Since U.S. President Donald Trump has trumpeted his “America First” slogan, some leaders of other countries are seeking to follow suit. Given the situation in which many workers have been left behind by globalization of the economy, it may be only natural for more people to hope that their politicians would put priority on their own national interests. It must be noted, however, that, be it America or any other country, a slogan that promises to put “— first” is indeed a denial of politics itself.
What does “America” specifically mean here? Needless to say, there are diverse people and groups in a country, each with a different set of interests. There is no single magic policy that makes all members of a nation happy. It’s obvious when you think of concrete policies such as the tax system, social security and deregulation.
Politics is a process whereby leaders, on the premise of such diverse interests, spell out policies that will benefit as many people as possible, and get others who may be disadvantaged to accept the policies through persuasion or by offering compensation, thereby building a consensus. Therefore, a political slogan that pledges to put “— first” without looking at the reality can easily degrade into an ideology, which carries the effect of suffocating the significance of people who will be disadvantaged by the policy. This is what I mean by the denial of politics.
The Trump administration, despite the president’s repeated attacks on the establishment, has been quick to introduce financial deregulation that will benefit major banks.
In a democracy, it often happens that have-not citizens dare to choose a leader who then enacts policies that are disadvantageous to them. That is likely because the illusion that the state serves to protect the common interests remains deep-rooted. Trump, because of his lack of experience in the world of politics with its ties to various special interests, managed to sell himself as a protector of national interests. But, I repeat, political leadership that propagates an illusion of a monolithic population will weaken democratic politics.
In Japan, matters are a bit more complicated. The economic policies of the Abe administration, as illustrated by its push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, seek to ride the wave of globalization. To persuade people to accept the policies, it relies on a sophisticated calculation that opening up the economy to the rest of the world serves Japan’s national interests.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Diet that weapons imports from the United States will increase American jobs. It is a fairly distorted picture — to say that following Trump’s “America First” mantra and cooperating to realize that will best serve Japan’s interests. It is indeed fairly strange to make it a policy goal to increase employment in another country. But this warped logic is explained by national security needs, and many Japanese — though they consider it illogical — somehow accept it.
The incantation that the security environment surrounding Japan is getting worse goes a long way to lower the level of people’s expectations in politics and raise their relative evaluation of the Abe administration. The sense of fear that Japan’s survival is at risk if the U.S. gives it the cold shoulder is even stronger today than during the Cold War, because of the concrete threat of China’s military power and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The condition where the rating of an administration is determined mostly by its diplomacy points to the weakening of democratic politics at home. Abe, when he holds talks with the top leaders of friendly powers, makes it a point to say that Japan shares with them fundamental values such as democracy and rule of law. This is quite ironic.
In the U.S., courts and critical citizens are fighting to protect the rule of law against the excesses of the president through his executive orders. Trump stands on the side that attacks the rule of law.
In Japan, the Abe administration is seeking to enact a law to make it punishable to plot for crimes — despite the risk of such legislation infringing on people’s basic rights — in the name of efforts against terrorism.
In both Japan and the U.S., the governments are retreating from the rule of law and guarantee of people’s freedom under the cause of national security. Which leads me to suspect that’s why the two leaders seem to go along well with each other.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.
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