Commentary / Japan

The most famous person you've never heard of

by Kuni Miyake

I heard two pieces of sad news last week, one about the passing of a genius in Washington and the other a living dead person in London. The two stories may give Tokyo valuable lessons for doing the right thing at the right time while avoiding unnecessary political fiascos and stalemates in the years to come.

Andrew W. Marshall passed away on March 26 at the age of 97 after serving in the U.S. Department of Defense for 42 years. The next day Theresa May said she would resign as Britain’s prime minister once her Brexit deal was approved. As many had expected, however, it didn’t pass the Parliament for the third time.

Let me start with Marshall. People called him in many ways, such as “the most famous person you’ve never heard of” or “Yoda” who, as the Grand Master of the Jedi Order in the Star Wars, trained Luke Skywalker to fight against the evil Galactic Empire of the dark side, although Marshall himself may not have liked the nickname.

He was not a well-known public figure although many of those who knew or knew of him referred to him with great respect and even awe. Officially, he ran the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) since the days of U.S. President Richard Nixon, but few in Tokyo know what he was really doing, probably because most of his writings are still classified.

In Japan, for example, Kyodo News only carried a short article in Japanese about his death that “Dr. Andrew Marshall passed away on March 26 in Virginia at age 97. After working on long-term U.S. defense planning, first vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and then China, he was called a ‘legendary military strategist’ or ‘Yoda of the Pentagon.’ “

For me, Marshall was not Yoda but a giant in ONA, though I still don’t know how he thought. I never talked to him in person. I remember seeing him once in a big Pentagon meeting from a distance years ago. It was only later when, after reading a lot about him, I learned that he was a kind of genius with right intuitions.

What was Marshall? It is still a mystery, but I know what he wasn’t. First, he was not a diplomat. He never represented the U.S. He always tried to raise the right questions. Second, he was not an ideologue. He never ideologically analyzed China. He just tried to understand the balance between the U.S. and its adversaries.

Third, he wasn’t just an intelligence analyst. His intellectual curiosity went far beyond those of the intelligence services. He wanted his disciples to think much deeper to explore decisive elements that might change the overall balance, from strategic, doctrinal and even operational points of view, in a way that no ordinary intelligence analyst could do.

Of course, he was not a bureaucrat. I still don’t know why Marshall survived the series of political cycles every four years in Washington. He, however, was not a politician, either. If he had been, he could not have survived there. It was probably his ultra modest style of doing business that protected him from his political opponents.

Finally, Marshall was neither a mere strategic thinker nor defense planner sitting at a desk. He seemed to have always been interested in fighting in a way that others had not been. He must have been able to see not only the leaves and branches of the trees, but also all the trees and even the entire forest simultaneously.

Now I miss this tireless warrior with endless intuition who raised the right questions so that he could guide his disciples closer to the truth. No one seems to be able to fully replace Marshall in ONA. He was a unique product of 20th-century America. No other country will ever have somebody like him.

Now let me turn to May. If Marshall was a legendary warrior, she is a powerless zombie in London politics. She has my full sympathy now because she is not responsible for the making of the ongoing political turmoil in the United Kingdom. Having said that, no politicians should ever refer to his or her resignation prematurely.

Once you talk about your resignation, on whatever conditions it may be, you have passed the point of no return and your days start being numbered. What will she want to do next? A second referendum on Brexit? If the result is the same as the first, she will be politically killed immediately. If not, the die-hard Brexiters will revolt again.

Those two sad stories remind me of what Japan will need to both have and avoid. What Tokyo should have is not only a strategic thinker/planner like Marshall but also politicians who allow the thinker/planner to do the necessary work and then listen carefully to his or her overall analyses.

What the government needs to avoid is also easy to say but difficult to do.

First, it should never divide the nation. It must carefully remove political purists from decision-making. Second, it shouldn’t resort to referendums on politically critical issues. It must realize that referendums tend not to unite but rather divide the country.

Finally, Japan needs a strong and pragmatic political leader with strategic insights and, more importantly, it needs to reproduce such statesmen for the future generations. Looking back, Japan now seems to be in a better shape. As compared to other Group of Seven nations, Japan is much more stable. So far, so good.

This, however, will not guarantee a bright future. We should not forget that Japan used to change its prime ministers every year until only seven year ago. As seen in the U.S. or U.K., once the quality of political leadership deteriorates, it is very difficult to rebuild it. May God bless Japan and its people!

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5