Japan in a post-U.S. world


Besides the economic damage, the global financial crisis has dangerous strategic implications for Japan.

Since 1945, the world has been organized along U.S.-centric lines. By providing security guarantees to its allies, Washington has supplied an international public good to the entire planet. Even countries not aligned with the United States, such as China or Russia, benefit from this U.S.-led regime which generally keeps the peace in key regions of the globe.

This in turns makes possible an international trade and investment system that is conducive to economic growth. Therefore, the U.S. performs on a global scale the same role as the Tokyo police do locally by providing us with a public good — namely safe streets — thanks to which we can enjoy productive lives free of crime.

Unfortunately, America’s capability to offer these public services has been impaired. First, the Iraq war and the failure of U.S. policy in the rest of southwest Asia have severely undermined U.S. power. Second, the financial crisis weakens the U.S.

The inability of the U.S. government to craft a swift and coherent response to the subprime collapse, the withering of the authority of the president and the pathetic performance of both parties in Congress, gave the (accurate) impression that there was no one at the helm in Washington. Recent measures have only partially restored American credibility.

The power vacuum in the U.S. has not lead to the emergence of alternative centers of power. The European Union’s leaders, after an inauspicious start, took some necessary steps, but not after showing how hard it is for them to work together. Moreover, Europe lacks the military capabilities and willpower to run a global security system. Japan has taken a back seat, while China, for a variety of reasons, has chosen to keep a low profile. The absence of leadership from anywhere magnified the panic in financial markets, whose players needed to believe that someone was leading the firefighting brigade.

Since 1952, Japan’s strategy has been to rely on the U.S. both for defending the country and providing international public goods. At this point, America’s defense of Japan itself is not in doubt. However, we may be entering a period where the capacity of the U.S. to support the international liberal regime established after World War II will decline, though it should be temporary, as the demographic, technological and economic assets of the U.S. should allow it to recover at one point.

Thus for the next few years the U.S. will be weaker. Besides dealing with economic woes at home, the U.S. confronts an extremely messy situation in Southwest Asia. Even if Barack Obama is elected, which now looks likely, it is not certain that he will be able, or even want, to swiftly withdraw from Iraq, radically downsize U.S. goals in Afghanistan, recalibrate policy toward the Israeli-Arab conflict and seek accommodation with Iran. Thus, America could still find itself wasting resources in Southwest Asia even though it can ill afford to do so.

Consequently, Japan will have to be more active on the diplomatic stage to compensate for a shortage of American leadership. What does this entail?

* Integrating China in the process to stabilize the global financial system. Japan should engage Beijing to think about how China can contribute to safeguarding a system in which both China and Japan have an enormous stake.

* Taking a more dynamic role in Korean affairs. The nuclear issue itself is not the key question, since U.S. deterrence is still functional. Nor is the abduction issue relevant to Japan’s national interest. But Japan needs to plan for the implosion of North Korea, which though not probable is not impossible. Tokyo needs to discuss this with Seoul and Beijing to come up with an action plan. This is not a U.S. priority but Japan cannot wait until Washington (re)awakens to Korea’s importance.

* Energy saving and non-oil energy. Japan is a leader in this field, which has the advantage of requiring no military power. Thus it could take the lead in providing an international public good, i.e., new and better ways to eliminate, or at least diminish, the need for oil. This would help the ecological and the security environments since oil pollutes and happens to be located in unstable and violent regions.

These initiatives will require a more proactive Japan. So far Tokyo has preferred to avoid the limelight while America took care of strategic affairs. This was a logical choice, but in the coming years it would be dangerous for Japan, the world’s largest economy outside of the U.S., not to make a greater contribution to world order.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo (robertdujarric@gmail.com).