Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the United States, his last as prime minister, has elicited considerable comment from Japan watchers. There have been op eds and public discussions (here and here) contemplating Koizumi’s legacy, and what it means for U.S.-Japan relations. There has been speculation about his likely successor. There has been discussion of the role of nationalism, particularly the ongoing controversy over Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. And there have been stories about Koizumi’s impassioned defense of these visits.
This attention is warranted — the U.S.-Japan relationship is extremely important – but the speculation about the future is producing more heat than light. We should all spend less time focused on the personalities at play, and far more attention on the common strategic interests of our two countries.
As I argue in a recent Cato paper, President Bush and Prime Minister obviously share a genuine friendship:
but U.S. and Japanese policymakers should seek to craft a strategic partnership that will endure long after Koizumi and Bush have passed from the scene. Under the current arrangement, the United States pledges to defend Japan in exchange for basing rights. In addition, however, Japan’s security dependence has led the Japanese to defer to the United States on regional security issues. More recently, Japan has sent a token force to a far-off land in order to curry favor with its benevolent patron, but not necessarily out of a sense of shared strategic objectives. This is not a sustainable model over the long term.
A sustainable model will take account of public opinion in both countries. The American public is growing tired of playing the role of the world’s policeman. A USA Today/Gallup poll taken in April 2006 found that 46 percent of Americans believe that “the United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own.” A slim majority, 51 percent, disagrees with these sentiments, but the trends are unmistakable. In March 2003, only 1 in 3 Americans was in the “mind our own business” camp.
There is a curious disconnect between the political class and the public at large, however. As far as the leaders in either of the two major parties go, there is little interest in a genuine realignment of U.S. military personnel and alliance relationships that should have occured after the end of the Cold War. NATO continues to expand, with some now clamoring for for Ukraine, Georgia, or even Israel (here and here) to be admitted to an alliance created to defeat an adversary that ceased to exist over 15 years ago.
But these attempts to add still more to the U.S. military’s already full plate move us in precisely the wrong direction. U.S. military power, still unmatched in absolute terms, is insufficient for maintaining a dominant position in all corners of the globe. If the United States is to focus on a few areas of particular concern related to the global war on terrorism, especially the Middle East, then U.S. policymakers must seek ways to quietly devolve security responsibilities to wealthy, stable, democratic allies in other regions of the world.
With one of the most capable militaries on the planet — Japan’s military spending is comparable to that of France, and it possesses state-of-the-art air and naval assets –Japan is poised to assume at least some of these burdens in East Asia. The question remains: will we let them?