President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last week has spawned an endless supply of think pieces. One of the latest, and more prominently-placed, comes to us from Dreux Richard writing in the New York Times:
Visiting Hiroshima last Friday, President Obama warned that overcoming the perils of global conflict and nuclear weapons will require a “moral revolution” sustained by “the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family.” He omitted to mention that this notion has been the constitutional basis of Japan’s foreign policy since 1947. Future historians may conclude that Mr. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima provided a spectacle to help remilitarize the world’s wealthiest, most populous pacifist country.
The rest of the article makes it clear that Richard doesn’t like Abe very much:
In supporting Mr. Abe’s effort to restore Japan’s ability to join and wage wars, Mr. Obama has chosen the wrong strategic partner. The next U.S. president will inherit an East Asia policy vulnerable to the uncertainties of Japan’s transition away from pacifism. Since 2012, Mr. Abe’s foreign policy decisions have harmed Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, including the U.S. ally South Korea. Several of his political appointees have proven scandal-prone in matters of diplomacy.
Such hand-wringing is consistent with a rather fashionable critical attitude—one shared by President Obama himself—toward expressions of hard power. But even Obama recognizes the strategic importance of Japanese remilitarization for the region as a way to balance China’s rise. In fact, contra Richard’s analysis, South Korea hasn’t raised the kinds of objections to Japan’s assertiveness that would have been certainties had remilitarization occurred a decade or two ago. The reason is that Seoul, although definitely wary of an empowered Tokyo, ultimately sees the need for a stronger Japan if there is to be any hope of keeping Beijing in check.
Ideally, China would see the wisdom of participating in building a stable world order, especially in its own neighborhood. But since Beijing appears to be chafing at the concept, preferring to act as a local hegemon, the United States has been trying to leverage its allies’ discomfort with China’s domineering attitude to try to build a coherent regional order around it anyway. For such an endeavor to be credible, the United States needs to empower its partners to defend their interests, in hopes that China will eventually see that it’s better to cooperate than fight.
The image of President Obama in Hiroshima inspires many conflicting ideas and sentiments. But it’s important not to overlook what it says about how close Washington and Tokyo have become over the past seven decades. Whatever Japanese and American citizens think about the merits of hard power in 1945 or 2016, the present state of their bilateral relations is something to celebrate.