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Sunday, Oct. 20, 2002



A reality check for the relationship

U.S.-JAPAN RELATIONS IN A CHANGING WORLD, edited by Steven K. Vogel. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2002, 286 pp., $18.95 (cloth)

The Japan-U.S. alliance is a remarkable achievement. The two countries are virtual mirror images of each other, and have, until recently, had relatively little interaction and exchange. Yet their relationship has endured, even prospered, through a turbulent half century.

The world has been transformed since the two countries were inextricably linked by war; in particular, the Cold War glue that bound the two governments together has evaporated. This timely and important book examines the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship. The authors conclude that relations are evolving but the alliance will endure if the two countries take the long view. Regional peace and stability, the creation of wealth and prosperity, and the spread of democracy and human rights are all made possible by a strong U.S.-Japan relationship. The challenge today is recognizing those common interests and objectives and managing the relationship so that day-to-day irritants do not interfere with more vital national interests. Nothing should be taken for granted.

"U.S.-Japan Relations" takes a tour d'horizon of the relationship. There are chapters on national security, economic performance, paradigms (views of the world), domestic politics, the media, views of and relations with international organizations, finance and technology. The contributors are experts on each subject. Unfortunately, all are Americans. Given the provenance of the book -- the U.S.-Japan 21st Century Project was sponsored by the Japan Society of Northern California, the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, and the Asia/Pacific Research Center at Stanford University -- the shortcoming is understandable. Still it would be fascinating to have Japanese views on these topics.

As editor Steven Vogel, of the University of California, Berkeley, points out in his introduction, a 50th anniversary reality check makes a lot of sense. "The core features of The San Francisco system (established in Sept. 1951) have survived: The United States and Japan maintain an unequal security alliance, American military bases remain in Japan, and Japan defers to the United States on many foreign policy issues. The United States exerts global leadership while Japan has a much smaller role than one would expect based on its economic and technological strength."

Just as important, as Keith Nitta (also at Berkeley) argues in his chapter on paradigms, "many of the assumptions and expectations embedded in the containment and the Yoshida doctrines have not been challenged by historical events. For example, the collapse of the Soviet Union has not eroded the assumption in the United States that the country needs an internationalist, or interventionist, orientation in order to achieve national security and prosperity. . . . On the Japanese side, economic catch-up has not spurred a debate about whether Japan should continue to play a role in U.S. security and economic systems."

Given changes in the regional balance of power, technological innovation and globalization, can we expect that to continue? While the gap between the two countries remains wide -- whether measuring power, reach, influence, willingness to act, etc. -- the relative power balance is changing, the bilateral agenda is changing, and there has been extraordinary growth in the number of actors involved in the interaction between the two countries.

In other words, Japan's rise means that it is more difficult for Washington to expect Tokyo to follow its lead, the range of issues that the two countries must work on has expanded so there is more room for disagreement, and there are more people clamoring to be heard during the discussions.

But it can also be argued that it means that more weight can be brought to bear on shared concerns and that Tokyo can assume more responsibility and use its own influence. The widening agenda offers opportunities for burden-sharing and the means to reach a modus vivendi by distributing obligations more fairly. And the rising number of actors can strengthen the alliance at the grassroots level and democratize the bilateral relationship.

The contributors put their money on a continuing alliance, but one that will become more difficult to manage. Vogel summarizes the big changes in his conclusion: U.S.-Japan relations will be less stable: security relations will become more contentious, while economic frictions will subside; and Japanese foreign policy will become more independent from the U.S, while the two countries' relations become more embedded in multilateral frameworks. The range of issues they have to confront will expand, but the utility of military power will decline.

The authors seem to endorse the conclusion that we are seeing "paradigm drift" rather than "paradigm shift." Michael Green, a leading authority on Japan's military (and currently working on Japan issues at the National Security Council), argues that "the strategic bargain is highly resilient to changes in the bilateral and international distribution of power, but only as long as incremental adjustments are made to reduce domestic political pressures and keep the alliance relevant to emerging security challenges."

Examining Japan's role in international organizations, Amy Searight of Northwestern University concludes that "Japan has clearly been driven by a desire for more prestige and influence in international financial affairs . . . [but] remained surprisingly cooperative, despite real differences in development ideology and regional economic and political interests." In a comment that is especially poignant today, she notes that "Much of Japan's growing activism has been directed toward keeping the United States actively engaged in multilateral affairs."

One area of special concern is financial relations. Possessing the world's two largest economies, cooperation between the two governments seems essential to international economic management. Yet Japan's "lost decade" has eroded faith in the ability of Japanese politicians and bureaucrats to do their part. The U.S. downturn has compounded the friction and made coordination even more difficult. There is more finger pointing, self-righteousness and political posturing than honest efforts to fix real problems in the international economic architecture.

Adam Posen, of the Institute of International Economics in Washington D.C., argues that the two economies will converge: "Either by choice, or by crisis, Japan will complete its financial convergence upon the U.S. model, with all the long-term effects to ease tensions and decentralize foreign policy decisions . . . Unfortunately, if the transition to that situation of congruence is made through a Japanese financial crisis, the intervening spillovers on the security relationship from U.S.-Japan financial convergence as well as on the world economy will likely be quite large."

The war on terrorism has helped strengthen the alliance by providing a new glue for the bilateral relationship. That glue could dissolve, however, if the U.S. does not take into account Japanese sensitivities on a range of issues. Japan has been a good ally, but only because the Japanese public understands the importance of being a good ally. If Washington forgets that fact, and the U.S. continues to ignore Japanese concerns on a variety of issues -- the Kyoto protocol, nuclear tests, respect for multilateral institutions, to name but three -- the Japanese public may not understand exactly what they get out of partnership and decide the sacrifices are not worth the trouble.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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