Is friendship between nations possible? Can Japan and the United States be friends as the U.S. is with Canada and Britain, or are they forever destined to have a relationship that turns on a calculation of mutual advantage?

To merely raise these questions is to invite charges of being Pollyannaish. Yet these are important questions, for nothing less than the peace, independence and security of the Pacific world may turn on a bond between Japan and the U.S. as strong and unshakable as that which exists between the U.S. and its two English-speaking allies.

These questions take on a particular cogency in light of President Bill Clinton’s visit to China last summer. Bowing to the wishes of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he bypassed Japan on his way home, leading some Asia watchers to speculate whether America was switching allegiances in the Pacific.

Do U.S. interests dictate abandoning Japan for China? After all, Japan’s economy is in the tank and U.S. problems in Okinawa make it no longer a reliable base of operations for its Pacific forces. A great many Japanese are tired of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which fits neatly with the often declared post-Cold War era desire of the U.S. to downsize its Pacific deployments, refocusing its energy and resources on domestic priorities.

China, by contrast, represents a market of vast potential, holding the promise of huge economic gains. Its muscular economy and political will gives it something Japan sorely lacks — the ability to exercise leadership in the current Asian financial crisis. Such an accommodation now will save anguish, money and even the loss of U.S. lives, buying the Pacific world a half century or more of peace by recognizing what must be, namely, that in the future the Pacific will be divided by the only two superpowers, China and the U.S.

Japan is destined to become a small fish in a Chinese pond. For those who consider themselves to be realists or pragmatists, this scenario may be appealing; it is rejected, however, by ordinary Americans, at least as judged by recent public opinion surveys. In a pre-Christmas survey of 750 high propensity California voters, respondents were asked about their attitudes on U.S.-Asia relations, including the following question: “Canada is a special friend of the United States here in North America. England is considered a special friend to the U.S. in Europe. Is Japan that kind of friend to America in Asia?” Of those surveyed by the poll, 47 percent answered “no,” 37 percent answered “yes,” and 16 percent said “don’t know.”

The obvious ties that bind Canada and England to the U.S. are language, ancestry, religion and culture. Therefore, it is not surprising that 47 percent of the respondents answered “no” to this question. In the absence of these common ties between Japan and America, what is surprising is that more did not answer “no,” and that 37 percent responded in the affirmative, identifying Japan as “that kind of friend” to the U.S. in Asia. In a March, 1998 survey, 1,500 frequent voters were asked to identify America’s “best friend in Asia” from a list of six candidates. A third of the respondents identified Japan — a finding consistent with the December survey — followed by 21 percent for Taiwan, 20 percent for the Philippines and 7 percent for China.

Of course, these questions beg the larger question: Is friendship possible between nations? The advocates of Realpolitik flatly deny the possibility, arguing that relations between nations are dictated by interest variously expressed as security, economic advantage and/or ideology. This kind of reasoning elevates policy-making as the central task of foreign affairs, giving rise to one of several cliches to describe the U.S.-Japan relationship, such as in Japan is the “cornerstone” of U.S. policy in Asia. Machiavelli, the father of Realpolitik, teaches that policy is determined by necessity, which in turn changes with the times. Machiavelli was the first teacher of politics to argue that a prince should treat his subjects the same way he treats hostile states. For Machiavelli, there is no place for friendship in politics.

Certainly relations between nations are born out of necessity, but can they be sustained by something beyond necessity — by, for instance, participation in common values that forge a common consciousness of personal, national and transnational identity? Happily for the future of mankind, a few shining instances demonstrate the possibility of friendship between nations and raise our collective vision beyond the mere calculation of interest. The shared values of language, political institutions, culture and religion that bind America to its English-speaking allies transcend the normal and usual understanding of policy as the point at which nations engage. Admittedly, this understanding is uncommon, but is such a relationship possible between Japan and the U.S.? Do the U.S. and Japan share values beyond what contributes to their security and economic advantage?

In both the March and December surveys, respondents were asked about their perception of Asian values. In March, respondents were asked: “It has been said that there are very distinct and natural differences between Asian countries and the U.S. Do you believe that Asian societies are based on values that insulate their citizens from many of the social problems we face here in the U.S.?” To this question 56 percent of the respondents said, “yes,” 33 percent said “no,” and 11 percent “don’t know.”

In the same survey, people were asked: “In Asia, the philosophy of Confucius and Buddha have contributed significantly to the values of daily life. Do you think Americans can learn something useful from these value systems?” A whopping 77 percent replied, “yes,” while 17 percent said “no,” and 6 percent said “don’t know.”

In the December survey, respondents were presented with the following question: “Even with the current economic crisis in Asia, do you feel Americans have something to learn from Asian values in terms of improving our society here at home?” Seventy-seven percent replied “yes,” while 29 percent said “no.” These responses demonstrate that nothing less than a revolutionary change is occurring in the outlook of Americans — accepting Asian values alongside traditional Western values as part of a broad cultural identity. The old Asian values debate — a debate that was eclipsed by declining Asian economies — divided East from West. The responses from these two surveys indicate that we need to resurrect the Asian values debate, this time in a manner that promotes unity across the Pacific divide.

The appreciation of Americans for Asian values makes it increasingly possible for Americans to speak of Japan as “that kind of friend.” This is not an accomplishment of governments, politicians or economists but of people. But there is something in this from which governments and politicians can learn, namely, that cultural growth may be more important than trade growth in building a permanent relationship, strong and unshakable, between Japan and the U.S.

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