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Opinion: Essence of U.S. diplomacy won’t change

This is the fifth and final installment of an interview series with leading intellectual figures around the world. The following is excerpted from an interview with Makoto Iokibe, chancellor of the Prefectural University of Kumamoto.


The United States created the postwar world order. It has coexisted with other nations in this order and has, when necessary, exercised leadership itself. The emergence of President-elect Donald Trump, who could openly vilify this way of things, has sent a nervous shiver around the world as people now feel, “Anything at all could happen.”


However, U.S. diplomatic policy has three core axes. Considered from this perspective, there is nothing to get too flustered about.


At the most fundamental level lies a system of looking after its own interests. Through diplomacy that seeks to secure U.S. economic interests, the United States’ main focus for the international order is to create a system that enables free trade and can generate mutual advantages.


Second is diplomacy that espouses U.S. values. The United States is even willing to go to war for the sake of democracy, a universal value of mankind. This is diplomacy for democracy, where it is thought to be a wonderful thing to trumpet the cause.


And thirdly, there is diplomacy that cherishes a balance of power and suppresses any player that seeks to upset the order by force. The United States has fulfilled its responsibility of preserving the global order well.


Trump has made some relatively impulsive remarks, such as “That is outrageous.” However, the points he makes are not that different from what previous presidents have said. His comments that he will eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group show a typically American sense of how the global order should be. He views China as a challenger and rattled their cage on the Taiwan issue, and said he will expand the military. This is a traditional style of diplomacy based on power, thus his method is not so strange. We should see Trump’s actions as being in line with those three basic axes of U.S. diplomacy — except the diplomacy of values.


Previous administrations have often clashed hard with China during their early days, and some sort of incident has occurred. Soon after George W. Bush was inaugurated, a U.S. military plane collided in midair with a Chinese fighter jet, and the U.S. crews were temporarily detained by Chinese authorities. In the early days of President Barack Obama’s administration, Chinese vessels impeded the path of a U.S. Navy survey ship.


China often causes incidents that send out shock waves to draw the United States into talks. Currently, China is trying to assess the true nature of Trump’s policy and to figure out a strategy to deal with it.


What worries me is the possible impact if the United States switches to a more friendly policy toward Russia. If Trump is too much inclined to cooperate with Russia, the three Baltic states, Ukraine, Poland and other nations, which are reliant on the United States in the security field, might feel the United States is unreliable, and try to forge closer ties with Russia, which could trigger major upheaval in Europe.


Trump has said he will withdraw U.S. forces stationed in Japan unless Japan pays more money to host them. However, as far as I know, he has not mentioned this since he won the presidential election. Even if Trump himself really feels that way, I’m sure James Mattis, the former commander of U.S. Central Command and Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, and other officials will explain to him that Japan pays the most host nation support of any U.S. ally.


I think these former military officials will lean not so much toward saying to Japan, “Give us more money,” but more toward saying, “We want you to play a slightly bigger role and cooperate in security operations when necessary.”


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is already going in that direction, even without being told by the United States. In particular, it is significantly reinforcing its posture toward China’s activities in the East China Sea and elsewhere, including through the Japan Coast Guard.


China’s defense budget has ballooned 3.4-fold over the past 10 years. Japan’s defense spending had tended to remain flat or decline, but the Abe administration has realized that this will not do and started to strengthen the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces and the coast guard.


The SDF possesses many surface-to-ship missiles, so Japan has the ability to neutralize the warships and vessels of any nation attempting to take over one of its islands. Despite this, if, say, North Korea was preparing to fire a nuclear missile at Japan, the SDF does not have the ability to strike the launch base. I think there needs to be some serious discussions on the question of whether Japan should have missiles to strike targets on land, including cruise missiles, that would provide the deterrence to prevent an attack on this nation.


The legal framework for Japan’s security has made it possible for this nation to provide logistical support in the case of situations that will gravely impact on its peace, and to exercise the right of collective self-defense when its survival is threatened, such as by attacks on the U.S. military. I wonder if there won’t be a situation where Japan is forced to consider actually applying this legal framework.


Even if Trump creates a shock with his comments, I want him to show he actually has the skill to diplomatically find a solution that does not resort to war by using people such as his appointed cabinet members.


As Trump is quick to adapt, I think it is possible a course correction will start to occur about half a year after he takes office. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is clearly more logical as a U.S. strategy for dealing with China than slapping high tariffs on Chinese imports would be. Japan should be prepared for the United States to think again about ratification of the TPP, either through Trump himself correcting his course or through the next administration.


Fortunately, Abe can talk to Trump. It is important to make Trump open his eyes to the responsibility the United States has to uphold the world order, by encouraging and praising him by saying, “Without the United States, the world does not hold together.” If the United States plays its role in the global order, Japan can be a good assistant standing beside it. Japan can boost its presence if it plays the role of explaining Trump’s views to China, South Korea and nations in Southeast Asia.


If a Japanese prime minister has a special relationship with a U.S. president and plays the role of coordinator in the Asia-Pacific region, the value of the Japan-U.S. alliance will soar. After the end of World War II, there were certain prime ministers who were very much aware of this and implemented it through their policies: Nobusuke Kishi, Eisaku Sato and Yasuhiro Nakasone.


I think this is an opportunity to conduct diplomacy in a particularly Japanese way toward both the United States and Asia.

This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tatsuya Fukumoto.




Iokibe is an expert in Japanese political and diplomatic history. He was a professor at Kobe University, president of the National Defense Academy and chairman of the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. Iokibe has been in his current post since 2012. He is the author of many books, including “The Japan-U.S. War and the Emergence of Postwar Japan.” He is 73.

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