing ally

  1. Anonymous

    Are you saying that Japan must make itself more useful to the US in order to retain its attention and to prevent the US from going over its head into a possible alliance with China? This seems rather farfetched currently and in any forseeable future that I can envision. Something like this did happen when Nixon went to China and met with Mao and Chou En Lai. At the time, Japan was not consulted or notified, since Kissinger conducted all negotiations in secret. It took a year or two for prime minister Tanaka Kakuei to recover from the shock and seek reconciliation with China on his own terms. It is unlikely that a similar kind of revolution in relations will occur again. Perhaps the way Japan handles the recent shock of not being consulted over the recent decision to take N Korea off the State Dept terrorist list will be instructive as to how Japan would react to being ignored in important decisions being made on the power balance in Asia in the future. It would be wise for a middling power like Japan not to overreact to slights or even more serious breaches of protocol that are likely to come under a less respectful Democratic administration. This is one reason why I would like to see Bill Richardson become president instead of Hillary Clinton – he has diplomatic experience in handling difficult foreign policy negotiations and is conditioned not to ignore nuanced diplomatic approaches.


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