Japan reacted to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by putting its head in the sand. Although it was quick to join the embargo against Iraq, it was slow to provide any kind of assistance, financial, moral or otherwise, to the emerging international coalition.
Japan did agree to provide financial support for the coalition, but only in response to intense American pressure and only after considerable hesitation. A total of $13 billion has been promised so far, making Japan one of the largest financial backers of the war, just behind Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
But the spirit behind the Japanese offer has been grudging and even mercantile rather then generous. Japan has acted more like a skeptical banker worrying about its investment than a world leader responding to injustice.
Through such conduct, Japan has revealed its unwillingness to accept the responsibilities attending global power. Its response is understandable but ultimately foolhardy andself-defeating.
From an economic point of view alone, Japan’s stake in the Gulf may not have justified war. Although Japan is dependent on the Gulf for oil, it is better equipped than the United States to handle higher energy prices and supply disruptions because it has a stronger economy and a functioning energy policy. To Japanese eyes, America felt compelled to fight for oil only because of profligate energy use. The Japanese regard this as an American problem, one that they have avoided through intelligent policy. They are not wrong.
And Japan does not share all of America’s foreign policy goals in the Middle East. Japan does not, for example, have America’s special relationships with Israel or Saudi Arabia. Japan’s primary interests in the Gulf are economic access and the political stability that makes this possible, interests that might have been well served by avoiding armed conflict and the regional chaos that inevitably ensued.
Japan’s attitude may be an outgrowth of the Cold War order in which the United States was the guardian of global security. But this attitude is obsolete. The Cold War is over. The United States is suffering from deep-seated economic difficulties and imperial overreach. Japan no longer has the luxury of being a free-rider--it must begin to assume a leadership role commensurate with its formidable economic strength.
Even from the point of view of self-interest, Japan’s attitude is shortsighted. There is a real danger that U.S. resentment over Japan’s behavior in the Gulf crisis will aggravate trade tensions on everything from semiconductors to automobiles. More and more Americans believe that Japan is an unfair trading partner--that its market is closed to American firms while its companies run roughshod over the open U.S. market.
So what should Japan do if it wishes to ease tensions with the United States and grow into a leadership role that befits its economic dominance?
At a minimum, Japan should lead an international effort to explore alternative arrangements, such as a Marshall Plan or the creation of a Middle East Development Bank, for the purpose of financing reconstruction in the Gulf. Japan should be the primary source of the necessary funds. And Japan’s contributions should be unconditional rather then tied to purchases of Japanese goods.
Japan should also take the initiative in defining common positions with Europe and the United States on a variety of unresolved regional issues, such as how to limit the export of high-technology weaponry to destabilizing local powers.
At home, the Japanese government should seek to generate domestic support for the participation of Japanese personnel in multilateral peacekeeping operations.
Despite a spectacular demonstration of America’s military might, the Gulf crisis also demonstrated that the days of American hegemony are over. It may have been unseemly for the world’s only military superpower to pass the hat for financial support from its allies, but it was unavoidable. The United States no longer has the economic wherewithal to be the sole or even the dominant provider of global security. And its will to play this role is eroding.
Even now, in the afterglow of military triumph, there are portents of resurgent isolationism in the United States. An increasing number of Americans resent the fact that Germany and Japan are thriving economically, while the United States is mired in debt and sluggish growth.
The challenge confronting America in the 1990s is to make the transition smoothly from hegemony to partner with Europe and Japan. To meet this challenge, America must be willing to compromise with its allies. Burden-sharing must not be interpreted to mean that Japan and Europe will simply shoulder more of the costs of America’s foreign policy objectives, even those that they do not share. Hegemony had its privileges; these privileges are gone.
But Japan, too, faces a transition. It must give up its comfortable role as an inward-looking trading nation and take on the risky and uncomfortable role of global power. Meeting this challenge, however, need not require that Japan become a military superpower. Indeed, given its history, neither Japan nor its allies would welcome such a development.
There are other, more beneficent, ways Japan can assume a global position commensurate with its wealth. Instead of investing its resources in military capability, as most economic giants have done, Japan should devote these resources to addressing global economic problems, such as developing impoverished Third World nations and protecting the ecosystem that Japan, along with the other industrial nations, has done so much to harm.
In the absence of a responsible and equitable partnership among the United States, Europe and Japan, the world is likely to become more unstable and less prosperous than it was during the heyday of American hegemony. So far, Japan has demonstrated little inclination to consider such a proposition or to see any such role for itself. It might consider taking a giant step toward assuming such a role by taking an active part in formulating and supporting a reconstruction strategy for the war-torn countries of the Gulf.