I’ve been reading a backlog of material today related to the abrupt departure of former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and the equally dramatic, but arguably more significant, exit of long-time DPJ power broker Ichiro Ozawa. One of the best articles that I’ve seen was published late last week at Slate.
Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, and a former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, explains:
This marks the first time a Japanese government has fallen over U.S.-Japan security issues since Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was forced to step down in the wake of massive demonstrations against the conservative government’s decision to ram through the passage of a revised security treaty in 1960. Currently, the Japanese public blames Hatoyama and the DPJ for mismanaging the alliance. It is a narrative that the Japanese mass media has been pounding away at for months, and there is some truth to it. But eventually, if not immediately, the Japanese public is likely to notice that the nation’s principal ally, the United States, was intimately involved in, if not directly responsible for, the downfall of the Japanese prime minister.
Many months ago, I worried out loud about whether too much pressure by Washington on Hatoyama would undermine his government to the point of collapse. According to Sneider, that was the point all along.
It all becomes clearer in retrospect. For months, the conventional line in Washington has been that the DPJ was ill-prepared to lead Japan. A perennial opposition party, the DPJ didn’t understand how to govern. A few foreign policy wonks held out hope that they would get their act together, but others seem to have been plotting Hatoyama’s demise from the beginning.
Why would this be? Hatoyama rode a wave of voters discontent against the sclerotic LDP to victory; foreign policy was only a small part of that wider campaign. To the extent that it factored in the final result, however, Hatoyama’s suggestion that the LDP had grown too cozy with the United States fit well within his broader critique of the LDP — namely, that it had lost touch with the Japanese people.
Did Hatoyama’s ascendancy confirm that narrative? Do a majority of Japanese, or even a growing number of Japanese, now question the value of a strategic relationship that has prevailed for at least 50 years? If so, might Washington have to revisit the basic strategic bargain, beginning with a renegotiation of where, or even whether, U.S. troops would be stationed on Japanese soil?
The Obama administration made clear, beginning with a visit by Robert Gates in October, and reiterated by Hillary Clinton in January, that such questions would not even be tolerated. The deal negotiated with the previous government concerning bases on Okinawa would not be changed, irrespective of Hatoyama’s promises during the campaign. It was almost as though elections don’t matter.
There was a deeper subtext for Washington that went well beyond the dispute over the U.S. military presence. If Hatoyama was able to hold onto power, might that be a taken as a sign by others elsewhere in the region, or the world, that bucking the United States is a winning political strategy?
Not willing to take that chance, the Obama administration set out to make an example of Hatoyama. They held the line, refusing to negotiate, and squeezing the prime minister against his promise to Japanese voters to do so. The Obama team gambled that Hatoyama would be replaced by someone better. And they and other defenders of the status quo defined “better” as meaning “someone who will do what Washington says.”
The dominant theory within the Beltway concerning Hatoyama’s political prospects portrayed him as a mere anomaly. His election didn’t portend a deepening dissatisfaction over the U.S.-Japan relationship, and sooner or later, the truth would emerge. Japanese had grown both comfortable and dependent under the U.S. security umbrella, and they weren’t going to let partisan politics or the complaints of environmentalists and querulous Okinawans to upset the applecart.
Hatoyama’s ignominious exit seems to be confirm this theory. I’m not so sure. Mischaracterizing the sentiments expressed by foreign populations, or dismissing their concerns as irrelevant, is risky business for the United States, a country that prefers to rule the world by consent.
I’m even less confident in the corollary: that the path to long-term political viability (in Japan, or anywhere else) is to stay on the right side of the United States.
Eventually, after their anger and disappointment with Hatoyama fades, the Japanese people will turn their eyes toward Washington and wonder whether this is how allies should treat each other. It is a good question.
A good question, indeed.
I’ve argued for years, and will do so again: we need capable allies. Willing allies. Empowered allies. Allies who are able to defend themselves, and to occasionally use that power in their respective regions, or, in extreme cases, to act in concert with others to secure their interests far from home.
We have created the opposite situation in Japan – but also in South Korea, and Europe. Our allies are dependent upon us for their defense, and they are understandably reluctant to annoy their protector, even when that protector acts like a bully.
But it is one thing to tolerate the demands of another country as a condition of that country’s willingness to provide security. Will our allies be willing to come to our assistance, if and when we ever need their help?
This is not a hypothetical question. (See: Afghanistan)
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