The Council on Foreign Relations, a leading U.S. foreign policy institute and publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine, this spring launched a network of the world’s influential policy institutes. The initiative aims at creating a forum for serious discussion among policy researchers to address pressing global issues and generate practical solutions.

The founding membership of the network, called the Council of Councils (CoC), roughly tracks the composition of the Group of 20 major economies, and includes such prominent organizations as Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), the French Institute of International Relations and Russia’s Institute of Contemporary Development.

To my surprise, Genron NPO, a nonprofit group that I founded 10 years ago, was chosen as a member of the global network to represent Japan. Eventually I was invited to attend the inaugural CoC conference in Washington in mid-March.

Until the conference began it remained a mystery to me why this small and young NPO — dedicated to the assessment for public scrutiny of policy measures by the government and major political parties from the standpoint of citizens — was selected. At the conference I finally realized why. In a nutshell, the ongoing changes in the world are being propelled by citizens as the primary movers, not governments. And private-sector independent think tanks like Genron NPO are expected to play a larger role in such a new environment.

Genron NPO prides itself on maintaining its distance from governments, political parties and any particular interests. Our group depends mostly on donations from the general public to finance its activities. and is one of the few independent and nonpartisan think tanks in Japan.

During the two-day conference, debate focused mainly on the malfunction of global governance, Iran’s nuclear development, Libya, global financial instability resulting from the European debt crisis and the repercussions of the emerging powers, especially China.

The participants shared a common recognition that the United Nations and various other international organizations or multinational forums are becoming unable to effectively address the threat of nuclear proliferation, global environmental issues and other pressing global challenges. Existing international institutions, many of which were created at the initiative of the advanced Western democracies, have not adapted to meet new challenges or accommodate new centers of influence —namely, China and other emerging powers.

Our consensus was that policy research institutes worldwide should address these pressing global agendas in earnest, not just as third-party observers but as “responsible stakeholders.”

Looking back at the status quo in Japan, politics continues to drift along aimlessly with no decisions being made on how to address pressing national tasks and set the future course of this country. First and foremost, this situation must be rectified. Otherwise, Japan will be left behind and ongoing global changes will pass it by.

I developed such a sense of crisis, especially when I heard the remarks of Robert D. Hormats, U.S. undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment, which he delivered as a keynote address during the conference.

Hormats cited the growing influence of NGOs as an increasingly important phenomenon in global governance. “As never before, NGOs and civil society groups are able to draw attention to particular issues that governments are either trying to sideline or ignore,” he noted. NGOs, he said, should be embraced as watchdogs when it comes to issues like environmental protection and measuring the effectiveness of national policies.

Commenting on U.S.-Japan relations in response to my question, Hormats admitted that there was insufficient dialogue between Tokyo and Washington. But he added, to my surprise, that he believed it more important to conduct dialogue with Japanese NPOs and citizens.

It has now become a cliche, both at home and abroad, to say that Japan’s presence is on the wane in the international arena due largely to the rise of China. In fact, little reference was made to Japan during the lengthy discussions in Washington. Japan brought this isolation upon itself. Leaders of the United States and the rest of the world are apparently disappointed by Japan’s inward-looking and indecisive politics. They are shrewd enough to know that Japan will never change without a substantial shift in the basic framework of politics.

At stake is the empowerment of Japanese citizenry and the behavior of Japanese voters as responsible stakeholders in rebuilding innovative governance in this country, which I strongly believe is the mission of my group’s drive.

Yasushi Kudo is representative of Genron NPO, a private-sector, nonprofit and independent policy institute.

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