Time to readjust foreign policy

A year after the United States went to war against Iraq, Japanese people are asking themselves what it really meant to Japan. All questions begin with a central fact that underscores Japanese foreign policy: Japan and the U.S. are bound closely together under a bilateral security treaty. Yet many are wondering whether the government was right to throw its full weight behind a preemptive war that had no explicit backing of the United Nations.

The invasion all but destroyed Western unity, with France and Germany parting with the U.S. and Britain. Paris and Berlin — advocates of a peaceful solution — argued that the U.N. hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction should be continued. But Washington and London — proponents of a military solution — maintained that the use of force was the only way to meet an imminent threat of WMD. As U.S. President George W. Bush put it, nations were “either with us or against us.” Japan joined the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing,” thus acquiescing in the use of force against Iraq. Stressing the primacy of the Japan-U.S. alliance relationship, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed clear-cut support for the war. But much of the Japanese public was unconvinced.

That support signaled, at least temporarily, a shift of emphasis in Japanese foreign policy — a shift to closer cooperation with America and away from U.N.-centered international cooperation. That did not necessarily mean a switch from multilateralism to unilateralism, but there was no denying that public confidence in Japan’s professed U.N. policy had suffered.

During a Diet debate in January, Mr. Koizumi used rather blunt language in explaining why he supported the Iraq invasion. “Japan cannot secure its peace and security on its own. That’s why we have a (security) alliance with America,” he said. “The United Nations will not send troops over here to prevent aggression.” Mr. Koizumi is known for his forthrightness, but the comment seemed to elicit more doubt than trust in his Iraq policy.

What divided Japanese opinion most sharply, however, was the fact that the government supported a war that the U.N. refused to sanction. The Koizumi administration, it was widely perceived, had no choice but to go along with the Bush administration. In the absence of conclusive evidence of WMD, however, there was considerable skepticism about the legitimacy of preemptive military action.

Even if war was inevitable as a measure of last resort, the argument went, Japan should have done more to explore the possibilities for a peaceful solution. That was a forceful argument, given particularly the pacifist traditions of the nation’s post-World War II foreign policy. In fact, many wondered whether the government might have overextended and overexposed itself in giving such prompt support for the military incursion.

Now, public opinion here is polarized over the war’s most important consequence for Japan: the deployment of Self-Defense Forces in southern Iraq to support humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. The SDF mission is a followup to Japan’s joining the “willing coalition,” but many believe that sending ground troops to a country where fighting still continues — the first such dispatch since the SDF was created half a century ago — contradicts the constitutional clause that renounces war and the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

The nation is also split over the war on terrorism. The question at stake is how, not whether, to fight terrorists. With former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein out of power, President Bush says the world is now safer than before. The truth is that terrorist attacks are spreading not only in Iraq but also in other regions. Japan, including SDF troops in Iraq, is not immune from terrorist strikes.

Increasingly, Japanese people are beginning to wonder whether it is good policy for Japan to staunchly support America’s hardline policy. An international poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center finds that support for the U.S. war on terrorism is slipping in Europe and in Muslim countries. The survey, published on the heels of the March 11 train blasts in Madrid, is a reminder of America’s tarnished image as the world’s sole superpower.

There is a growing realization, both here and abroad, that closer and wider international cooperation is essential to combat new security threats in the world, particularly terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. It is time that the U.S. recognized the limitations of its military might and began promoting broader international efforts to address these threats by peaceful and diplomatic means. For Japan it is also time to readjust its foreign-policy calibrations with greater emphasis placed on multilateral cooperation.