The Future of Japanese Diplomacy Lies in Seeking to Be a Global Player


Noda Yoshihiko took office as Japan’s new prime minister on September 2. Later that month he made his diplomatic debut with a trip to New York, where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly and met with US President Barack Obama. From the start, Noda has made it clear that he places a high priority on the Japan-US alliance as an “international public good” and will look for ways to use the relationship as the nucleus of moves to improve regional security in Asia. He has evidently learned from the failures of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, whose out-of-the-blue calls for an East Asian Community and relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma put considerable strain on the Japan-US relationship. This is well and good.

Welcome as this more practical approach to foreign policy is, I would still like to see the new government broaden our country’s diplomatic horizons. Japan is already acknowledged as a global player. Everybody recognizes Japan’s international presence in such fields as monetary, economic, and technological affairs. This should pave the way for an acceptance of a greater political role for Japan on the world scene.

Today, countries are required to display a global outlook not just economically but in the area of national security as well. It no longer comes as a surprise, for example, to see the European Union conducting a civilian monitoring mission in Aceh (Indonesia) under its common security and defense policy. Security issues must now be considered from a global perspective—a fact that became evident shortly after the end of the Cold War.

The Need to Broaden Japan’s Foreign Policy Horizons

One good example is the controversy over the reversion of the US Marines Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. This needs to be seen in the context of the United States’ reorganization of its system of alliances with the other Western countries and its reconsideration of the Japan-US Security Treaty following the end of the Cold War. US President Bill Clinton announced the reversion of Futenma and the review and extension of the Japan-US alliance as a strategic resource in Asia on his visit to Japan in 1996. The immediate impetus for the return of the base was the uproar caused by the rape of an Okinawan elementary school girl by US servicemen. But another factor was the simple fact that the United States had reached the stage of reviewing its Pacific relationships as part of its global review of its alliances. In Japan there was a tendency to regard the decision as having come about as a result of the rape scandal, but in terms of international relations it is more accurate to think of it as an inevitable part of the United States’ global review of its security arrangements.

For the United States, the most important alliance partners are Britain and the other countries of Western Europe. But its Atlantic relations and its relations with the Asia-Pacific region do not exist in isolation from one another. During the Cold War Europe’s security was guaranteed by the military power of the United States, but once the East-West confrontation was over, the Europeans started to insist on greater autonomy in defense affairs. An agreement on this was reached at a NATO summit meeting early in 1994.

On Japan, the post–Cold War US approach started somewhat earlier. This was clear to me from my own experience when I visited the United States in 1993. Central figures in the US Asia-Pacific policymaking apparatus were eager to meet with me as a Japanese and ask my opinion on the threat from North Korea’s nuclear program, something that was hardly being discussed at all in Japan at the time. In other words, they were already starting to look for ways to revamp existing security arrangements in East Asia. This was around the time when the prospect of some sort of settlement for the North Atlantic alliance system had come into view.

A second experience came while I was a visiting scholar at George Washington University at the time of the war in Iraq. In the lead-up to the war, Japan had been quick to express its support for the United States. This was a reaction to the “Gulf trauma” in 1991, when Japan hesitated to send its Self-Defense Forces or other personnel to join the US-led coalition during the first Gulf War. Although Japan contributed financially, it was widely criticized at the time for failing to do more. It is important to remember that in 2003, Japan was the Asian country that supported the US position on Iraq at a time when, from a global perspective, the United States lacked the support of France and Germany among its North Atlantic partners and faced opposition from two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in China and Russia. Japan’s backing of the US position had a greater significance than we might think. Japan’s support for the war set off a kind of “loyalty competition” involving other Far Eastern countries like South Korea and Indonesia; in this sense Japan led the way to a convergence of opinion in Asia.

A True Understanding of the Global Situation Beyond the Japan-US Alliance

As these examples show, Japan’s foreign policy has a significance that goes far beyond domestic debate. This is something that only becomes clear once we examine the issues from a global context. At first glance, events in Europe may seem to be only indirectly related to our own affairs, but the fact is that the world is still led by a set of values and behavioral norms that has the United States and Europe at its center. We need to cast off our myopic diplomatic stance and adopt a broader perspective. In this respect, I am slightly concerned about Prime Minister Noda’s words: He warns that we must not become inward-looking, but at the same time he talks about “the politics of harmony.” Japan needs to pull together politically at home and show solidarity in order to rebuild from the unprecedented disaster of March 11. But we must not let this distract us from international affairs. Nor will it do to focus exclusively on relations with the United States. We need to take a broader perspective and give consideration to the role of a more multifaceted alliance, even while continuing to make the Japan-US relationship the main pillar of our foreign policy.

To secure a more visible, influential, and credible diplomatic presence for itself, Japan needs to act as a global player. Take the current debate over whether to participate in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example. We need to recognize that the international move toward free trade is a something we cannot avoid dealing with. It presents us with a difficult question: How do we secure a competitive position for ourselves within a system of free trade? But even as we debate the TPP, we are faced with the question of what kind of trading area we are trying to build: an Asian free-trade block that excludes the Americans, or an Asia-Pacific one with the United States at its center? Here again we come up against the eternal dilemma of Japanese foreign policy.

Whether we are able to navigate this situation successfully will depend on how well we can present our international views to the rest of the world as a global player.

The world will not let us consider economic matters divorced from political and diplomatic affairs. Japanese commentators have no problem discussing economic issues in a global context, but when it comes to diplomacy the talk ends up being limited to Japan-US relations and Asian regional diplomacy. Perhaps we are suffering from a “Pacific War trauma.”

The Japan-US alliance is a global partnership. A truly global perspective can only be of benefit to this alliance as well. By understanding the global situation beyond the bilateral relationship, Japan can become a better partner for the United States. I hope the new government will bear this in mind as it considers its foreign policy. (October 13, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)


Japan United States Japan-US Security Treaty Democratic Party of Japan Noda Yoshihiko Noda administration international public good global player alliance US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma TPP