CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The drama at the Japanese Foreign Ministry is still unfolding with a multitude and variety of acts, inviting continuous comment and debate. I believe that certain aspects should be clarified before proceeding to a postmortem of the crisis or to estimates about the future. First, a look at some of the “victims” in this drama so far: a flamboyant and dynamic female politician, a disastrously influential lawmaker, a top bureaucrat, some other senior diplomats and the perpetrators of money scandals.
Perhaps the most crucial dimension is easily forgotten: The main victim is the ministry itself, whose image has suffered considerable damage for years to come. The obvious argument is that the root cause is scandal and diplomatic arrogance. Yes, but what about other causes that are equally or even more important, such as the unacceptable meddling by political figures or the unjustified rush to reform without a realistic consideration of the possibilities first?
Second, we should shed some light on the confusion that distorts the very process of improving the ministry’s function. It is one thing to call for “vigorous diplomacy,” “protection of Japanese interests” etc. and another to restructure this particular branch of government.
Although it is the role of diplomats in every country to present drafts of policy lines, the main responsibility for such undertakings lies with the political authorities. In the final analysis, the existence and projection of successful diplomatic policies is a political prerogative and responsibility. Ministries are the instruments for implementing such policies, not the fountainhead.
Of course, what the press and Japanese public opinion seem to demand is corrections to both. Eventually every institution needs adjustment; diplomats should be conscious of that. But the methodology of reform is important. The approach will dictate the outcome. These simple truths apply not only to the Foreign Ministry but to all other ministries, in Japan or elsewhere.
We should distance ourselves from the antagonism that may arise between well-meaning reformers and so-called protectors of the turf. If reform proceeds under the influence of such antagonism, it will be doomed. If reform appears sound, convincing and justified, it will carry the day. In the present situation, there are several questions:
What is meant by panels of “outside experts”? Members of such panels may be outstanding, but what about some input from those whose future will be affected and whose contribution cannot be replaced by a magic stroke?
Have the reformers listened to genuine voices from within the ranks? The latter are not, by definition, opponents of reform efforts. In fact, some of the best and more realistic ideas for change often come from people who know the details of past practices and who sincerely wish to offer ideas for improvement.
This leads to a very sensitive point that seems to be at the core of a recent dispute — the proposed appointment of outsiders as ambassadors. More questions arise: Why is there so much outside interest in top diplomatic positions and not, say, in the judiciary or other sectors of government? Could it have something to do with a wrongly perceived notion of glamour that includes outdated images of chandeliers and champagne?
How could a ministry, whose central philosophy is to serve government as a nonpolitical force, possibly function in the future when it is so heavily politicized? Could we logically visualize, for example, an army in which 40 percent of its generals, a judiciary in which 40 percent of its top judges or any other ministry or government agency in which 40 percent of its top officials were catapulted to their positions by the dictates of invisible and intriguing political leaders and their satellites?
It’s a basic law of human nature that in every institution, public or private, junior cadres legitimately aspire to reach the top positions one day. Should we ignore that? Why should 40 percent of such aspirations be denied for those who happen to be in the foreign service?
If these ideas are imposed in the end, the result will be that outsiders will experiment with diplomatic realities and preside over a mass of demoralized specialists who will unavoidably drift toward other more promising fields of professional activity. Or, in the long run, the Foreign Ministry will no longer attract the best university graduates.
I do not dispute the “quota” level (40 percent) for outsiders, but the basic concept. There are certainly able people in every professional category. Diplomats are not the only people who can guarantee protection of national interests. In limited and specific cases, the appointment of some qualified — and not politically propelled — outsider may be justified. But this should be the exception rather than the rule, and it should not be the result of a shaky compromise on quotas imposed from the outside. Internationally, the performance of politically appointed ambassadors has proven counterproductive, barring a few well-known individual exceptions.
In conclusion, both sides of this argument should try to arrive at a meeting of the minds before doing anything else. Outside ideas should not be rejected just because their origin is “elsewhere.” At the same time, proponents of new ideas should not approach the Foreign Ministry strictly for the purpose of “shaking it up.”
Every practice of the past does not deserve a modern-day Inquisition, and every proposal to change existing patterns should not be rejected as an intrusion. As in so many other aspects of life, moderation is essential.
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