Last weekend, more than 450 national security experts descended on the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany for the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC). Established in 1963, the MSC is the oldest and largest meeting of its kind, an opportunity for heads of state and top officials to discuss their biggest concerns and share those views with a larger audience that includes “thought leaders” — journalists, academics, think tank experts and civil society groups.
The MSC’s longevity and success have encouraged emulation. Similar conferences occur every month or so somewhere around the world, each trying to distinguish itself from the others. Despite the proliferation of gatherings, one does not take place in Japan — a curious omission given the Japanese government’s ambition to carve out a place in discussions of foreign policy and international diplomacy. That problem can be fixed by inaugurating an international forum to address national economic statecraft.
The problems of international relations and foreign policy are too great to be left to governments alone. Politicians and bureaucrats are usually absorbed with their daily jobs — taking care of “in-boxes” rather than getting ahead of issues and looking on or over the horizon. Problems are generally entrenched — every real global or regional concern has been with us for some time, a testimony to the failure of “the conventional wisdom.” Creativity is needed, but large institutions rarely encourage departures from the norm.
Large conferences like the MSC seek to move beyond narrowly bounded thinking by convening larger groups of experts — hopefully escaping group think — and providing venues for less scripted meetings and more genuine conversations. Their record of success is mixed, but it is possible — with the right organizers, agenda and attitudes.
In 2002, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in cooperation with the government of Singapore, launched the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The SLD is the Asian version of the MSC, bringing the most senior defense officials from Asian nations together for annual discussions of regional security concerns.
The success of the SLD — it has become the regional security discussion — spurred China to launch its own security dialogue, the Beijing Xiangshan Forum. It was inaugurated as a nongovernmental meeting in 2006, but was upgraded in 2014 to include government officials and a wider range of experts. Some charge that the meeting was the product of an objection to the notion of a non-Asian organization running Asia’s premier security conference; more cynical observers argue that Beijing wants to set the agenda for and control the content of such discussions.
Consistent with its ambitions, India has gotten in the game as well. In 2016, the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, in cooperation with India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, launched the Raisina Dialogue, a meeting that focuses on geopolitics and geoeconomics. There are other regional security meetings: the Halifax Forum is the only large multilateral security dialogue in North America, and Russia has the Valdai Discussion Forum.
If the focus turns to economics rather than security — although agendas increasingly blur the two — the list of meetings gets longer. The pre-eminent gathering is the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos summit. It has almost become a parody of itself: several thousand of the world’s business leaders, political leaders and “thought leaders” gather in a remote Swiss village to pat themselves on the back for taking up global problems that many of them created or contributed to.
The success of Davos prompted creation of the Boao Forum for Asia, which aims to promote Asian economic development and regional integration. The idea for a regional economic conversation on the WEF model was first articulated in 1998 by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, Fidel Ramos, the former president of the Philippines, and Bob Hawke, former prime minister of Australia. China offered a venue and the Boao Forum was first held in 2002 in Boao, Hainan, in Southern China. Like the Xiangshan Forum, the Boao secretariat is in Beijing and the meetings offer a China-centric view of regional economic affairs. Russia launched the Eastern Economic Forum to convene similar discussions about the problems and prospects of Northeast Asia and the Russian Far East.
Japan has been conspicuously quiet as this process has unfolded. The largest international conference here is the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, led by the Japanese government in cooperation with the United Nations, the United Nations Development Program, the African Union Commission and the World Bank. It assembles some 5,000 participants to discuss Africa’s development.
The Japan Institute of International Affairs, the Foreign Ministry’s think tank, launched in 2014 the Mount Fuji Dialogue, an annual discussion of issues and concerns in the Japan-U.S. relationship, and last year inaugurated the Tokyo Global Dialogue, which assessed challenges to the rules-based order.
Given the number of conferences that already exist, the rationale for yet another forum had better be good. Only two reasons make sense: either an important issue is not being discussed or a particular (and worthwhile) point of view is not being expressed. (China seems especially sensitive to the second consideration; it has launched two dialogues to counter what it deems the “Western bias” of other forums.)
There is a gap in the conversation, however, at the intersection of economic policy and national security, an arena referred to as national economic statecraft. These issues — industrial policy, emerging technologies, trade sanctions and investment controls, to name a few — invariably surface in discussions of national security or economics, but they tend to be offshoots of conversations or footnotes, not the focus. It is a subtle difference, but it is a critical one.
The need for focus is reflected in the recent restructuring of Japan’s National Security Secretariat (NSS), and the creation of a fourth division to work on national economic statecraft. This move is designed to better integrate economic and national security policies. It also provides an excellent reason to begin an international dialogue to explore these topics in a meaningful and systematic fashion.
It is vitally important, however, that such a forum, if launched, not be seen as a mere offshoot of the Japanese government, designed to project its agenda, validate its views and co-opt dissent. While enjoying Tokyo’s support, it must be focused, independent and intellectually rigorous. With that foundation, such an initiative could be as long-lived and relevant as the Munich Security Conference.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”