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Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1999

Japan searches for status, finds only frustration


Staff writer
JAPAN'S QUEST FOR A PERMANENT SECURITY COUNCIL SEAT: A Matter of Pride or Justice?, by Reinhard Drifte. MacMillan Press, St. Antony's Series, 1999, 269 pp., 47.50 British pounds.

From the day Japan surrendered to end World War II, its leaders have sought to rehabilitate the country and restore its prewar status as a leading power in the community of nations. Strategic alliance with the United States has been the chief means to that end.

The bilateral relationship has obscured a second tactic: membership in the United Nations and the quest for a permanent seat on its Security Council. Reinhardt Drifte, head of the Japanese studies program at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has focused on this in "Japan's Quest for a Permanent U.N. Security Council Seat."

Drifte's analysis is exhaustive; no facet of the Security Council bid goes untouched. (He admitted in an interview, however, that discussion of Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations had to be abbreviated. "It's a book in itself," he explained.) What emerges is a fascinating picture of Japanese foreign-policy making. His key arguments are:

* The Security Council bid has been sustained by the determination of a group of individuals in the Foreign Ministry. At times they have been able to build coalitions with other political groups, but these have been ad hoc arrangements and have suffered accordingly.

* Bureaucratic efforts are necessary, but not sufficient; political leadership is needed. Unfortunately, that has been rare. The two men best suited to the task, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and former Defense Agency chief Kazuo Aichi, subordinated U.N. policy to the bilateral relationship with the U.S.

* Finally, Japanese tactics are not up to the challenge. Drifte concludes that "Japan's multilateral diplomacy is still lacking in political ideas, concepts and personnel input, and is instead relying overwhelmingly on material contributions as well as on the country's exceptionalism."

That judgment is especially damning, as Japan has made the U.N. a focal point of its diplomacy throughout the postwar era. As early as 1951, Japanese diplomats were speaking publicly of the need to gain membership in the U.N. Drifte can't pin down an exact date, but he notes that since Japan joined the organization as its 80th member in 1956, Tokyo has promoted revision of the U.N. charter.

Charter revision was easy to rally behind: The "enemies clause" blackened Japan and Germany, and erasing that international stain has always been a priority.

Yet the attention focused on the U.N. was not only negative. Japanese diplomats saw the U.N. as the vehicle through which the country could regain the place in international society it had lost in war. The country's remarkable economic resurgence in the 1960s fueled a new confidence on the international stage; by 1967 Japanese diplomats could speak openly of wanting a seat on the Security Council.

Since then, Japanese foreign ministers and prime ministers have become more outspoken about the need for U.N. reform, especially making the Security Council more representative and democratic. Both principles provide theoretical support for Japan's bid.

Unfortunately, efforts to change the council have been stymied by the reluctance of the five current permanent members to dilute their power. They've got vetoes, and they have no intention of giving them up. If they've agreed to expand the size of the council, it is most likely because they know that the contenders will never agree on a formula for restructuring. Italy refuses to let Germany have a seat, the developing world will not let the developed world have any more and regional rivalries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have blocked progress.

Japan faces obstacles all its own. First, there is the relationship with the U.S. Japan sees its bid as a way to help the U.S. by lessening the financial burden on Washington. That, as well as support for U.S. positions, is designed to get the U.S. behind Japan. But that support has antagonized other countries, who see Japan's presence on the council as giving the U.S. a second veto. Drifte notes that Tokyo's inability to say exactly what it would use the Security Council seat for has compounded those suspicions.

Then there is the question of money. One of the foundations of Japan's claim to a seat is its status as the No. 2 donor to the U.N., second only to the U.S. Japan cannot be seen as arguing anything so crass as having bought a seat; the problem is, that is pretty much what the argument boils down to.

Japanese diplomats claim that the seat has been earned: Japan has served as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council eight times (tied with Brazil for the most terms), is a member of other key U.N. bodies and has pushed for reform of the world body. In addition, the country's pacifism, it is asserted, degrades the utility of nuclear weapons and therefore offers a shining example to the rest of the world.

But cultural factors -- the Japanese reluctance to be seen as "striving for a reward" -- and the lack of a consensus in Japan on assuming a higher international profile, have forced the country's diplomats to argue that the country need not push for a seat, but will have it given to them. Drifte considers the idea absurd, quoting a U.N. diplomat: "You can stay in the club room if you are an eccentric, but you're not going to be asked to be president or vice president or serve on the finance committee of the club, because you're just Mr. Odd Man Out."

Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a way out of the muddle. Security Council reform is a good idea, but it affects too many interests to proceed.

Before Japan can push, there must be a domestic consensus behind the Security Council bid and that is still a long way off.

Finally, Drifte points out that Japan's membership may not be a good thing. The Japanese penchant for seeking consensus could keep the Security Council from moving quickly when it needs to, as in, for example, Kosovo or East Timor.

He concludes that the long history of Japan's bid and its deep roots in the bureaucracy mean that it will stay on the country's diplomatic agenda. It is certain to be a frustrating experience. The outlook is best captured by the (perhaps apocryphal) comment of a diplomat from one of the P-5 governments: "I don't have an opinion on Security Council reform, I have a veto."

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.


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