A delicate position

17 11 2009

by: Jared McClelland

I was trying to conceive of a topic for my first post here when current events helpfully made the choice for me.  President Obama is on his first tour of Asia, which – in spite of everything going on in the Middle East – is likely the most important region for America’s long-term interests.  As such, there are hundreds of things about this trip I could write about (and I’ll probably get to several of them.)  But today the topic is Japan.

Our entree to this discussion is Obama’s bow to Akihito, Emperor of Japan, which has many in the Neocon wingnut community positively apoplectic.  (Michelle Malkin calls him O-bow-ma.  The Los Angeles Times asks “how low can he go?”  American Power Blog accuses him of “bowing before monarchs and tyrants!” and points out that Reagan didn’t bow, the implication I guess being that anything Reagan didn’t do just shouldn’t be done…ever.  Powerline goes even one step further, noting that Douglas MacArthur didn’t bow to Hirohito.  Of course, he was accepting Japan’s unconditional surrender at the end of a bloody war, but that’s irrelevant, obviously.  It goes on and on.)

It is true that the US President bowing to the Emperor is unprecedented, and represents a departure.  I can understand the view that this is a bad thing, because a bow represents more than respect; it is also a sign of deference.  For those who believe that a never-ending show of America’s might is the President’s primary task, this is obviously upsetting.  But shouting “The American President bows to no one!” while shaking your fist (and thereby rattling your saber) is not exactly a nuanced foreign policy position and fails to account for several realities we face in Asia.

America, while still the preponderant military and economic power in Asia, is slowly but surely watching its status deteriorate.  As is frequently pointed out, China’s economy continues to fare reasonably well despite the global economic crisis, and their military is growing concordantly. America’s failure to make any progress at all with North Korea during the Bush administration (and to in fact lose the progress made during the Clinton administration) highlighted our flailing in the region and further diminished our standing.  This is especially true in Japan, where the North Korea issue is particularly sensitive.

But the biggest change, and probably one of the most consequential, is our changing relationship with Japan.  They are the world’s second largest economy, they are geographically critical to America’s power projection in Asia, they command a larger military than most people realize (Asia’s largest conventional military force), and since the end of World War II they have been a staunch and unfailing ally.  But they just had an election.

Fifty years of almost unending rule by the same political party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has come to an end, and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has risen, and all the implications of that are not yet clear.  What is definitely clear, though, is that their new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama campaigned partly on a platform of carving out a much more equal Japan-US alliance.  They have vowed to stop refueling our Afghanistan-bound ships in the Pacific, which will make an already difficult (if not impossible) and costly mission there even more so.  They have made noise about renegotiating our Status of Forces Agreement, which would compromise our military position vis-a-vis China and North Korea.  But where it gets really sticky is that they have begun divesting the “bureaucracy” – a collection of ministries and agencies with no democratic accountability whatsoever that, until now, has made practically all decisions regarding Japan’s foreign policy – of its power.  This means that for the first time ever, Japan’s foreign policy is controlled by the democratically elected government, and therefore by public opinion.  So, to get what we want from japan we will now be forced to court them diplomatically.

Our relationship with Japan – our most important and closest ally in Asia – is in flux, for the first time since the end of the second World War.  I’m not saying Obama was necessarily thinking of all this when he bowed to the Emperor. It could have just been a goof; but even if it was, given the circumstances I can’t see it as a total loss.  A sign of high respect, tinged with a little deference, may be just what we need.