WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- Military action, economic sanctions, diplomacy: These three options, by themselves or in various combinations, are the principal choices in the foreign-policy tool kit of today's national leaders.
That one of today's urgent crises is set in Northeast Asia should serve as a reminder of the limits of each option. After all, America fought one of its hardest and bitterest wars with that region's principal power a half-century ago, a war that arose because of the failure of diplomacy and sanctions.
It is precisely the failure of negotiations and sanctions against Japan in the immediate prewar period that demonstrates the limits of these tools against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Diplomacy works best if neither side feels that the ultimate demand of the other side is entirely intolerable. In the case of Japan-United States negotiations in 1941, in which the principal item of contention was Japan's particularly harsh hegemonic ambitions in China, America could only buy peace with Japan at the cost of ceding such ambitions; Japan could avoid war with America only by abandoning its vision of an East Asia organized under Japanese oversight.
Diplomacy having failed, Franklin D. Roosevelt's sanctions strategy demonstrated the second problem in dealing with authoritarians: Weak sanctions can effectively be ignored, as their pain can be passed on primarily to the disenfranchised subject populace. Harsh and effective sanctions might convince the targeted leadership that they are better off going to war soon, as further delay degraded the effectiveness of that option. The fact that Roosevelt's oil weapon had backed Japan into a corner by November 1941 served to make war the more attractive option to Japan's leadership.
Today, of course, it is not a strategic sanctions program, but rather North Korea's own economic incompetence that has backed that regime into a corner. However, it appears to be as ideologically impossible for the North Korean leadership to give up its totalitarian system and its nuclear ambitions as it was for Japan to give up its obsession with continental hegemony in 1941. Still, whether their dilemma is of their own making or otherwise, they are both cornered and intransigent at this time.
None of the three policy options at hand is fully satisfactory for the United States, which is in a way also backed into a corner. Military action now may yet be preferable if war is ultimately inevitable, as North Korea's nuclear position can only grow stronger over time. Given Pyongyang's penchant for arms exports to anybody with a spare dollar, permitting Kim Jong Il's regime to develop nuclear production capabilities must be seen as a far more acute threat than Japan's ambitions in China were in 1941.
It is against this grim and unsatisfactory background that Japan must rethink its fundamental security policies. Since the end of World War II, Japan's alliance treaty with the United States has been one of the two bedrock assumptions of its foreign and security policy. Its strict limitation on military capabilities and deployments, embedded in the anti-military clause of its constitution, has been the other.
Since the end of the Cold War, it has become fashionable for Japanese political figures to explore alternatives to the first policy. At various times over the past decade, Japan has cautiously explored moves toward Russia, China, and Europe, or some combination of these alternative poles of power, as a means of increasing Tokyo's distance from the United States.
However, each move in turn has come up against its limits. Rapprochement with Russia would permit Japanese capital and technology to help exploit Siberian resources, and bolster Russia's loosening grip on that region in the face of Chinese demographic, and increasingly, economic pressure. Such a move still makes sense. However, it ran up against the immediate problem of Russia's disinclination to return the Kuril Islands, taken at the end of World War II, to Japan. In the longer run, it runs up against the bigger problem: that for Russia, the relationship that makes the most sense is a closer alliance with America.
An approach to China also faltered. Superficially, a marriage of the nation with the largest Asian population and the nation with the most advanced Asian financial and technological power makes sense. However, "Asian" is almost as meaningless a category as "European." As Britain has been described as "European, but with a difference," so must Japan be described as "Asian, but with a difference."
In each case, the differences are significant. Japan-China cooperation was problematic in the 1930s and 1940s when Japan was militarily dominant; it is equally problematic now that China, without the offset of American power, would dominate Japan. Japan simply cannot afford to engage in a China alliance that ultimately would be aimed at the United States.
Finally, the more perceptive Japanese have begun to realize that an approach to the European Union, as an effective counterweight to America, is a fool's errand. Both Japan and continental Europe are increasingly stagnant economies with growing demographic crises. Neither could do without export to the American market in their current economic circumstances. In that regard, they have little to offer each other, and any attempt to cooperate to the discomfort of the United States could only ultimately hurt both.
More fundamentally, Japan lives in a more dangerous neighborhood than do the Europeans. China, Russia, and North Korea both have the capability to strike Japan with nuclear weapons, and all have deep-seated historical grievances against the Japanese. Today, North Korea is an active threat. Someday, others might be. Watching the European Union's response to much closer crises, such as the Bosnian war, the Japanese must understand that if Tokyo were nuked by the North Koreans, all they would get from Brussels would be an elegantly worded statement of regret and calls for an immediate meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Realistically, the Japanese round-the-world tour of foreign policy options leads right back to Washington. However, rather than merely continue the status quo, this is perhaps the time to refound Japan-United States relations. This could also involve revisiting the other fundamental pillar of Japanese foreign and security policy, the anti-military Constitution.
Such revisions might include removing the now merely symbolic clause against maintenance of military forces; permitting the Japanese navy and air force to operate at substantially longer distances, perhaps out to 5,000 miles from the home islands; acquiring classes of weapons previously forbidden, such as anti-submarine-warfare carriers or nuclear attack submarines, and in general, making Japan more capable as an ally in future potential conflicts in the region. These could all help symbolize a Japan that could say "no" to the United States, but after thinking carefully, has decided to say "yes" after all.
Some commentators have gone as far as suggesting Japan be urged to acquire nuclear weapons, as a means of pressuring China into helping contain North Korea. This is probably a non-starter. Given the strong symbolic issues involved with nuclear weaponry, this is not likely to be accepted in Japan, nor is it needed, so long as the American alliance is maintained. Furthermore, if the United States did decide to put pressure on China by such means, threatening to aid Taiwan in acquiring such weapons would probably be far more effective.
Finally, an Anglosphere strategy could bring some modest but real benefits to Japan. Rather than cultivating ties with third parties antagonistic to America, Japan would be better off increasing its ties with the countries closest to the United States politically, militarily and culturally. This would achieve, not a hostile triangulation, but rather an amicable collaboration, that could potentially influence the U.S. through mutual pursuit of common goals. After all, an Anglo-American-Japanese combination combines three of the four largest economies in the world; adding Canada combines four of the G-7 principal economic actors.
Japan already has in general friendly relations with all the principal Anglosphere nations. Perhaps a conscious strategy of enhancing them would be a modest but effective step toward broadening its key relations in a manner that does not signal rivalry to an America that will continue to be its principal partner for the foreseeable future.