Unless the Obama administration is determined to devote serious political capital to fixing the US-Japan alliance, the new administration should practice benign neglect towards Japan.
First, allow me to make clear what I am not proposing. Naturally the US should not break off relations, abrogate the security treaty, withdraw all US forces from Japan, or another such radical measure. It should continue to do whatever it can to implement the agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan, whether in its current form or some revised form. It should continue to pursue greater interoperability between US forces and the JSDF, looking for more ways for the two militaries to share bases and train together. The alliance as it exists is essential for deterrence in East Asia, and naturally the administration should do whatever necessary to maintain bilateral deterrent power. (It should also continue to reassure Japan that the nuclear umbrella is firmly in place.)
So what do I mean by benign neglect?
By benign neglect, I mean that it is time for Washington to stop devoting its energy to maintaining the fictions of the US-Japan relationship. It is time to rename the “bar none” ranch. Secretary Clinton strongly hinted at this when she referred to the Sino-US relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century,” and it is little wonder that the Japanese establishment had a collective fit in response. Secretary Clinton’s statement may have been an uncomfortable truth for Japanese, but just because it is uncomfortable does not make it any less true. In short, US officials need to stop telling Japanese leaders how important the alliance is to the US. They need to stop exaggerating the importance of Japanese commitments. And they need to stop making commitments to Japan — regarding the abductees, for example — that they are not prepared to honor.
The final two years of the Bush administration show what happens when an administration continues to stroke the ego of Japanese elites without actually devoting sustained effort to the relationship. The Bush administration, despite a shift in focus to the Korean Peninsula and the relationship with China during its final years, continued to use the same slogans from the supposed “golden age” of the first half of the administration.
More than slogans, however, the administration continued to go through the motions of treating the alliance as a relationship unlike no other. Former President Bush met with the Yokotas in spring 2006, around the same time that former Ambassador Schieffer went to Niigata to visit the beach from which Megumi disappeared. A year later, when Abe Shinzo was prime minister, Mr. Bush repeatedly reassured Mr. Abe and other Japanese officials that the US was completely behind Japan in its efforts to get a full accounting of North Korea’s abductions even as Christopher Hill was moving the US towards a major shift in negotiations with North Korea. The administration continued to emphasize shared values, although thankfully it balked at putting those “shared values” to work in Mr. Abe’s scheme for an arc of democracies. Indeed, this last example makes my point perfectly: the US was happy to praise Japan to the skies publicly, but presented with an opportunity to undertake what would have been a profound departure from its Asia policy, the Bush administration was reluctant to go forward. As was so often the case during the Bush administration, it wrote rhetorical checks it couldn’t cash.
The Obama administration should not make the same mistake. Unless it is prepared to devote significant attention to fixing the alliance, which alliance hands in both countries acknowledge is in need of fixing, it should not raise Japan’s expectations of the US to unrealistic levels. It must avoid both overvaluing Japanese contributions to US-led coalitions abroad and giving the impression that such contributions are reciprocal, as the Bush administration, whether intentionally or not, did.
The other side of the coin is that neglect should be benign. The administration should also abjure from the kind of cajoling practiced by Mr. Schieffer.
The goal of benign neglect is simple. The frenzied reaction by Japanese elites to even the slightest signal emanating from Washington over the past three months suggests an unhealthy overdependence on the US. Japan is not just dependent on the US for its security. Its elites seem to have a hard time considering Japanese foreign policy without looking for cues from Washington first. This degree of dependence is bad for both countries. The idea that US Asia policy will be fine as long as Japan is happy is no less dangerous illusion than the idea — promoted by Koizumi Junichiro — that if Japan gets the alliance right, good relations with its neighbors will follow. The US has important matters to discuss with China, whether Japan’s elites like it or not. There are greater concerns on the Korean peninsula than Japan’s abductees, whether Japanese like it or not. It may not be able to reach a satisfactory agreement that denuclearizes North Korea, particularly after the latest turn in North Korean foreign policy, but the new administration ought to continue to work at it. Additionally and relatedly, the US has work to do figuring out how to overcome what Secretary Clinton described as “vastly different values and political systems” to establish a constructive relationship with China.
But Japan also needs to work more on finding its place in the region, forging new relationships with its neighbors without looking over its shoulder at the US. Its leaders also need to think hard about Japan’s role globally; the Aso government’s reluctant commitment to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden shows just how much work needs to be done on this score. A degree of distance from the US might actually force the Japanese people and their leaders to consider these questions. It might also force them to consider the appropriate level of defense spending, a question that has been largely answered by the finance ministry over the past decade. Tomohiko Satake is right to emphasize the importance of Japan’s playing a global role, but he makes my point that the global alliance should be deemphasized when he argues that the DPJ is not averse to an international security role provided the UN is involved. A DPJ government may be the best opportunity for Japan to develop a global security role independent of the alliance, in other words, a foreign policy in which the US-Japan alliance is essential as a force for regional stability while Japan develops independent initiatives internationally. But it may not take a DPJ government to get such an outcome.
So to conclude, the Obama administration should pursue benign neglect as a way to wean Japanese elites off their dependence on Washington. The administration should be more careful with its rhetoric and the symbolic politics of the alliance. To this end, I hope that reports of Secretary Clinton’s first foreign trip being to Japan are mistaken. And I hope that President Obama and Prime Minister Aso do not meet too soon. What would such a summit accomplish other than giving Japanese elites the attention they desperately crave? The administration should not slight Japan, but it also should not go out of its way to give special attention.
Again, all of this is moot if the Obama administration decides to devote significant attention to fixing the alliance. North Korea could make this a reality if it decides to go forward with its rumored Taepodong-2 test, a move which will go a long way towards focusing US and Japanese attention to fixing the problems with the alliance.
But that said, even if the Obama administration decides that getting the alliance right is a priority, it should consider whether indulging Japanese elites is amenable to fixing the relationship.