What’s normal?

William Gibson (previously discussed here) gave an interview to the science fiction site io9 recently in which he discussed the politics of his latest book, Spook Country.

One comment in particular caught my eye. Asked about Canada, his adopted home since fleeing the US to escape the draft, he said:

Canada is set up to run on steady immigration. It feels like a twenty first century country to me because it’s not interested in power. It negotiates and does business. It gets along with other countries. The power part is very nineteenth century. 99 percent of ideology we have today is very nineteenth century. The twentieth century was about technology, and the nineteenth was ideology.

This got me thinking about Japan’s “normal nation-ists.” While Gibson’s characterization is a bit too simple — ideology obviously “bled” into the twentieth century, technology had as transformative an impact on the nineteenth as the twentieth — a “normal” nation in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries is not the same as a normal nation in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries.

A normal nation in the late nineteenth century, the salad days of the nation-state, was obsessed with national power, constantly looking to enhance its own power and sizing itself up against other nation-states. It shaped its domestic institutions to enable it to draw on the wealth and bodies of its citizens to build up a modern army and navy and conquered weaker nations for reasons of wealth and honor (and to compete with others, of course). War was the great proving ground of the nation. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote in The Strenuous Life, “If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world.”

In their thinking about war and Japanese society in the twenty-first century, Japan’s conservatives — the “normal nation-ists” — still see the world through these eyes. To be a normal nation is to compete with other nations, to not “shrink from the hard contests.” This is why so many of them want, as Abe Shinzo said, to leave the postwar system behind. In their eyes the postwar system is abnormal, as it led Japan to opt out of the contest for power. It weakened the resolve of the Japanese people for competition internationally. (At least military competition, the only competition that matters; to be a merchant nation, to exert power through money is ignoble, hence the shame of so many Japanese over the country’s response to the Gulf crisis in 1990.)

Japan as it exists today is a normal nation. It is peaceful, has abstained from intervention in the internal politics of other countries, and is non-nuclear. It is a signatory to major international treaties and an enthusiastic participant in international regimes. This is normal behavior for a country in the twenty-first century. Japanese, like Europeans, are from Venus (in Robert Kagan’s formulation), but Venusian behavior is increasingly normal, even in East Asia, which, despite the persistence of dangerous flashpoints and despite the stirrings of an arms race, is still remarkably peaceful.

Accordingly, the program pushed by the conservatives is the road of an abnormal nation. Perhaps because they take the United States as their model, they assume that US behavior is normal. It isn’t. (MTC implies this in this post.) Martial America is almost unique in its adherence to nineteenth-century norms of behavior. American power has played a positive role in supporting international order — there is no denying that. But the motive power behind it is straight out of the nineteenth century, leading to abnormal behavior like the invasion of Iraq. (That the US launched the invasion despite the opposition of much of the world would suggest that the war was “abnormal,” i.e. in contravention to a prevailing norm against aggressive, preventive war.)

So it is a misnomer to describe the revisionist advocates of a more robust Japan free of constraints on the use of force as advocates of a normal nation. Prime Minister Fukuda’s emphasis on, in MTC’s words, “contributing to world security through leadership on disease control, global warming, combatting poverty” looks increasingly like the foreign policy of a normal nation in the twenty-first century. It is also a mistake to describe them as nationalists. Nationalism need not be associated with military power, although nineteenth-century nationalism is. Why can’t a twenty-first century nation be proud of more pacific achievements, whether domestic (a society with a low crime rate or high literacy) or international (a commitment to creating a more peaceful, orderly world)? The revisionists do not have a monopoly on pride in their country. Defenders of Japan’s postwar system have plenty of which to be proud.

7 thoughts on “What’s normal?

  1. Ozymandias

    \”to exert power through money is ignoble\”I always thougt Japan was the perfect exemple of the illusion that money gives you power.I don\’t know if it\’s ignoble but if we look at the EU or Japan\’s experience, it certainly look ineffective.Despite all the money invested, what is the influence of the EU on the palestinians and the Israeli?Zero.And in Asia, what did japan get for all the aid given to it\’s neighbours?Not much.It is still regarded with suspicion by its neighbours.


  2. Although I agree that Japan\’s role in the world has been largely positive, I see where the conservatives are coming from when they want a \”normal nation.\” Their country is home to 50,000 foreign soldiers, while their own government is constitutionally prohibited from building an effective military of its own. Moreover, that constitution was written not by any citizen of their own country, but by people from that same foreign nation that maintains the 50,000 troops. So maybe Japanese conservatives just don\’t want to live in an occupied nation anymore. They want independence for their nation – which means military as well as political independence. I kind of sympathize with that.


  3. Anonymous

    Japan is basically \”The Lebannon of East Asia\”.She can\’t make it\’s own decision and it\’s fragile political structure can only agree to disagree and has been constantly the arena of political football of surrounding nations.The foreign troops station in the name of the protection,but in reality using our soil for their own strategic agenda.And anyone who challenge such regime gets politically sucked.


  4. Anonymous

    The view that Japan is today a victim of US occupation and hegemony over its own political power stands in sharp contrast to the view in the US that Japan is not contributing its share to its own security and is getting a free ride from the US security shield. Ross Perot made an issue of this during the 1992 campaign but it still has widespread support though rarely mentioned in the press today. I lean towards Tobias Harris\’s view in this article that Japan can make the most of this relationship by (continuing) to pursue a peaceful non-hegemonic path in world affairs. This need not become a totally uninvolved path. Japan can use its wealth and advanced technical capabilities to benefit other nations in non-military areas. The idea that other nations can only respect Japan through its military muscle is indeed 19th centuryesque ideology as Tobias claims. Japan can forge a new path for the 21st century which is more constructive and fraternal rather than aggressive and arrogant to gain the respect of other nations.


  5. Anonymous

    \”Japan can forge a new path for the 21st century which is more constructive and fraternal rather than aggressive and arrogant to gain the respect of other nations.\”Not only \”can\”but that\’s what Japan has been doing from mid 20th century.And we are surrounded by aggressice and arrogant neighbors.Gaining respect shouldn\’t be on the top list of the nation.The survival should be.


  6. Anonymous,Precisely — and yet some Japanese politicians would prefer to charter a new, more belligerent course that \”abandons\” the postwar legacy.\”Aggressive and arrogant neighbors?\” I assume that\’s shorthand for China, and to a lesser extent the two Koreas. Why not just come out and say who you mean instead of hiding behind euphemisms? In any case, how has China been aggressive? (Neither defense modernization nor bellicose rhetoric count.) The reality is that China has been extremely cooperative in settling border disputes with its neighbors and has actually abjured from settling conflict by using force.\”An analysis by M. Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005 showed that of the sixteen land-frontier disputes China has had with its neighbors since 1949, it has attempted compromises in all of them and has succeeded in resolving fourteen: with Burma, Nepal, North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia (three disputes), Laos, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The two unresolved disputes are one with Bhutan, and the dispute already outlined with India.\” — Bill Emmott, Rivals, p. 262As for arrogance, well, arrogance seems to be a typical quality of rising powers, for better or worse.Meanwhile, yes, survival is the top priority of states, but beyond survival there is a long list of options for state priorities. Do you honestly believe that Japan is in grave peril as a nation? Not only does Japan enjoy a security guarantee from the US, not only does Japan possess one of the most capable militaries in the world, but there is a prevailing norm against interstate war that is not violated lightly. (For evidence of this norm, look at the global protests that greeted the US war in Iraq, which remains an exception that proves the rule, or, in this case, the norm.) Japan has the luxury of thinking beyond mere survival and reflecting how best to enhance its influence. It does not need to live in a permanent defensive crouch.I have no tolerance for unsubstantiated fearmongering.


Leave a Reply to Ozymandias Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s