Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Do-nothing leaders

Being back in the US, I have had a chance to reacquaint myself with American politics — and to be reminded of why I find the American political class so disappointing. The problem isn't just the failure to act; it's a failure to find new conceptual categories for the problems of the twenty-first century. US leaders, in the broad sense, including media elites, have an unfortunate tendency to assume that once the US sheds itself of its Iraq problem (and its Bush problem), it will once again be able to wield power and influence around the world.

The world and the US have changed, however. The unipolar moment is over, if it even existed in the first place. The post-industrialization of the US will continue apace. The democratization of information worldwide will also continue, undermining US military power. As the US is learning, it's harder to use power in a more complex mediaspace that undermines the ability of large organizations to control the information that reaches publics, raising the costs of the use of force. Even as it continues to bolster its military power, the US, beset with economic difficulties, is finding it increasingly difficult to get what it wants globally. (Stratfor's George Friedman addresses the shallowness of the US foreign policy debate in this post at his blog.)

The US political elite, however, is not the only group of leaders fiddling while Rome burns.

Indeed, the G8, struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing global environment, is a monument to the collective failures of the leaders of the developed countries.

Tokyo is no exception — Japan's political class might be the world leader in ineffectual leadership. Tahara Soichiro, grand old man of Japanese journalism, calls attention to the government's failures in a short article in the March issue of Liberal Time. His particular grievance is the government's failure to deal effectively with the deepening global economic crisis and its impact on the Japanese economy. His ire is directed at the leaders of both parties, and he actually calls for the dissolution of both the LDP and DPJ — and points to the nascent Sentaku movement as a possible solution to the failures of the Japanese political class.

I think he's unfairly critical of Prime Minister Fukuda. Mr. Fukuda might be of an older generation and might have been ineffectual since taking office, but his keen understanding of the problems facing Japan is unique not just among Japanese politicians, but among G8 politicians more generally. The problem is not individual leaders, but a policymaking process that is a relic of better times, when the greatest task for senior politicians was distributing pork and plum posts to supporters. Indeed, if the Japanese political system was up to the challenge, the rearguard action by the Zoku giin on the temporary gasoline tax would be easily dismissed and the discussion would have from the first focused on how best to use the tax revenue. It is unclear, however, whether the government will accede to the opposition's demand for the end to the road construction earmark.

Changing the system will entail more than just replacing one group of leaders with another. Change must be comprehensive: political, administrative, economic. It is on this point that Mr. Tahara falters. He speculates about which leaders will be capable of doing what must be done — he cites Nakagawa Shoichi in particular (an assessment I don't share) — rather than considering the institutional obstacles to change.


Janne Morén said...

I've gradually come to believe that perhaps the major problem with the US political system is that a pretty strict two-party system allows only a very narrow range of viewpoints to get any representation (and thus discussion) at all. It has become worse now that the tactic of "triangularization" has taken hold, meaning both parties circle very, very close to the same stand on most issues.

You can see this happening in other two-party-like systems too; Great Britain is in danger of falling into this (indeed, that's where the idea of triangularization seems to have originated), and I unfortunately see a trend towards this in Japan too with the emergence of DPJ matching LDP to become the only political entities that matter.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of the international impact of the Bush administration characterized as a failure of the unipolar "moment" that was ushered in the first term and deflated catastrophically in the second term. The real and actual spread of democracy ushered in with the full broadband spread of the internet (as opposed to the fake democracy promotion under the US occupation authorities in Iraq) has been completely missed by the pundits though it is as obvious as the nose on their idiotic faces. I also agree that Fukuda "gets it" as far as identification of the major issues facing Japan in the confused period following the collapse of the Koizumi-Abe regimes. Fukuda's unexpected appearance at the Davos summit announcing a continuation of the Climate Change and African development themes initiated by Tony Blair at the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland into the G8 summit in Hokkaido this year shows that Fukuda also "gets it" as far as identification of the major problems facing the international community.

Anonymous said...

The power elite have vested interests that are hard to break. I'd say the US is resembling the latter days of the Soviet Union in some ways.

And, as many have pointed out, democratic systems don't do well at distributing pain instead of goodies.