Published in Japan Forward November 15th 2017
In the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first official tour of Asia, it is timely to ask what has changed since he won election twelve months ago. At first glance, as far has Japan is concerned, the answer would seem to be very little.
Overall, the atmospherics of the Japan visit suggested that Trump’s relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is much closer than his predecessor’s. His meeting with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents was a welcome gesture for Abe, who came to political prominence on the back of the issue, and also sent an important signal to North Korea and its allies in Beijing.
Yet beneath the surface the tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting in a way that will have a profound impact on Japan’s strategic position. For the foreseeable future, the world will have to deal with a U.S. that is much less committed to the post-war global order it sponsored, more transactional in its dealings with other countries and less predictable in general.
Trump’s global significance lies less in what he says and does as president than in the fact that he got elected in the first place. Last year, he and his advisors identified a huge gap in the political market and exploited it brilliantly. This opportunity was created by deep geopolitical and technological forces that long predate Trump and will continue to operate long after he has gone.
The risks to Japan are obvious. During the Cold War, Japanese security interests and American geopolitical strategy meshed almost perfectly. Post-1990, Japan fell into a paralysis that was not just economic but diplomatic and strategic too, but it suited both countries to pretend that nothing had changed. Only in the current decade, with the rise of a ruthlessly assertive China, has the raw reality become too obvious to ignore. The U.S. Japan relationship now means much more to Japan than it does to the U.S.
Even the North Korean crisis has the potential to create fissures. Trump is the first U.S. president to understand that no satisfactory solution is possible without a Chinese buy-in. For that China would extract a high price, almost certainly involving a diminution of American influence in Asia. Tacit approval of China’s island-building programme in the South China Sea, removal of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system in South Korea, perhaps even a drawdown of the American military presence there – these are some of the possible carrots that could be dangled. There are some sticks available too. Notably, the prospect of a wholesale collapse in control of nuclear proliferation, leading to a nuke-capable Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. That would be one of China’s worst strategic nightmares.
Bannon’s Dark Vision
Japan has a role to play in any potential North Korean endgame, but the outline would be decided by the balance of interests between the United States and China. That could well be the shape of things to come on larger issues, as many American thinkers and policy-makers are forecasting. Hence all the talk of “avoiding the Thucydides trap,” which refers to the likelihood of a previously dominant power clashing with a newly emerging power, as Sparta did with Athens in the fifth century BC. It was American political scientist Graham Allison of the Kennedy School of Government who popularized the term. Chinese President Xi Jinping cited it in a 2016 speech.
Henry Kissinger is just one of several strategic thinkers who believe that accommodating the rise of China without military conflict will be America’s number one challenge of the twenty first century. Some, including former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and influential British historian Niall Ferguson, have favoured the establishment of a Group of Two, consisting of China and the United States.
“G2″ co-operation is unlikely to proceed as smoothly as the late Brzezinski hoped when he spoke in 2009 of harmonious relations between “the two countries with the most extraordinary potential for shaping our future.” Yet neither has Donald Trump been able to implement any of the aggressive anti-China sanctions he ballyhooed during his campaign. The reality is that Trump’s support base buys a lot of made-in-China products and major U.S. companies are deeply embedded in the Chinese market, as are American farmers.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, described the situation as follows. “The economic war with China is everything. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, from hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
Bannon himself lasted only a few months in the Trump White House, but in terms of the leverage the U.S. can bring to bear, he may well be right.
The End of American Exceptionalism
“Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” This remark by nineteenth century British statesman Lord Palmerston is a statement of the obvious, yet seemed less relevant in the ideology-riven twentieth century. In particular, after the Second World War, a succession of U.S. presidents used the concept of American exceptionalism to justify foreign policy decisions in moral terms. As Harvard University political scientist Stephen Walt points out, the terminology used, such as “the shining city on the hill” and “the indispensable nation”, had strong religious overtones.
The U.S. created and sponsored the post-war architecture of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and NATO and the various rounds of tariff reductions that helped to stimulate world trade. Even if it stood apart from particular components such as the International Court of Human Rights, support for the system itself was hardly in doubt.
When realism did conflict with idealism, a greater idealism could be cited to justify unpleasant necessities, as with the Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement with China in 1973. In order to counter Soviet communism, the U.S. made a deal with the China of Mao Zedong, a dictator responsible for tens of millions of deaths of his fellow-countrymen. The price the U.S. agreed to was the sacrifice of capitalist Taiwan, which found itself expelled from the community of nations.
The first president to dial down American exceptionalism was Barack Obama, who declared “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” For this he was excoriated by conservatives such as Mitt Romney.
Trump has gone much further than Obama. In response to a criticism of the brutal methods of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump stated “There are a lot of killers. We have killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
Moral equivalence (the idea that the U.S. is morally little different from its opponents) is usually associated with leftist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky. As with opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership and NAFTA, Republican President Donald Trump has appropriated ideas from the other end of the political spectrum.
The End of Japanese Exceptionalism
It is more than likely that in future decades handling the rise of China will become a defining issue in U.S. domestic politics, with political leaders and parties being measured by their degree of friendliness or hostility to Beijing. Indeed, it would be no surprise if Trump were to be succeeded by a polar opposite who would make warmer relations with Beijing a priority.
The U.S.’s relationship with Japan will be driven by its relationship with China, not the other way around. Meanwhile, China will aim to loosen the relationship in order to further its goal of regional hegemony. To that end, it will probably seek to influence political events within Japan by all the means at its disposal, overt and covert, as the U.S. did in its time.
The great service that Donald Trump has done Japan is to make explicit what many – including policy-makers and experts in Japan and the United States – have preferred to ignore. All countries have different interests and they inevitably put their own interests first. It follows as night follows day that no country can rely on another for its security in perpetuity.
The end of American exceptionalism means the end of Japanese exceptionalism too. Constitutional reform is just the first step in the long journey to normalization of Japan’s security posture and capability.