Fortunately MIT’s Richard Samuels, in his latest book Securing Japan, provides a more balanced look at Japan’s changing security posture. Samuels studiously avoids the extremes of the debate, offering instead a level-headed scholarly discussion of the dynamics of Japanese security policy both at present and since the Meiji Restoration. Unlike Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising, however, which is largely a history of Japanese foreign policy change, Samuels spends at least as much time discussing where Japan is going as where it has been.
His conclusion is that the security policy consensus — the successor of the Yoshida Doctrine — that will emerge from the contemporary debate will not be the result of the revisionists simply imposing their will on the Japanese people. Rather, it will be the result of a compromise (what Samuels calls a “Goldilocks consensus”) that strikes a balance between the alliance with the US and economic integration in Asia and a constructive relationship with China, while lifting some of the limits on Japan’s armed forces, a process that Samuels shows is well underway.
The new Japan, Samuels argues, will look more like Canada or Germany, a country reluctant to use force aggressively but willing to play an armed role in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. As a result of living in a more dangerous neighborhood, the JSDF’s mission profile will, of course, differ somewhat from other US allies, in that it will have to monitor activities in the air and seas around Japan and repel intruders when necessary, as Japan’s Coast Guard is already doing (documented at length by Samuels). But the end result will be a looser US-Japan alliance — in which Japan might occasionally say no — and a greater focus on Asia by Japan, both as a source of security threats and economic opportunities.
This would be, I think, a positive outcome for Japan (and the US).
I would like to make note of a couple more things about this book. First, as in previous books and articles, Samuels shows his first-class skills as a political “taxonomist.” For those confused about the differing schools of thought in the contemporary Japanese debate, Samuels deftly explains the differences and traces their roots back to the late nineteenth century.
Second, for my part I find his theoretical approach appealing. Samuels is a self-described “realist,” but he is not a structural realist. As he demonstrated clearly in Machiavelli’s Children (discussed in this post), leaders matter — and domestic politics matter. National interests and foreign policies are not simply determined by the international system. They are the result of a complex, messy interaction between the international system and domestic political systems, with politicians and bureaucrats playing a mediating role, trying to advance their personal interests and their visions of the nation’s interests simultaneously. The result is that policy changes do not always have obvious international antecedents. There are often lags, as states struggle to interpret changes in the international environment.
The result is that we now have a comprehensive guide to how Japan has interpreted recent international changes and changed its domestic institutions so to be better able to interpret international signals, a guide that will also be useful in putting events like Japan’s BMD test in perspective.