Japan and America are on a geo-political collision course that is rooted in a logic of international relations and has little to do with trade frictions, memories of the Pacific War or latent racial animosities.
It is fashionable to believe that the "new world order"--which assumes that the United States is the only great power and that democracies do not fight each other--presages a peaceful era in which old concepts of international politics have become obsolete. In truth, however, international politics is reverting to the historic pattern of great-power rivalries in a multipolar setting. Policy-makers must rethink the conventional wisdom, which holds that the United States is not threatened by Japan's economic success and that as long as the U.S. economy grows somewhat, Americans need not be concerned if Japan's economy grows at a faster rate.
This strategically naive view stems from a Cold War-induced amnesia about international political realities, especially the fact that the international system remains fundamentally anarchic. Ultimately, nations must look after themselves; their primary imperatives are survival and decision-making autonomy. Nations must be concerned that other states may become too powerful.
To be sure, there are compelling reasons for nations to cooperate, and they often have common rather than conflicting interests. This is especially true with respect to economics, because the advantages of free exchange and specialization can enrich all participants in an open trading system.
During the bipolar postwar era, the Western alliance functioned to substantially eliminate competitive concerns--worries about the relative distribution of power and wealth--among the United States, Japan and Western Europe. But because of the Cold War's passing, U.S.-Japanese relations are shifting from an uneasy alliance to wary rivalry; geopolitical competitiveness is no longer suppressed by the imperative of anti-Soviet cohesiveness.
The security dilemma embedded in international politics impels nations to compete against those of comparable power. Great powers focus on relative power relationships and they emulate one another, politically, militarily and economically. Between rivals, disparities in national wealth have security implications, because they translate into national power disparities due to the links between military strength and economic and technological potency.
U.S.-Japan relations will be shaped by these dynamics, especially because in multipolar systems the first- and second-ranked great powers invariably become competitors. Japan will come to terms with its emerging great-power status and what is now primarily a commercial rivalry will acquire a security and diplomatic dimension. In this context, the fact that sometime between 2025 and 2050, Japan is projected to pass America as the world's leading economy is of enormous strategic significance.
The U.S.-Japan rivalry will not be muted by interdependence. Interdependence causes tension, not tranquillity, in international politics, because nations tend to quarrel with, or compete against, others with whom they have a high degree of interaction. In 1914, Germany and Britain were each other's best trading partners and the United States was Japan's leading export market in 1941.
Similarly, it is vain to hope Japan will not become a great power or that it will adopt more acceptable policies. Considerations of security, autonomy, military and economic competitiveness and prestige inexorably will drive Japan's emergence as a world power. By the same token, Japan's basic outlook will not change. Its export-oriented mercantilism reflects its position as a resource-poor nation and can be traced to the leaders of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, who believed exports were the key to Japan's wealth and strength.
America's predicament with Japan is the result of what UCLA political scientist Arthur Stein called the hegemon's dilemma. Rather than trying to maintain its overwhelming post-World War II relative power position, the United States defended Japan and Western Europe from the Soviet Union and actively assisted their economic recoveries. In the medium term, this policy brought security and economic benefits to all. But over time Japan (and the German-led European Community) was freed by the U.S. security umbrella to become a trading state and, by growing stronger in relation to the United States, positioned itself to challenge for global political and economic preeminence.
What was a sound policy during the early Cold War years has backfired, because the United States stuck with it too long. America's relative economic decline, the Soviet Union's collapse and Japan's emergence as a powerful international actor require a new, two-pronged national strategy--first, forcing Japan to confront international political realities by ending the U.S. defense protectorate and thereby shifting to (rather than sharing with) Tokyo the security responsibilities now borne by the United States; second, moving beyond the stilted concepts of free trade, fair trade and protectionism, and adopting a geo-economic strategy that enhances U.S. power in relation to Japan. This means, for instance, stemming the outflow of technology, preserving a strategic manufacturing base and strengthening the dollar to raise the cost of Japan's imported raw materials.
The Bush Administration's answer to those who want to change U.S. policy in response to the Japanese challenge is to denounce "isolationism" and invoke the mindless mantra of "maintaining American leadership." But pretensions of global leadership are mocked when the United States (according to the Commerce Department) is falling behind Japan in key emerging technologies, when Japan spends more on investment and R&D;, and when America is beholden to Japanese creditors.
The Japanese challenge is long-term and strategic and it is hardly isolationist to suggest that America concentrate first on vigorously defending its own interests in the competitive trans-Pacific relationship. President Bush, seeking to score domestic political points, does not seem to understand what really is at stake on his trip to Japan. Yet the ability to adjust American foreign policy to new international circumstances is the true test of leadership. What Bush deprecates as "the vision thing" is what most people call statesmanship.