Obama’s Asia team takes shape

The Japanese establishment is undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief following the announcement of the Obama administration’s prospective Asia policy team, including the ambassador to Japan.

Not surprisingly, Kurt Campbell, reportedly close to Hillary Clinton, will succeed Christopher Hill as the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. Marine General Wallace Gregson (ret.), who retired as the commander of US Marines in the Pacific, will succeed James Shinn for Asia affairs at the Pentagon. Jeffrey Bader, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution and a foreign policy adviser for the Obama campaign, will be senior director for Asia at the National Security Council. And in perhaps the most noteworthy pick, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye will head to Tokyo to serve as ambassador.

Worried Japanese elites can take comfort in this lineup. Change, it seems, is for matters other than Asia policy.

While some press reports have called attention to Professor Nye’s ideas about soft power, it is worth asking whether the Joseph Nye being sent to Tokyo is the “soft power” Joseph Nye or the Joseph Nye who was the architect of the 1996 version of the US-Japan alliance, the prime mover in the Democratic Party in the shift to remake the alliance into a more robust security partnership. Dr. Campbell, his deputy in the 1990s, may be an even more enthusiastic proponent of the Armitage-Nye vision of the alliance than Professor Nye himself. (Dr. Campbell and Michael Green, onetime colleagues at CSIS, have for a time been something of a bipartisan duo on the alliance.) As Dr. Campbell told me when I interviewed him for my master’s thesis (2006), “What we’ve had over the past five years is a high level of engagement between the US and Japan that is unprecedented: a high level of engagement on a set of strategic issues in terms of bases, out of area activities and the like that is truly unprecedented, and extraordinarily impressive and it will be hard to match in the future.”

So the Campbell-Nye team — with Professor Nye reporting to Dr. Campbell this time around — will undoubtedly reassure Japan’s elites that their voices will still be heard in Washington. General Gregson, meanwhile, as commander of Marines in Okinawa and then the Pacific as a whole, is intimately familiar with issues related to the realignment of US forces in Japan and will ensure active leadership on the issue from the Pentagon.

I wonder, however, whether this team will be capable of moving the alliance in the direction I think it should go. Both Professor Nye and Dr. Campbell may ultimately be too connected with the status quo to push for a dramatic departure from the Bush administration’s approach.

That said, I’m not completely without hope. I think even from Tokyo Professor Nye will be the central player in the debate over the alliance’s future. While he played a leading role in building the 1996 alliance, his views are far more subtle than the China hawks who have made use of the framework he developed in the mid-1990s. Professor Nye — with Robert Keohane a major proponent of the idea of mutual interdependence — argued that the alliance could not simply be about containing China, that while strengthening the alliance was part of the equation, the decisions made by the allies would influence the character of China’s rise. That is even more true today. As ambassador, Professor Nye could be instrumental in moving towards a bilateral approach to China that transcends security matters. He is trusted in Tokyo, and if he learns to listen more than his predecessor, his appointment could be a critical turning point for the alliance.

Given the likelihood that Professor Nye could be dealing with a DPJ-led government from early in his ambassadorship, I hope his first goal is building a new relationship with the leading opposition party. Jun Okumura suggests that the Obama administration will put pressure on the DPJ to change what he calls its “fantasy of a foreign and national security policy.” I think Okumura is being a bit unfair to the DPJ. I have criticized Ozawa Ichiro in the past for his loopy foreign policy ideas (see this post), but I also think that one can go too far in criticizing the DPJ based on the outlandish statements of one DPJ politician or another. Insofar as we can tell, a DPJ government’s foreign policy would involve a bit more assertiveness on the realignment question — the DPJ has indicated that it wants to revise the 2006 roadmap and the DPJ is reluctant to commit Japanese funds to Guam construction, certainly not without more assurances that Japanese money will be used properly — and greater focus on working with China and other Asian powers on regional cooperation. A DPJ-led government may be reluctant to commit the JSDF to combat missions abroad, suggesting a retreat from the globalization of the alliance during the “golden age.” But is this such a bad thing? Have Japan’s symbolic contributions abroad done anything more than provide cover for the Bush administration, while antagonizing segments of the Japanese public (as seen in Mr. Morita’s book)? The US needs to work on rebuilding the alliance so that it rests on more than a narrow partnership between Washington and Tokyo elites. Not acting imperious to the DPJ is a good way to start building the new partnership. (For more on the DPJ’s foreign policy, see this post.)

To sum up, I think there are reasons to hope that the Obama Asia team will introduce some change to an alliance badly in need of it. They are certainly familiar enough with Japanese concerns, but hopefully their familiarity will enable them to work forthrightly with Japanese officials of whatever party to find new avenues of cooperation that recognize Japan’s limitations instead issuing demands to Japan’s government. After the Bush administration sided with Japanese elites while alienating the Japanese public, the Obama administration has an opportunity to repair the damage and build a new relationship.

UPDATE: I may be premature in considering Professor Nye as ambassador. However, perhaps this post makes the case for why he should take the job.

One thought on “Obama’s Asia team takes shape

  1. Princess

    Padawan,Nye is not a done deal. It was float, and Kato who thinks he is plugged in swallowed it whole. It also smacks of Armitage and Mofa spin. Both think if they whine enough and get their names out there it will happen. I am not completely convinced it will. The buzz has always been it will be a Japanese American.If true, however, it strengthens Aso and the LDP. These folks will do what they must to keep that smiling ninny. And Aso will be able to point to his good ties with these easy to manipulate, long-purchased, and predictable white men.Yet, you are right. Armitage\’s Fifth Column is taking shape. But I give them 2 years, and the Obama people will see the need for real change and send them packing.And anyone who even thought there was some daylight between the Bush people and the rest of the Japan folks in town, especially at Brookings or Carnegie is daft. Neither has a Japan person on staff! If any women were involved in this cabal it would be incestuous, but they aren\’t so you can call it something else…Absolutely hilarious meeting with the governor of Okinawa today. Everyone tried to nail down from him when Futema would get started. These folks are Japan experts?Yeah, it is pretty grim here and I am miserable and lonely.Enjoy TokyoPrincess


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