Monday, January 28, 2008

To a second-rate Japan

Continuing the theme of Japan's vanishing global presence discussed in this post (and this post by Gen Kanai last week), it's worth looking at what may be this year's hot foreign policy article-turned-book (cf. Paul Kennedy, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kagan), "Waving Goodbye to Hegemony" by Parag Khanna, a fellow at the New America Foundation.

In both this article and the forthcoming book, Mr. Khanna looks at the emerging contours of the new world order from the perspective of the second world: "Lying alongside and between the Big Three, second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics. From Venezuela to Vietnam and Morocco to Malaysia, the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in 'coalition of the willing'), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st century."

There is considerable value in this piece, not least in its warning to US policymakers that American hegemony is finished. Over the course of the Bush administration, it has become clear that the US, for all its military strength, is woefully deficient in other areas of power, making it difficult for Washington to solve critical problems. It's not entirely the fault of President Bush, but his administration's actions made it plain the limits of American power, hastening the emergence of a new order.

Mr. Khanna makes clear that competition between the US, China, and the EU will not be primarily in the military realm, but rather over energy, markets, and natural resources. The other point of interest is that the second-world countries might actually hold the upper hand in their dealings with the superpowers. These countries can pocket concessions and aid from all three, maximizing their security in the process. This dynamic is already at work in Southeast Asia, where countries like Vietnam are happy to trade with China even as they deepen their security ties with the US (an example not lost on Mr. Khanna). As a result, this piece is not simply a reincarnation of fears from the 1980s and 1990s about the creation of three exclusionary economic blocs.

Not surprisingly, however, Japan is absent from this piece (except in passing, with Japan's interest in regional monetary cooperation cited as an example of how "Asians are insulating themselves from America’s economic uncertainties").

Where does Japan fit in a tripolar world? Presumably as its population shrinks over the coming decades, Japan will increasingly come to resemble second-world countries busy playing the superpowers off each other. Granted, Japan will likely remain wealthier and more politically stable than the other countries in this group, but as a result of its security and economic needs, Japan will likely engage in the same behavior. In managing its relationships with the US and China, Japan is, in fact, already playing one power off the other, one moment strengthening security cooperation with the US, the next exploring new avenues of economic cooperation with China, ASEAN, and others that exclude the US. It will take some time before Japan fully embraces this "small Japan" path — I suspect there remains too much fear of China and too much dependence on the US — but it may be only a matter of time, with the process hastened by external changes like a mellower China or a prolonged economic downturn in the US that leads it to reconsider its defense spending and foreign deployments.

The question is the extent to which Japan can remain prosperous and dynamic and preserve some modicum of influence in the competition for energy and natural resources. That will depend, of course, on decisions made today to transform Japan's moribund political and economic systems.


Mr. Noah said...

This has nothing to do with your own post here, but I read Parag Khanna's essay, and it is truly awful. It sounds like it was written by a 19th-century British imperial bureaucrat or something.

Willie said...

I have to agree with Mr. Noah. That was one of the more disappointing pieces I've read lately. Your articles main points are quite relevant, however.

Anonymous said...

The difficulties that we face today are obviously deep and even foreboding but I find the determinism about the decline of US hegemony to be premature and even silly. Is there a new genre of political writings around this theme popping up? I haven't noticed any trend here. It would be more correct I contend that there is much confusion and feckless handwringing about a whole host of themes regarding the problems faced by the US as the disappointment and anger over the Bush presidency reaches a crescendo.

Bryce said...

There are some thought provoking statements in the article but when someone starts quoting Ahmadinejad and Chavaz's two (euro)cents, one has to pause and wonder.

Personally I don't really see the point in these "let's predict the future of the world" pieces. They are either non-falsifiable (states will rise to challenge America - just wait!), wrong (Japan will rise to challenge America!), obvious (China and Europe are important!), or judged correct because the theory becomes trendy and dominates discourse so everything becomes interpreted through its lens (Clash of Civilisations and the End of History were both a bit like that).

I find it much more useful to look at claims that are made about the present or recent international system. The dirty little secret, of course, is that while there may have been - and probably still is - a unipolar moment, there was never a period of American Hegemony. The United States could never have converted a peace dividend "into a global liberal order under American leadership." What would "America" have done if there was resistance to this order? Persuade people like Saddam Hussein, for example, that they should cooperate? Put sanctions on his country? Start a war with him that they would invariably win? Oh.

As for Japan, no surprises there. Japan's long-held policy of talking itself up and then effectively doing nothing that requires more than financial management and recently a bit of SDF sweat has paid off big, the recent recession notwithstanding. If I were a Japanese citizen I would be rather proud of the nations record of trying not to get in anybody's face for the last 60 years. As I'm not a Japanese citizen, I just hope that certain other countries might come to realise what a smart policy this is.

Bryce said...

Sorry to hammer on, but

WTF! The guy talks about a Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere! Doesn't he realise how insulting that must be? In fact I'm a little disturbed by some of the language in this article.

Japan Observer said...


I agree about the nature of these FP "flavors of the month" that pop up from time to time. Oftentimes provocative language — "Chinese co-prosperity sphere" — substitutes for sound analysis.

Khanna also fails to consider the domestic weaknesses of both the EU and China (not to mention the US) that could send them and the international system in a drastically different direction.

That said, it is still an interesting thought experiment to consider what Japan's place would be in this new order. I expect that if and when Japan has to take responsibility for the bulk of its defense, it will end up being something like a porcupine state: heavily armed, for defensive purposes. Indeed, its defense profile already is trending this direction. Without the budget to do more, Japan will continue to invest in equipment useful in repelling violations of Japanese waters and airspace. Provided that Japan has steady and stable sources of food and energy, Japan could do quite well keeping its head down in the new order.

Japan Observer said...

Daniel Drezner's take on this article is worth a look.

Bryce said...

May be "hedgehog state" is perhaps a better term. Armed to the teeth, but trying at the same time to convince everybody - including your own people - that you are either cute or, failing that, insignificant and inoffensive.

Mr. Noah said...

Drezner writes:

There's less demand than there used to be for prose stylings that read like Benjamin Barber after a three-day coke bender in Macao.

Heh. Slightly more colorful than my own description, but accurate.