Ambassador Schieffer’s farewell

J. Thomas Schieffer, US ambassador to Japan since 2005, left Japan Thursday.

To mark his departure, Ambassador Schieffer gave a farewell address at the National Press Club in Tokyo Wednesday, followed by a long press conference that ranged over a host of topics, not all of them having to do with Japan and US-Japan relations.

The central message of the address — and the Schieffer ambassadorship — is that Japan should do more internationally.

“Now, more than ever,” he said, “Japan needs to focus on what it can do in the world. In a few days Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. He electrified America and the world with a simple slogan – ‘Yes, we can!’ Japan’s first response to this new administration must not be, ‘No, we can’t.'”

Press coverage focused on Ambassador Schieffer’s latest appeal for Japan to reinterpret the use of the right of collective self-defense, although in the ambassador’s defense, his call for collective self-defense was but one portion of his call for a more active Japan, and he demurred from calling for constitution revision: “There is much more that needs to be done by the international community in trouble spots like Afghanistan and the horn of Africa. And Japan can do it…Some people will argue that Japan is prohibited from doing those sorts of things by its constitution but I would argue that Japan can fulfill the promise of its constitution by doing those things.”

Nevertheless, as the Bush administration passes the baton to the Obama administration next week, it is worth asking whether the Bush administration should also pass on this method of conducting US-Japan relations by urging Japan to do more internationally.

Does calling publicly on the Japanese government to do more actually make any difference? Gaiatsu emanating from the embassy might give encouragement to certain Japanese politicians and bureaucrats, as gaiatsu always has, but in January 2009 Japan is probably further from revising the constitution or changing the collective self-defense interpretation than it was in April 2005, when Mr. Schieffer arrived in Tokyo. Japan is in the grips of a painful recession growing worse by the months, and the goal of a balanced budget is receding into the distance. Meanwhile, the Japanese establishment has been burned by the Bush administration over North Korea, despite Mr. Schieffer’s best efforts to make the abductions issue a priority for the US. (He devotes a good portion of the introduction of his address to the plight of the abductees.) Japanese troops have returned from Iraq, proposals to play a greater role in Afghanistan have been scuttled, and the government is proceeding gingerly regarding the dispatch of JSDF vessels to fight pirates by the Horn of Africa. Despite Mr. Schieffer’s best efforts, Japan is no closer to becoming the partner desired by many in Washington.

The problem is not political gridlock in Tokyo, which has become a convenient scapegoat for a number of deferred goals. Rather the problem may be that while Ambassador Schieffer talks of contributions to the international community, what many Japanese see are contributions to the US-Japan alliance, with Japan’s serving as a spear carrier in US campaigns but receiving little in return for its contributions other than expressions of gratitude from US officials. Mr. Schieffer claims to desire an “alliance of equals,” but in practice his ambassadorship and the administration under which he served did little to make an equal partnership a reality. An equal partnership appears to be the prize awaiting Japan after it has made the changes desired by Washington.

But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the ally you have, not the ally you want.

All too often under the outgoing administration pushing for a new (or “beautiful”) Japan substituted for working with the Japan that exists, accepting its limitations and acting accordingly. While the Bush administration pushed for a new security relationship, little changed in the economic relationship, with, it seems to me, the greatest economic accomplishment being the avoidance of the “destructive aspects of trade disputes that plagued our relationship in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Moreover, the ambassador had little to say about China or the region more generally. This last point is revealing: while naturally as ambassador to Japan Mr. Schieffer’s remarks were concerned with developments in the US-Japan relationship, it is unfortunate that so few of those developments concerned the alliance’s role in the broader region.

This is the picture of an underperforming relationship. It is not underperforming solely or largely because of Japan’s reluctance to bear a greater burden. It is underperforming because neither Washington nor Tokyo has put too much effort into building a relationship that acknowledges Japan’s limitations and sought to find a bilateral approach to constructive engagement with China. The US government needs to stop pushing so hard for Japan to become a “normal” nation and let Japan find its own way. By pushing Japan, the Bush administration has created the unmistakable impression that contributing more to the international community means in practice contributing more to the US-Japan alliance. The Obama administration must work to undo this impression — and by doing so, it may find that Japan may be willing to contribute to alliance cooperation. A less “close” alliance could be a more productive alliance.

To that end, I strongly reject a recommendation included in AEI’s new report, “An American Strategy for Asia,” that the next administration should “press Japan, albeit quietly and with the requisite delicacy, to move forward in addressing the legal restrictions that still encumber and inhibit its security policy.” If the US government is serious about Japan’s contributing more to the international community, it should stop telling Japan’s leaders how to do it.

Barring a miracle for the LDP, the US may be dealing with a DPJ-led government by year’s end. Seeing as how a DPJ victory will likely depend in part on its skepticism towards the alliance as it has been managed under the LDP-Komeito coalition, the Obama administration should start thinking now how it will manage the relationship with a DPJ government. The Bush era methods of pushing for Japan to do more — quietly or loudly — will not do. Washington will have to be serious about treating Japan as an equal, which means leaving it to Tokyo to figure out how it will contribute to the international community and what role it wants the alliance to play internationally. Under a Prime Minister Ozawa, Japan might be surprisingly willing to play a greater international role, but it will not do so if it appears that Washington is issuing Japan’s marching orders.

3 thoughts on “Ambassador Schieffer’s farewell

  1. Tobias, what did you think of Shintaro Ishihara\’s comments about abductions, Six-Party Talks, and Beijing taking over DPRK? The nationalists in ROK are readying the knuckle-chopping knives for a protest.


  2. Anonymous

    These calls come at a time when 95% of the world community thinks that America should do less (of what it has been doing) internationally.


  3. Anonymous

    \”..If the US government is serious about Japan\’s contributing more to the international community, it should stop telling Japan\’s leaders how to do it…\”It is not just Japan it wishes to control..and it is not a binary relationship from Bush\’s administration either.With the cold war gone and the US being the sole remain superpower (although Russia and China will have something to say very very soon)rather than act sagaciously, and not commit the errors of previous \”ruling powers\”, it has acted arrogantly, the world over.As for Japan, it will do whatever it sees in its best interest, regardless of any evidence that may appear to be to the contrary.


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