LONDON — An article in the June 10 Nikkei Weekly by a deputy editor of political news at the Nihon Keizai Shimbun had the headline “Foreign Ministry diplomacy failing nation on all fronts.” The Foreign Ministry was criticized for not being tough enough in support of national interests. And praise was lavished on tough negotiators from other ministries.
In Britain, too, the Foreign Office has often been accused of being too friendly toward foreigners and not sufficiently robust in defending national interests. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in particular, hated the Foreign Office, which she accused of being feeble.
Such comments generally reflect a misunderstanding of the role of diplomacy. The objective should be to win support for long-term national interests rather than boost the egos of negotiators who claim that, by their machismo, toughness and rudeness, they have defended national interests to the last. In the process, they may well have offended the other side to the extent that it has been encouraged to resist even more.
In many years of negotiations with Japanese officials, I found only a few officials outside the Foreign Ministry who seemed to really understand where Japanese national interests lay. The former Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, fought far too long to protect Japanese industries from international competition. In the long run this weakened Japanese firms and is one of the causes of Japan’s economic malaise today.
Many MITI officials pursued mercantilist policies at a time when Japan’s national interest lay firmly in promoting free trade. There were, of course, some wiser senior MITI officials who understood what was needed and surely fought hard to persuade the “zokugiin” (parliamentary representatives close to special interest groups who were constantly making life difficult for officials) to see where Japan’s long-term interests lay.
One of these was the late Naohiro Amaya, who with some of his farsighted colleagues, eventually converted MITI to believing in the need to support free trade. MITI’s task and that of the Foreign Ministry were complicated by obscurant attitudes in other ministries such as the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Transportation.
Japanese protectionism in pharmaceuticals is one reason the Japanese pharmaceutical industry has not produced any giant firms to compete internationally over a wide range of drugs.
The Ministry of Agriculture by its protectionist stance ensured that Japanese consumers paid inflated prices for food. This greatly increased the Japanese cost of living, which in turn put pressure on Japanese competitiveness.
The Ministry of Transport’s Civil Aviation Bureau, by its single-minded determination to make minimal concessions to foreign airlines, ensured that Japanese international airlines became inefficient and uncompetitive.
Japanese intransigence in negotiations, in my experience, often made our negotiators more than ever determined not to be pushed around. Japanese tactics often included keeping negotiations going late into the night and ringing up the British side when it was trying to get some rest. Unrealistic and unnecessary deadlines were also set as a means of exercising pressure.
Some Japanese negotiators deliberately cultivated abrasiveness as a negotiating tactic. One Ministry of Finance official is reputed to have told a member of a U.S. team who had produced arguments he didn’t like that if he had been the American’s economics professor he would have failed him for incompetence. Such comments are unlikely to have increased the chances of reaching an acceptable arrangement.
On the whole, Foreign Ministry officials were more polite in their negotiating style, although I remember once taking the permanent secretary in our trade department to see a deputy vice minister in the ministry renowned for his conceit and arrogance. The deputy vice minister went out of his way to be rude to me as ambassador. I knew him for what he was, but my colleague from Britain was confirmed in his view that we should make no further concessions.
Japan’s case over commercial whaling has, in my view, been vitiated by the tough line taken by fisheries officials. It is widely believed abroad that Japan has been unscrupulous in trying to gain votes for its position through misuse of aid. Japanese need to recognize that the antiwhaling lobby has widespread public support abroad and that Japanese tactics have whipped up anti-Japanese feeling on this issue. The Japanese case needs to be supported by objective studies of whale population growth. The depletion of natural resources including fish is a matter of concern for all of us.
Diplomacy is the art of making friends and influencing people. You don’t make friends and influence them to support your interests if you insult them. The relationship between the top European and American trade negotiators at one stage during the Clinton administration got so bad that it was in danger of souring other aspects of trans-Atlantic relations.
There may be many grounds for criticizing Japanese foreign policy and the operation of the Foreign Ministry, but there is no justification in my view for arguing that Foreign Ministry officials do not stand up for Japan’s long-term interests. Critics should rather direct their fire at officials in other ministries who fail to see where Japan’s long-term interests lie and fight outdated battles to prove their manliness.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.