Squaring Japan's Relationships with the US and UN

SOEYA Yoshihide
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Rather than evaluating Japan's support for the United States over the war in Iraq as a "sycophantic following of the US," we should see it as an example of Japan's new style of diplomacy. Japan's task after the war will be to combine the cornerstone of Japan-US relations with UN diplomacy under an integrated policy, and the test of this will be how Japan can participate in a post-Saddam Iraq and the Middle East as a whole.

"Sycophantic following of the US" is a superficial analysis

Domestic opinion was divided over the Japanese government's stance supporting the US-led attack on Iraq. The logic of the Japanese Government was that, out of the three options - to support the US, to support Iraq, or to remain neutral - neutrality would be most irresponsible, supporting Iraq was unthinkable, and therefore supporting the US was the only beneficial choice. Many critics revealed mistrust for the government and argued that the government's decision was a sign of nothing else but the usual sycophantic support for the US.

However, the Japanese government usually only declares an "understanding" of the US approach when such an approach is considered questionable from the perspective of international law. The Koizumi Cabinet's position, to support the attack on Iraq without reservation, in fact marks an entirely new one.

The flaw in the critics' argument that the Japanese diplomatic line was just slavishly following that of the US does not acknowledge the government's new way of thinking. Feeling uncomfortable about just following the US, critics seek their new approach outside of the Japan-US relationship, disregarding its profound importance with regards to Japanese diplomacy.

Many arguments heard in Japan which tend to favor UN diplomacy encompass such feelings. It will be difficult for Japan - on the basis of such arguments - to decide how to formulate policies that integrate this key Japan-US relationship into UN-based diplomacy. But, the Japanese government is responsible for this; it is successive Japanese administrations that have raised the principle of keeping both Japan-US relations and the UN as the central pillars of Japanese diplomacy. The government advocated the UN principle, partly in order to alleviate the criticism of a public dissatisfied with the Japan-US relationship.

For Japan to realize a mature UN diplomacy, it should remain consistent in its close relationship with the US. Furthermore, these two pillars must not simply avoid being contradictory, but create positive synergy and contribute to the stability of international order. In engaging in a post-Saddam Iraq and the Middle East, Japan must overcome its inertia and raise its diplomacy to a new level.

Support for the US as a new diplomacy

Looking from the standpoint of this new form of Japanese diplomacy, it is necessary to affirm the non-traditional aspects of the US war against Iraq and Japanese diplomatic support for that war. It is possibly somewhat illogical to analyze the United States' motivation and intention for the war in terms of a US grand design of "mono-polar rule" or "world rule by force"; above all, underlying the current US position is an impulse for self-defense.

The impact of the September 11th terrorist attack was felt by all Americans to the very core. No matter how you evaluate the Bush administration's diplomacy, behind its many motivations, shock must be accepted as a major factor. For this very reason alone support for the internationally unpopular war in Iraq was still high amongst Americans. Koizumi's swift reaction to support the war in Iraq was backed by a sense of sympathy for the profound harm inflicted by the terrorist attack. One recalls that Koizumi's diplomatic stance just after 911 was one of clearly stating that Japan would stand by the US.

As the Japanese government does not recognize the use of collective self-defense, in the policy debate Japan is in the difficult position of being unable to declare co-operation in a US war of self-defense. Therefore, as far as possible both the US and Japanese governments have been avoiding employing the logic that this war is one of self-defense for the United States. However, a relationship of trust is more important for the alliance than policies and it is certainly the case that the Koizumi Cabinet's policies towards the US after 911 have contributed to strengthening the basis of Japan-US relations.

Furthermore, whether the US is seriously pursuing the war on terror out of an urge for self-defense or otherwise, the fact that it is pursuing the war does have implications for world affairs. The US conducts its diplomacy on a world stage and when the US acts, the world moves. Ever since the US was founded as a nation, its sense of mission has been to seek actively to construct a democratic and peaceful world. In terms of the current Bush administration's diplomacy, the urge for self-defense, the idea of universal good and justice are all inseparably bound together.

In this sense, the Koizumi administration's support for the war in Iraq encompasses an important judgment of values. The Koizumi administration has made a clear commitment to the universal values behind the US diplomacy as the international policy, acknowledging that they conflict with Iraqi or Arab values. To date, Japanese diplomacy has inclined towards relativism and has avoided committing to values; that was also the approach expected by the public. However, the shock of September 11th demanded that a set of values be chosen, and Koizumi has shown his flag for all to see.

Looking back, the US recognized terrorism as the greatest security threat after the Cold War, and it also advocated preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the most important international security agenda. An outcome of 911 is that these two ideas have become inseparable for US diplomacy. The so-called 'Neo-conservatives' are resolutely determined to take action based on unshakeable beliefs to achieve firm objectives, using every means available. Under these conditions, the concept of pre-emptive military action was born and President Bush's Axis of Evil speech was delivered.

For the Neo-conservatives at the heart of the Bush administration, choosing whether or not to take a unilateralist or multilateralist approach is of no significance. The important thing is to choose a path which delivers results. Against the US adopting such a mindset, the UN was certainly powerless. Or, it was wrong to assume that the UN could obstruct the US policy in the face of the solid US determination. Although calls for blocking US policy were certainly a serious step as a declaration of international opinion, in terms of the policy debate, it was largely meaningless.

An example of a new UN diplomacy

The UN is now at a crossroads. Japan, aiming to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should demonstrate how a new UN could operate and what role Japan could play in the future should membership be granted. For Japanese diplomacy in the post-Saddam Iraq and the wider Middle East, attempting to reconstruct UN diplomacy will be an important first step.

Discussion has already begun over what specific things Japan can do to aid the reconstruction of Iraq. Providing humanitarian aid or medical support, helping to maintain vital services and community infrastructure, or helping with education - any of these would represent a significant contribution. In fact, over recent years Japanese diplomacy has intentionally sought leverage through these kinds of activities; the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi placed them together under the banner of 'human security'.

The big challenge for Japanese diplomacy is how to improve its strategy for presenting this idea of 'human security' as a symbol of the Japanese approach. With a foothold in the 'new UN diplomacy,' Japan has a latent potential to take forward this Japanese approach.

There are two points of contact between this idea of a new UN diplomacy and what the US is practicing. The first is democratization. Regardless of whether or not the US is intentionally pushing it as a policy, the trend for democratization emanating from the US is becoming a world trend which cannot be reversed. Offering an international framework for this development will be a major role for the UN.

In that context, this important role for the UN will prevent unnecessary disorder that could arise from democratization being mistaken for Americanization. In its support lent to the Middle East, Japan should, while committing to the US drive for democracy as a universal value, also continue to further discourse in the UN arena on the many different forms that this process of democratization can take. Such action would be consistent with Japan's own experiences after World War II.

Moreover, Japan must confirm the unchanging elements of its alliance with the US in the security field. This is related to the fact that the collective security system of the UN is already a relic of history. Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, the fact that the UN did not effectively function this time highlights a fundamental process of degeneration in terms of the UN's role in international security; and Japan will face international security problems over which it cannot entirely depend on the UN for help.

>> Original text in Japanese

* Reprinted from the Keizaikyoshitsu column of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Apr. 15, 2003

April 15, 2003 Nihon Keizai Shimbun

April 15, 2003

Article(s) by this author