Letter from Tokyo

Letter from Tokyo

I’ve been in Tokyo for two days, and this morning I read in the Japan Times that Japan has fallen to fifth place in the global "peace index" put out by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace. I just want to make it clear that my presence here had nothing to do with this change: The shift in Japan’s ranking reportedly reflected the upgrading of its missile defenses and a loosening of arms export constraints.

Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada occupied the top four spots (beating out Japan) and the three lowest rated countries were Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Syria tumbled from 116th to 147th (no big surprise there), and overall the Middle East/North Africa has replaced Sub-Saharan Africa as the world’s least peaceful region. The United States, by the way, ranked 88th, but our president does have a Nobel Peace Prize.

As for my trip, I’ve been having a very enjoyable visit, and my hosts have been especially gracious in arranging an interesting schedule of meetings and events. I had an lengthy meeting with a group of Japanese scholars yesterday morning and delivered a lecture on the impact of the Israel lobby on Obama’s Middle East policy yesterday afternoon. Today I’ll meet with a group of journalists and then head off to Kyoto, partly to sight-see but also to meet with some academics there.

My conversations have alternated between discussions of Middle East events and exchanges about the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. With respect to the former, I think it’s safe to say that my Japanese interlocutors are politely baffled by U.S. policy. (But aren’t we all?)  And it is not just an idle issue for them, because what the U.S. does in the Middle East affects Japanese interests both directly (via energy costs), and indirectly (the more time and attention we devote to Middle Eastern affairs, the less time and attention U.S. leaders can devote to events in East Asia). This wouldn’t be a big problem if the United States were doing a great job of keeping the Middle East quiet and stable, but it’s pretty hard to defend our track record over the past decade.

With respect to Asia, I was struck (though not surprised) by the continued concerns that several people voiced about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asia. I can understand why the Japanese (and other U.S. partners) fret about this, and I can even understand why they bring this up when talking to Americans. But as I told my Japanese colleagues, their concerns are misplaced and could become a dangerous source of friction within America’s Asian alliances. In fact, the United States has gone to enormous lengths over the past five decades to reassure its allies around the world about its credibility, even though most of these allies need us far more than we need them. The United States spends a much larger share of its GDP on defense than its Asian allies do. It maintains a substantial military presence in Asia, even though U.S. security is not directly at risk there. So the idea that U.S. credibility is seriously in question is just plain wrong, and it won’t help our relations with these states if they keep complaining about it, because it will make Americans wonder if they are being asked to do more for Asia than our Asian allies are willing to do for themselves.

A further implication is that a successful U.S. security policy in Asia will depend less on specific military capabilities than on effective diplomacy. Military power isn’t irrelevant, of course, but the United States will have plenty of forces to bring to bear in Asia if they are needed for many years to come. But Asia is an exceedingly complicated strategic environment, and there are lots of cross-cutting interests that could interfere with a collective effort to maintain a stable political-military order there. To navigate these issues successfully and to avoid being exploited, the United States will need to pay a lot of attention to the region. It will need a cadre of regional experts with deep knowledge of these countries and their elites, and it will need to devote a lot of time and energy to managing these relations over time. 

Which is yet another reason why the United States pays a price when it gets bogged down in fruitless conflicts in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it engages in half-hearted and unsuccessful efforts to advance a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or when it gets trapped in a counter-productively hardline policy toward Iran. Diplomatic resources, political capital, and presidential time are not infinite resources, and shouldn’t be invested unless we’re serious about making them pay off.