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Let dinosaur aspirations die

by Hugh Cortazzi

British and Japanese politicians need to recognize that the power and influence of their countries are no longer what they were and that their governments must “cut their cloth” accordingly.

Unfortunately there are politicians in both our countries who suffer from illusions of grandeur and an inability to recognize the way in which power has ebbed from their countries.

Before the Chinese prime minister made his recent visit to Britain he told a press conference that, in the past, China had ranked European countries in the order Britain, France and Germany. Today, he said, China ranked the three countries in a different order — Germany, France and Britain. This was hardly tactful but it should have induced some healthy self-reflection in Britain.

Britain still spends more on defense per capita than most countries in Western Europe, but austerity has forced cuts in the size of Britain’s armed forces. This means that Britain is no longer in a position to play a leading role in conflicts overseas as it did to some extent in Bosnia, Iraq and Libya.

Britain will certainly continue to play an important role in NATO; it is committed to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent at considerable cost and controversy; and it is determined to keep its status as one of the five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council.

Britain has one advantage that cannot be taken away, namely being the home of the English language.

Sadly there are politicians on the right of the spectrum, especially in the Conservative party, who overrate Britain’s position in the world and still believe that Britain can, to quote Douglas Hurd, a former British Foreign Secretary, “punch above its weight” in the world.

Some politicians also suffer from the illusion that Britain would be able to maintain a position of power outside the European Union because of its “special relationship” with the United States. Some even seem to think that the British Commonwealth, which is a very loose group of former British dominions overseas, gives Britain a special position in the world.

These politicians no doubt think that they are pursuing the national interest. In fact they are damaging it. The British economy and trade have benefited greatly from membership in the EU and Britain is not in a position to develop markets outside Europe to substitute for the European market, to which access would be jeopardized by Britain leaving the union. Britain can exercise more influence as a European country through the EU than it could possibly do as an “Island Switzerland.”

There is support in many EU countries for the union to do less and return policy decisions to member states. But it is a real British interest that the single market should be strengthened and extended to energy.

Prime Minister David Cameron, in an effort to please his critics in the party, overplayed his hand by his recent public opposition to the nomination of the former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker as head of the European Commission. By personalizing his opposition to the appointment, he irritated potential friends among other European heads of government and undermined his own efforts to reform the EU.

Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017 is a dangerous hostage to fortune. Cameron knows it is in Britain’ interest to remain a member of the Union, and his present tactics could open the way to a British exit from the EU causing great damage to British interests.

Some Japanese politicians especially on the right and in the Liberal Democratic Party also suffer from dangerous illusions about Japan’s world position.

Japan has not only lost its position as the second-largest economy in the world, but faces stiff competition from enterprises in South Korea and China. Yet Japanese leaders continue to irritate South Korea instead of working with it.

Japanese technology remains among the best in the world, but it is not the dominant force that it was. Japanese education is also no longer the envy of other Asian countries.

Japan, like other Asian countries, faces serious demographic problems — an aging society and a declining population. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s enthusiasm for mobilizing Japan’s underutilized resource of intelligent women, companies remain dominated by conservative minded men.

Abe has emphasized that Japan will uphold the principles of international law and respect the rulings of the International Court of Justice, but doubt is cast on Japanese sincerity when the rules seem to run counter to parochial Japanese interests.

Abe has taken some important steps to further Japan’s broader long-term interests. One important example is his apparent determination to push Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership over opposition of the farming lobby.

He has also declared his intention of reforming the medical system in face of the protests by the Japan Medical Association, which is intent on protecting the short-term interests of doctors. Abe’s “third arrow” is probably the most important of all an economic policy aimed at ensuring Japan’s power and prosperity are maintained in the long run.

The danger is that, as in Britain, right-wing politicians with illusions about Japan’s uniqueness and special qualities will undermine efforts to modernize the economy or will jeopardize Japan’s security by provocative chauvinism.

The late Japanese internationalist Ogata Shijuro, referring to right-wing nationalist and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, said his name ought to have been “Ishi-atama” (stone-head). Ishihara is one of those politicians who have rightly earned the description of a dinosaur. The dinosaurs were wiped out by a catastrophic climate change.

Let’s hope that Japanese political dinosaurs will fade out quietly and will not be allowed to jeopardize Japan’s long-term national interests.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

  • Demosthenes

    It’s true that Japanese people seem to be caught in some kind of delusion about how much influence their country has. But when you have an education system that tells them how great it is, and media spoon feeding them about how bad the rest of the world is, it’s easy to understand why they can’t think any differently. When they look at Japan they see the land of the rising sun, but from a western perspective Japan has been the land of the setting sun for quite some time.