Japan is an “underachiever” that needs to play a larger international role commensurate with its resources and capacity, the head of an influential U.S. think tank told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

A more internationally active Japan is essential given that the world today is a mixed bag of historically rare opportunities coupled with new sets of daunting challenges, to which there can be no unilateral solutions, said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

While the United States needs to “rebalance its approach to the world” and reorient its foreign policy, Tokyo and Washington must rethink the roles of their bilateral alliance so that they can jointly meet the challenges of the new era, said Haass, who served as a special assistant to U.S. President George Bush between 1989 and 1993.

Japan should have a “political environment” that enables it to take on bigger responsibilities for world affairs, Haass said, although he added that specific ways to achieve it — including possible amendments to the nation’s war-renouncing Constitution — are a “tactical question” that should be deferred to the Japanese people.

Haass was the keynote speaker at the Nov. 12 symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center under the theme, “A rapidly changing world and Asia’s future: roles of Japan and the U.S.,” which was also attended by his colleagues at the New York-based think tank as well as Japanese experts.

Nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, Haass said the most important positive feature on the international landscape today is that the leaders of major powers, including the U.S., Japan, China, India, Russia and European countries, do not have to worry about going to war with one another.

The situation provides a “tremendous opportunity,” which is rare in the history of the last few hundreds of years, because it “liberates us to focus our resources and energies on the possibility of working together on the major challenges of the day,” he told the audience.

Another piece of good news for the world today is the high degree of economic integration as illustrated by the enormous amount of trade in goods and services as well as international flows of investment, which is another reason that major power conflict is unlikely because “increasingly, countries have a stake in maintaining a situation in which they benefit from trade and investment” with one another, Haass said.

Despite such a positive environment, the world is also confronted with a set of serious challenges, ranging from the spread of international terrorism to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Haass noted.

“What we’ve seen is terrorists regroup after 9/11 . . . and terrorists today have a global reach. They often have independent sources of finance, they can use the Internet to train, they can use the Internet to inspire, terrorists are using new techniques on the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

On the economic front, Haass noted the rise of protectionist sentiments around the globe, adding that successful completion of the new round of global trade liberalization talks will not be possible for at least a few more years.

Haass said it is good news that there is growing recognition that something needs to be done about global warming. “The bad news is that there is yet no consensus on what needs to be done . . . (nor) on how the specific requirements are to be distributed” between industrialized countries and developing economies.

The related question of energy — with the crude oil price threatening to top $100 per barrel and expected to stay high for years to come — also raises a strategic problem for Washington because the high energy price causes a “massive flow of dollars and other resources” from oil consumers to producers, which include countries hostile to U.S. interests like Iran and Venezuela, Haass said.

So what needs to be done? While each country needs to put its house in order and do what it can to deal with these challenges, major powers also need to cooperate to improve existing international frameworks — or create new ones — to cope with problems ranging from nuclear nonproliferation to protectionism and climate change, he said.

The U.S., Haass noted, needs to reduce its consumption, fix its health-care system, and come up with ways of re-educating and retraining people to help them deal with the challenges of globalization.

Washington also needs to reorient its foreign policy, which has for years been dominated by Iraq, make its diplomacy less unilateral and military centered, and rely more on collective action and multilateralism, he said.

Japan, for its part, “needs to sort out its politics in a way that it can play a larger regional and global role,” Haass told the audience.

“I would call Japan at the moment one of the underachievers in the region and the world,” he said. The political climate in Japan, he added, does not allow the nation to play a larger role commensurate with its resources and capacity.

“If Japan is unwilling to do this, it will ultimately weaken the U.S.-Japanese relationship simply because it will become less significant,” he said. “We need not simply a strong Japan, but also an extraordinarily active Japan as a partner for the U.S. and others, if we are going to succeed in coping with a set of challenges that we find ourselves facing.”

Discussions about Japan’s greater role in the security arena have often been limited by the constraints of the Constitution. But what’s more important, Haass said, is for Japan and the U.S. to agree on their strategic goals.

“What’s most important is to agree on what are the roles that Americans and Japanese are prepared to play — how do we see the Japanese-U.S. alliance evolving” as they enter a new era of bilateral ties, he said.

This question calls for serious consultations between the two countries, which should not be about moving certain numbers of U.S. troops from one base to another but focus on the “more fundamental question of what Japan and the U.S. want to bring about in the region and the world,” he noted.

Once the goal is set, there will be the more tactical question of how Japan carries it out — whether it could involve revising the bilateral security treaty or amending Japan’s Constitution, he said. But how Japan builds the political base to achieve that is an issue that must be deferred to the Japanese, he added.

Haass said it is time that experts and academics across the Pacific “rethink the purpose” of the Japan-U.S. relationship. “We can’t simply put in on autopilot . . . What worked during one era of history will not automatically be relevant in a very different era of history.”