An open letter to Ambassador-designate Nye

Dear Professor Nye:

Congratulations on your appointment to the position of United States Ambassador to Japan.

Your arrival comes at an auspicious time. It appears exceedingly likely that during your ambassadorship the Liberal Democratic Party will be bounced from power and replaced most likely by the Democratic Party of Japan, although possibly a ragtag coalition as in 1993-1994.

Between “change you can believe in” in Washington and incipient political change in Japan, now is the perfect time for a new approach for the US-Japan alliance, and I think you may be the perfect agent to deliver change.

To senior politicians in the LDP, you are remembered for your work as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in particular the “Nye Initiative” which resulted in the reaffirmation of the US-Japan alliance after the trade skirmishes of the early 1990s. Nakagawa Hidenao, former LDP secretary-general, calls you a “one of the strongest advocates throughout the Democratic and Republican parties for the US-Japan alliance.”

I expect he’s right. But as you prepare for your move to Akasaka, it is worth asking what it means to be an advocate for the alliance today.

As Richard Samuels and James Schoff make clear in the International Herald Tribune, the alliance is in desperate need of attention. “We have allowed alliance symbols,” they write, “like the nuclear umbrella and common democratic values, to stand as a surrogate for alliance value and a clear division of responsibilities.”

But clarifying the goals and roles of the alliance should not involve your telling Japan what to do, although nor should it mean telling Japanese leaders what they want to hear. Japan’s lingering reluctance to bear a greater burden is frustrating, particularly when it involves something like fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden, something so innocuous and so obviously in both Japan’s national interest and the interest of the international community. But Japan should not be shamed or pressured into playing a greater global role. No matter how many times your predecessor as ambassador told Japan that it should permit collective self-defense, Japan barely budged in the direction of a new interpretation. If Japan’s leaders or the Japanese public are unwilling to do it themselves, no amount of pressure from the US will force their hand — and such pressure could very easily sour America’s image in Japan. It is little wonder that the DPJ is criticizing the LDP for being too interested in pleasing the US while ignoring the public; the opposition party has a point.

I hope, Professor, that as ambassador you will say what you mean. The US, in pushing for Japan to be more active globally and more active in the alliance, has without question associated the two ideas in the mind of the Japanese people. These should be two different discussions. The idea of a global alliance was far-fetched and doomed to fail, in part because the Bush administration raised the prospect of entrapment in American wars to unacceptable levels. The transition to the Obama administration will diminish the fears of entrapment somewhat, but Japan’s half-hearted contributions to US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq show that Japan’s tolerance for serious involvement in US military campaigns is limited. The costs of cooperation in terms of expectations (in that Japanese leaders came to expect reciprocity in North Korea) and in heightened fears of entrapment are not worth the marginal benefits of Japanese cooperation (despite the rhetoric heaped upon Japanese contributions in the Indian Ocean and Iraq, it is hard to see them as anything but marginal).

But there is still work to be done in Asia. The US-Japan alliance is an Asian alliance, a pillar of stability in the region, not least because it ensures the US forward presence in East Asia. This role is crucial, both in terms of deterring aggression and in providing public goods, most notably open sea lanes. But can the alliance be more than a hedge against a bad turn in China’s development? Can the alliance play a role in reducing the possibility of a bad turn? Better coordination in relation to China is essential, without making such coordination appear as the US and Japan ganging up on China.

In a 2006 article in the Boston Globe, you described Asia policy during your time at the Pentagon as follows:

We knew that hawks who called for containment of China would not be able to rally other countries to that cause. We also knew that if we treated China as an enemy, we were ensuring future enmity. While we could not be sure how China would evolve, it made no sense to foreclose the prospect of a better future. Our response combined balance of power with liberal integration. We reinforced the US-Japan alliance so that China could not play a ”Japan card” against us, while inviting China to join the World Trade Organization. In a rare case of bipartisan comity, the Bush administration has continued that strategy.

That is where we stand today, only more so. Except that it is time to focus less on the balance of power and more on the liberal integration. The US shouldn’t neglect the security relationship. It should try to guarantee the timely completion of the realignment of US forces in Japan (and be willing to reconsider portions of that agreement if doing so hastens the process). It should look to improve interoperability between US and Japanese forces.

But it is time to deemphasize the security relationship. By focusing on the security relationship to the exclusion of much else during the past decade, the US finds itself not allied with Japan, but with a narrow, increasingly powerless segment of the Japanese elite. This is not the basis for a durable alliance.

As I’ve argued previously, “The challenge for the Obama administration is to present a vision for the alliance that does more than prepare for the worst-case scenario with China, a vision focused on more than security cooperation. The security relationship is important, but it cannot be the whole of the U.S.-Japan relationship.” The US and Japan need better coordination regarding the future of the Korean Peninsula, which necessarily means better coordination with China. It means getting Japan to focus on matters other than the fate of Japanese abductees in North Korea. It means better coordination on how to incorporate China as a regional power, and better coordination on economic regionalism in East Asia. Japan needs to be more capable of forging an independent leadership role for itself in Asia, a role which it finds difficult to play given the perception of a US veto over Japanese foreign policy.

Japan, in short, needs to be given room to forge an independent role between the US and China. This is the reality of the region: Japan, like other middle-sized powers in the region, finds itself needing to maintain good relations with both the US and China, while ensuring that the US-China relationship is neither too warm nor too hostile. Yes, the alliance could be more reciprocal, with Japan’s committing to the defense of the US (in practice, committing to shooting down US missiles). Yes, Japan take on greater responsibilities within the alliance. But those changes will not come overnight, and they will not come about through US cajoling, certainly not if LDP rule gives way to a DPJ-led government.

Japan stands on the brink of an important moment in its political history. Rather than worrying about whether the DPJ will be as good as the LDP on security or whether the DPJ will trash the alliance, the Obama administration — and naturally you as its designated representative in Japan — should be prepared to celebrate the DPJ’s victory and find ways to work with a possible DPJ administration along terms acceptable to the Japanese people as whole and not just a narrow segment of Japan’s elite. There is no question that Japan needs to have a debate on its foreign policy, and more broadly its place in Asia and the world. But that debate will not occur immediately, and its outcome is intrinsically connected to broader political changes.

I have high hopes for your ability to strike the right tone as the ambassador in Tokyo. I believe that you recognize that there is more to the US-Japan relationship that cooperation between the US Military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. I believe that you will respect that the Japanese people need to make decisions about their security for themselves, that while you will make the US government’s positions known, you will not be overbearing in doing so. And I believe that based on your work as an academic and a government official you are the right man at the right time.

I wish you nothing but the best of luck as you embark on the next phase of your journey as a public intellectual in the service of the United States.

Tobias Harris

2 thoughts on “An open letter to Ambassador-designate Nye

  1. Princess

    Padawan,He ain\’t no \”designate\” until the President makes an official announcement that he plans to send the nomination to the Senate. And there then has to be another announcement saying it was sent to the Senate. As far as I know, this has not happened. It will appear on the White House website–however their organization of the nominations page is a complete mess and shows little understanding of the process. Frankly, we are still a ways away from nominating ambassadors.


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