OSAKA – From time to time I have a vivid dream of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leading Japan out of its torpor and into a bright global leadership role, using the country’s rich civilization, culture and, especially, its history and encounters with the world. But inevitably a greedy nightmare intervenes and smashes the dream, explosively. Is it a nuclear explosion? I usually wake up at that point.
The Abe of the dream presents himself as a statesman, even a poet, who understands the importance of learning from history and developing a vision that can make the best of the best hopes, and can see beyond the daily pressures of here and now. The Abe of the nightmares is the pragmatic politician seeking immediate advantage, particularly with an election always coming into view.
It is all too easy to understand why Abe should concentrate on the immediate here and now. Political and military temperatures in Asia are rising so fast that some experts fear that a small accident or miscalculation could lead to the incalculable damage of potentially a nuclear war.
China’s construction on its artificial islands in the South China Sea is no longer the immediate flashpoint, which has moved to the Korean Peninsula. Abe might be reassured that new U.S. President Donald Trump is not withdrawing into fortress America. Indeed, the messages of Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian air base and dropping the “mother of all bombs” on remote Afghanistan are that the United States is back with its big stick to beat the wicked world.
Trump also ordered the deployment of a naval strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the waters off the Korean Peninsula to try to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to stop his dangerous games of defiance of United Nations nuclear weapons sanctions. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a message from the DMZ separating North and South Korea that America’s long-standing “era of strategic patience” with Pyongyang had failed.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, a retired general, claimed that sending the strike force was a “prudent” response to Pyongyang’s “pattern of provocative behavior. … This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear capable regime. … So the president has asked to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat.” In response Pyongyang declared it is “ready for war.”
North Korea is committed by its constitution to be “an indomitable and nuclear state.” Pyongyang accused Trump of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.” North Korea’s deputy foreign minister told the BBC that “all-out war” would result if the U.S. took military action against his country.
What happens when the U.S.’ irresistible force meets Kim’s determined immovable object?
The issue of North Korea is instructive for Abe and Japan because the room to maneuver is limited and Japan is trapped — vulnerable to the actions of more powerful players. Essentially, there are three options for Washington: a pre-emptive strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear facilities — which would be an act of war and would lead to chaos if successful, by no means guaranteed, and deaths and disaster spreading beyond the peninsula to China and Japan if it failed; diplomacy — which has failed over several decades, and which Trump’s and Pence’s tough-guy talk and Pyongyang’s angry responses make problematic; or acquiescence in the fact that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state.
Optimists say using creative diplomacy might find a way through this “trilemma,” and suggest China might play a more constructive role. However, China has been a halfhearted participant in agreed U.N. sanctions against North Korea, while continuing to supply Pyongyang with essential fuel and food that keep its economy running. Would Kim — so new and untrusting that he has not even met China’s Xi Jinping — agree to talk, and could he be trusted to keep his word? On the other hand, piling on sanctions and threats without some sweetening incentives risk making Kim even more recalcitrant.
As with Korea, so with the world: The 21st century world is both more dangerous and more precarious than on the eve of the two world wars. We live in a global world: What happens in one place — whether discarded plastic crossing the oceans, pollution in the air, jobs that flee across borders, or consumer goods put together across countries — turns up half a world away to delight or damage lives and the environment.
More than 60 years without major global conflict have transformed the world. The economic and political umbrella of Pax Americana and the opening up of China added prosperous dimensions to economic and trade flows. Together, these developments lifted growth and pulled several billion people out of poverty.
But the 2008 financial crisis revealed deep flaws in the model. More than a billion people in poor countries remain mired in poverty, often because corrupt dictatorial rulers prevent them from joining the rapidly growing world. In rich countries, the benefits increasingly went to a small privileged group, while larger numbers of people who failed to adapt to rapidly changing times lost out.
This played into politics and has created a damaging and explosive situation. An increasingly global world requires leaders with similar global vision, but political leaders of all the so-called great powers are increasingly narrow-minded, seeking national advantage that will ultimately set the whole world on fire. Trump, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are all in this camp.
Abe may be the paradigm nationalist, who dreams of bringing back the defeated past. But in my dream, I see Abe realizing that Japan risks being trapped and crushed under conflicting nationalisms, and understanding how the country and the world would benefit if Japan plays a creative role between conflicting interests.
I admit it may seem like a dream, along with fairies, phoenixes and other mythical creatures with magical powers. However, Japan is an ancient civilization, the first Asian country to become industrialized, that paid the price for its ultra-nationalism, and then rose again from the ashes of war and defeat to become a modern industrial and economic power with much to teach the world. But it can only do so if Japan understands and accepts its own painful history.
If he thinks about his revered grandfather, Abe should surely try to help Japan and the world to a better future rather than wallow in a defeated past — or we may all have to live and die a dreadful nightmare.
Kevin Rafferty has lived and worked in six Asian countries and reported from Washington under six U.S. presidents. He was in charge of the Asian coverage of the Financial Times and worked at the World Bank before becoming a professor in the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.