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Monday, Sept. 17, 2007

U.S. power and Japan's role

There have been no signs of deterioration in U.S. power over the past decade, measured either militarily, economically, or in terms of "soft power"; this is true both in absolute terms and in comparison with other countries.

Granted, there has been a reduction in troop strength due to the realignment of U.S. forces, but America's military presence is as dominant as ever. And while it continues to be plagued by precarious twin deficits in trade and the fiscal budget, the U.S. economy as a whole does not appear to be languishing, thanks to unrivaled industrial competitiveness and the ability to draw investments from abroad and to make investments in foreign markets.

The problem, rather, lies in the effectiveness with which the country is exercising its potent economic, military and political resources. At the same time, questions have arisen regarding the legitimacy and credibility of America's global leadership.

It has become extremely difficult for the United States to take effective unilateral action in the economic field — such as demanding voluntary export restraints and the implementation of retaliatory measures — because of the increasingly elaborate rules of the World Trade Organization.

On a more fundamental level, even if the U.S. were to throw its economic weight around and impose sanctions on, or take retaliatory action against, other states — as it was wont to do in the past — such acts would likely rebound on the country itself, given the world's growing economic interdependence in the age of globalization. (Mutual dependence of the world's economies means, in other words, that the U.S. cannot by itself effectively retaliate or impose sanctions.)

Any consideration of the effective deployment of America's military power, as frequently pointed out, must take into consideration the changing nature of the security problem since the end of East-West confrontation, and the thrust of such new threats as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In addressing these new threats, there are limits to the effectiveness of conventional uses of military power, particularly by a single country.

Another impediment to the effective use of U.S. military power is the growing demands in the international community that force should be used in accordance with international rules and be based on a broad consensus. The United Nations is increasingly becoming a forum for effective multinational consultation, and international relations are now dictated more by world opinion than by the will of the major powers.

All in all, the U.S. has thus been unable to make its military might count, despite possessing massive fighting strength and the capacity to use it. Then there is the problem of legitimacy. The doubts that have been raised about the legitimacy of U.S. global leadership stem largely from Washington's recent predilection for unilateralism.

There are also problems with the self-righteous explanations some Americans have used to justify their country's actions, such as comparing the war in Iraq with World War II and placing the democratization of Iraq on a par with that of postwar Japan and Germany. Such arguments completely ignore the historical background to these events and only serve to erode America's legitimacy.

Whatever one thinks of these issues, there is no doubt that anti-Americanism is gradually spreading across the globe. This is undermining even well-intentioned U.S. initiatives, as people now see ulterior motives behind Washington's every move.

Taken together, the trends touched upon above present the U.S. with two problems: The first is that the exercise of its considerable powers is entailing ever-higher economic and political costs. The second is that the legitimacy of its global leadership is being eroded.

What, then, should the U.S. do to address these issues?

This is something for Americans themselves to ponder upon, of course, but Japan, as a U.S. ally, must consider what it can do to help its partner across the Pacific. First, Japan should share America's political and economic costs as far as possible, and for this it needs to reinforce its own economic strength and, at the same time, enhance its domestic institutions to facilitate the extension of support.

Moreover, Japan can buttress the legitimacy of U.S. leadership by demonstrating to the world that Japan and the U.S. stand together in addressing common issues and espousing common principles.

Should Japan commit itself to its partnership with the U.S. in this way, America must respond by considering the burden Japan bears not only in the context of bilateral relations but in a broader, international milieu. This requires thinking about how Japan and the U.S. are to share the costs of maintaining the international order. It also means that, in tandem with the work of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance, Washington must make greater efforts to advance U.N. reform.

At the same time, the U.S. must not attempt to exempt itself from international frameworks crafted to address global issues. America's long-term national interests are in line with those of the international community as a whole.

Should Washington continue to pursue its short-term interests and claim exemption from international rules on the basis of its global dominance, it will only precipitate the collapse of its own leadership. It should instead embed itself firmly in international frameworks and lead the rest of the world through example.

A good way to start would be to rethink its attitude to global environmental problems and the ratification of the international criminal court.

Kazuo Ogoura, a former Japanese ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and France, is a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and president of the Japan Foundation.

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