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The Foreign Ministry’s latest annual report reads partly like a litany of resolutions. That is only to be expected given the series of incidents and scandals that have hit the foreign service over the past year or so. Naturally, the blue book, as the report is commonly known, calls for a string of steps to remake the ministry and improve its badly tarnished public image.

At the outset of the report, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi states the obvious: Public understanding and support are essential to the smooth and effective conduct of foreign policy. The first thing to do, of course, is to implement necessary reforms expeditiously. That is the only way to revive public confidence in the scandal-tainted Foreign Ministry and to bring the half-paralyzed foreign service back to normal.

The ministry now is under fire for its inept response to the Shenyang incident, in which Chinese police officers removed North Korean defectors from the Japanese Consulate General in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The episode has exposed some of the weaknesses in Japanese diplomacy: poor capacity for crisis management and lack of human rights awareness.

The need for diplomatic revival — establishing an effective foreign service — cannot be stressed enough at a time of growing interdependence among nations and regions. Obviously Japan’s peace and prosperity are closely intertwined with its relations with the international community. Indeed, diplomacy has a pivotal role to play in creating a stable international situation and building closer bilateral and multilateral relations.

More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the world is fraught with regional conflicts and hostilities. A stable framework of global peace seems a long way off. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 introduced a new element of insecurity into the international situation, prompting the United States to declare an all-out war on terrorism.

What has happened since has given Japan a wake-up call as well regarding its security policy. America’s military strikes on Afghanistan destroyed the Taliban regime and all but wiped out the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Now the U.S. is setting its sights on Iraq, though whether or when it will attack Baghdad is everyone’s guess. Japan dispatched a naval contingent to the Indian Ocean to support U.S. military operations in and around Afghanistan — the first time in the postwar period that the nation has deployed troops near a combat area abroad.

The growing complexity and volatility in the international situation have placed a premium on the role of diplomacy. Japan, which is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes and conflicts, faces formidable challenges. It is a pity that in these critical times the Foreign Ministry must spend so much time and energy trying to fix its internal problems.

Corruption scandals involving some of its bureaucrats and their political patrons have deep roots; they are structural in nature. Hence the need to shake up the ministry from the ground up. Internal reform may not come easily, but there is no other way to win back the public’s trust in the diplomatic service.

A reform agenda is already taking shape. An interim report from the Society to Change, an advisory group of private experts, calls for “eliminating unwarranted (political) pressures,” “getting rid of the misguided sense of elitism” and “making efficient use of the budget.” Putting these and other essential steps into practice requires a “strong determination to carry out reforms energetically, with the entire ministry working in unison.”

Foreign Minister Kawaguchi defines the basic principles of diplomacy as strength, warmth and clarity. By “strength” she means proactive diplomacy, or saying what Japan must say and doing what it should do. “Warmth” means diplomacy with a human touch, such as consideration for people facing poverty and conflict and understanding of foreign cultures and traditions. Clarity is shorthand for “easy to understand” diplomacy that wins the hearts and minds of Japanese people.

These are fine principles. The question is how to put them into action. For example, how should Japan deal with America’s increasingly unilateralist thinking and action? And how should Japan build confidence with its Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, by coming to terms with the past?

These and other key diplomatic questions cannot be effectively addressed until and unless the Foreign Ministry puts its house in order. Now is a time for action, not rhetoric. The ministry must move quickly and boldly to get its act together so that it can devote itself to its primary task — diplomacy — as soon as possible.

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