President Obama’s Asia trip should put to rest the hand-wringing over U.S.-Japan relations. Analysis of the relationship since the Democratic Party of Japan’s takeover has been strikingly ahistorical. It ignores America’s long and bumpy history with all of its allies, including Japan. While Washington has suffered “crises” with many of its post-World War II allies, the allied relationships all remain strong.
Let’s review some history. President Eisenhower famously broke with Britain and France over the Suez Crisis in 1956. Today they are strong NATO allies. In 2002, Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder ran a campaign based largely on anti-Americanism. Today the relationship is as solid as ever. President Roh of South Korea also came to power on an anti-US platform. But even during his presidency he sent a large contingent of Korean forces to Iraq and he negotiated a significant free trade agreement with Washington.
The U.S.-Japan relationship has not been immune from hard times either. In the 1970s, the relationship really appeared to be in crisis. American troops were pulling out of Southeast Asia in defeat, President Carter planned on pulling troops out of South Korea, and the Soviet Navy was building up its Pacific forces. Americans accused the Japanese of free-riding on its security guarantee, and the Congress was in hysteria about Japanese economic competition. Just a few years later the relationship was as warm as ever. The two countries increased their cooperation against Soviet expansionism and Tokyo picked up more of the tab for U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
The end of the Cold War gave rise to a new cottage industry of analysis about the next “crisis” in American-Japanese relations. Again, Japan was considered an “economic threat” and free rider. Observers on both sides of the Pacific predicted the alliance’s end absent the Soviet threat.
Recent attempts at revisionism aside, by the early 21st century the relationship had entered a new golden period. President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi accomplished what was previously deemed unthinkable: Japan deployed logistical forces to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington and Tokyo negotiated a broad vision for the alliance, put forth in the February 2005 “2 plus 2″ statement. Missile defense cooperation reached new heights. Japan and Australia entered into a defense agreement.
While it is true that Japan has been adrift without Koizumi’s strong leadership, it is also true that the Bush administration’s policies changed at the end of his term. The administration turned to Japan’s rival China to solve regional problems. Despite Washington’s promises to “never accept a nuclear North Korea,” we have accepted a nuclear North Korea. We also undercut Japan’s attempts to recover citizens who have been abducted by Pyongyang.
Now Japan has been hit by a political tsunami. The Japanese people voted against an overly regulated, overly bureaucratic, and, in their view, corrupt state. Japan now has a genuinely multi-party democracy — it is becoming “normal” just like we have always wanted. The Japanese people rejected the post-war political system imposed upon them because that path has run its course.
What is it precisely that we are fighting over? Prime Minister Hatoyama made campaign promises to the people of Okinawa about the US military presence there. Like any democracy, the Japanese political system will have to work out the balance between campaign promises and strategic realities. The Japanese want a more equal partnership. Good. We have been calling for that since the 1970s. Tokyo talks of an East Asian Community without the United States; they are hedging their bets because we do not look like an altogether reliable partner. Besides, do we really need to be part of an East Asian Community? We are not part of the European Union but transatlantic ties are pretty solid. As long as our alliances are in good repair and markets remain open to us, our interests will not be harmed by an East Asian Community.
It could be that we are in one of our periods of alliance stagnation. History should teach us that a few years of an alliance adrift does not translate to an alliance in crisis. It could very well turn out that a stronger Japanese democracy will, over time, result in a stronger and healthier 21st century alliance.
Rather than beating up on Tokyo we should focus on getting our own act together. First, we must take the long view and let Japanese politics work through its convulsions. Second, we need to invest in the force structure necessary to continue our role as the preferred regional security partner. Third, we should stop making Japan nervous by talking about a “strategic partnership” with China. And finally, we must demonstrate that when we make promises to an ally, we will keep them.
Daniel Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.