Commentary / Japan

Quest for Japan-EU leadership

by Radu Magdin

Special To The Japan Times

A specter is haunting Europe and, contrary to what Marx was saying more than 150 years ago, it is not communism. Despite the highly destructive potential of political polarization, fake news and anti-globalization, it is not even the rise of extreme-right parties that should be our top concern. The sentiment that the postwar order is doomed to fail, that nothing can be done other than contemplating the decay of the West, is the real threat in Brussels and Tokyo, as it is in Washington, Paris, and Berlin. So, more than ever, the enemies of this apparently benign dolce far niente, should unite, take initiative and stand up for what is right in the medium and long term.

The first weeks of the new U.S. administration sent mixed signals about the role that Trump’s America will assume in the global system. It is far from obvious how the isolationist, anti-trade, and anti-globalization rhetoric which was the trademark of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign will be translated into policy. We have been the witness to some powerful and symbolic gestures (such as the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the contested travel ban), but the jury is still out on the outline of the new U.S. global strategy.

So far, various top U.S. officials have voiced their (often contradictory) preferences. Should one be satisfied with Vice President Mike Pence’s security pledges, as they were expressed during the Munich Security Conference? Or should more weight be given to the anti-European Union, hence anti-Europe, comments of Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon? These are legitimate questions and it remains to be seen if a systemic or an anti-system vision will prevail.

One of the interesting theories of international cooperation is the hegemonic stability theory. In its simplified and condensed form, it says that the stability of the world system and economy depends on the presence of a hegemonic power that can enforce agreements, provide stability and thus reduce anarchy. For sure, with the rise of emerging powers, no one can contest that we live in the time of a declining hegemon. The tricky question — one that invites not only academic reflection, but also political and policy action — is how we make sure that stability persists when/after the hegemon declines.

This is where one might see essential an enhanced dialogue between Japan and the EU. A consolidated relationship between these two exponents of the current world order can be the right answer to current predicaments, hesitations, and inaction. In the context of the U.S. shying away, at least for the moment, from its international role, global leadership can be provided by more than one state. Given their economic footprint, strong political and cultural ties, as well as the shared view on the world system, the EU and Japan are typical candidates to step forward and assume more responsibilities.

As it has been reiterated during the recent meeting between EU Trade Commissioner Malmstrom and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the negotiation of a free trade agreement between the EU and Japan is going forward, with good chances of being concluded by the end of the year. This is good news and a commitment to advance trade and globalization even as French and German voters are preparing to elect their nations’ leaders should be welcomed. However, the point one needs to stress is that a bolder cooperation agenda should be put forward, with smart cultural, economic, political, and security targets. As said earlier, when the tendency in times of uncertainty and realignment is to look within, the great opportunity for like-minded partners is to answer “present” and lead.

This is not something new for Japan. Even recently, after the Brexit referendum, Tokyo placed itself of the right side of history and sent a powerful message to the United Kingdom and the EU. With well-chosen words, it advocated for openness, transparency, stability, cooperation and value-driven global leadership. It showed that the risks of a precipitate, rushed divorce go beyond European shores, and major international players have legitimate reasons to care and seek involvement. Tokyo has also been among the first partners to reach out to the new U.S. administration and expressed its confidence in a continued shared future.

On the foundation of shared values and proved leadership, Japan and the EU can unite their efforts and foster the basis of an international world order that leaves behind and goes beyond Brexit, the failure of the TPP, isolationist tendencies and sluggish economic recovery in the global north. In today’s world, resilience in the face of adversity, together with the imagination of putting together a positive project, is key.

This why it is commonsensical to plead for enhanced international cooperation led by Japan and the EU. I strongly believe that all the conditions are met for a Japanese charm offensive in Europe, one that will shape the global outlook and will provide concerned citizens clear evidence of the benefits of cooperation and internationalism. Where there is a will, there is a way. Today, the EU and Japan are in the best position to transform what has been coined as “the crisis of the West” into an opportunity to innovate and to deliver stability and prosperity. Let us hope that actions will match this potential.

Radu G. Magdin, a former adviser to the Romanian prime minister, is vice president of the think tank Strategikon.