Commentary / Japan

It's time to protect the liberal international order

by Yoichi Funabashi

Since the inauguration of the Trump administration, the United States appears to have abdicated from a role it has fulfilled since the end of World War II — namely, that of defender of the liberal international order. For example:

The U.S. is forcing Mexico and Canada to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement to the detriment of the pact.

The administration has expressly stated that the U.S. will never again return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The U.S. has opposed the inclusion of words vowing opposition to protectionism in Group of Seven and Group of 20 statements.

The administration favors a bilateral approach to trade negotiations and no longer accepts multilateral trade talks.

The Trump administration has deliberately refused to confirm to European allies that it will observe its mutual defense obligations.

Not one to mince words, U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy adviser Steve Bannon has said that “the globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.” In the Trump administration, the only way to attack a political enemy is to spread rumors that he or she is a “globalist.” A friend of mine, now a political appointee to an important White House post, is one of those exposed to such attacks.

The economic landslide that is “gutting the working class” will likely continue over the long term. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans appear to be preparing a fundamental response to address the problem.

Moves that significantly influence this landslide — namely China’s export offensive, disregard of World Trade Organization rules, monopolistic industrial policy and pursuit of an exclusive China-led order — have only just begun. Trump’s “America First” politics is likely to end in failure.

If the U.S. decides to close its doors and erect new walls, the countries of Asia will begin to build a regional order without the U.S. The world will not come to a halt even if the U.S. declares it can no longer engage with it. And China will be all too happy to fill a vacuum left by declining U.S. involvement in Asia.

In the past, the U.S. once attempted to construct separate regional orders in Europe and Asia. After the end of World War I, the U.S. turned its back on the League of Nations, and, in the process of disengaging from Europe, turned to the Asia-Pacific region with the intent of developing a regional order centered on a policy of cooperation with China and disarmament. This was known as the Washington system since the Nine-Power Treaty regarding China was concluded at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922.

This experiment ended in failure. The U.S. advocated an “open door policy” and the “equal rights” of all nations to trade with China as the guiding principles of this new order. However, China’s dissatisfaction with its unequal status in the international order led to an outburst of Chinese nationalism.

Meanwhile, despite being one of the victors of World War I, Japan was not accorded first-class power status under the Washington system. Coupled with Japan’s frustration with racial discrimination evident in the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, this prevented the creation of a strong domestic base of support for the Washington system.

The fundamental problem, however, was the U.S. government’s lack of commitment to defend at all costs the principles and pacts upon which the Washington system was based.

By contrast, the U.S. was deeply committed to the post-World War II liberal international order, which centered on the Bretton Woods system, and maintained and further developed this system with solid bipartisan support at home.

However, Michael Anton and other anti-globalist theorists in the Trump administration have called for disturbing changes to this tradition. In their view, trade policies should be considered a matter of national defense. The forward deployment of U.S. troops, including overseas American military bases, should be reduced to the minimum. The U.S. should no longer use foreign policy to promote democratization abroad.

To be sure, Anton and his colleagues have a point: In the post-Cold War period, the democracy-promoting foreign policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations failed (as illustrated by America’s policy in the Middle East) in part due to the misguided belief that the U.S. could create a global community comprised of like-minded states.

At the same time, the liberalism, internationalism and multilateral rules and organizations shared by “like-minded” democratic states, if maintained, can become the cornerstone of peace and prosperity — indeed, they have performed this function. Despite its hegemonic status, the post-World War II U.S. managed this system in a “user-friendly” manner.

This version of the U.S. is nowhere in evidence today. The liberal international order now finds itself without a leader. Princeton University professor John Ikenberry says that when it comes to preserving the liberal international order, “Much will rest on the shoulders of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.” Specifically, he says, “Abe should keep promoting liberal trade agreements, modeled on the TPP, and Merkel, as the leader of the country that perhaps most embodies the virtues and accomplishments of the postwar liberal order, is uniquely positioned to speak as the moral voice of the liberal democratic world.”

While this may be too much to expect, Japan could treat the new American absence as a historic opportunity to pursue a proactive Asian foreign policy. Rooting the Asian regional order in the principles of liberal international order will be vital to the establishment of long-term strategies for Japan’s trade, national security and its approach to the regional order.

Now is not the time for Japan to compete with China, but to develop a long-term vision for engaging with China. There should be areas in which Japan can cooperate with China for regional development in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan must couple these cooperative efforts with power-balancing measures. What is needed for Japan is a broad-minded and dogged form of diplomacy.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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