October 27, 2008; Volume 04, Number 28

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

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Interview Transcript
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From beautiful Spring Valley. In the midlands of South Carolina. Today is Monday, October 27th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 28, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


A beautiful day here in South Carolina. Cool. In the mid-50s. With the weather person’s promise it will be no more than the mid-60s all. Enough breeze to energize the trees outside the window. And bright, but cool, sunshine. What more could one ask for! Thanks for dropping in. And I hope you enjoy similar, or even better, weather wherever in the world this program reaches you.

This week, we have a special treat. An interview with Mr. Gregg Rubinstein. A frequent contributor to this program. When we can get him. Principle of GAR Associates in Washington, D. C. And a long-time participant in, and observer of, the U.S.-Japan relationship. One of the few of us actually qualified to comment on the military aspects of that relationship. Something Gregg’s been doing for many years.

The interview was recorded last Monday, October 20th. And I’ve just now found the time to post it. Many of you have written in with questions and comments about the recent “de-listing” of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. And how that is likely to affect Japan, and U.S.-Japan relations. Well, here’s the fellow who can tell us. Have a listen!

Interview Transcript

RCA: This morning we’re hoping to talk with Mr. Gregg Rubinstein in Washington, D.C. Gregg has been a frequent commentator on the podcast. And a number of you have written in suggesting that we ask him again about the current situation.

[Phone rings]

RCA: Good Morning Gregg.

GAR: Good Morning, Dr. Angel. How are you doing?

RCA: “Dr. Angel”! All right.

Gar: Give you a little boost there.

RCA: Why, I just straightened my tie when you said that. Thanks for taking the time this morning to talk with us. You made the terrible mistake last week of sending me a quick e-mail with comments about my screed concerning the importance of Japan as related to China. It made a lot of sense. So I sent one back, begging you to come on the program. And you made the second mistake of agreeing! So, here we are.

I wonder if I could ask you about that. Very briefly, I was arguing, and actually believe, that the more important China becomes in world affairs, the more important Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship is to the United States. How do you respond to that, Gregg?

GAR: Well, I think that what I said in my message to you, Bob, was that you’re of course correct in arguing that fascination with China should not distract the U.S. from strengthening alliance ties with Japan. The two of those relationships, ours with Japan and ours with China, and for that matter, China and Japan, are part of a triangle. Not a zero-sum game in terms of U.S. engagement. I think the very idea that there is somehow a zero-sum relationship between how we deal with Japan and how we deal with China is terribly misguided. And really, profoundly ignorant.

RCA: So, how do you see this relationship? And how do you explain what’s happened in terms in terms of American public interest and concern about Japan.

GAR: Well, I think there’s been a lot of talk about our declining interest in Japan. And there’s certainly a lot of truth to that. But I think that growing attention to China is only part of the explanation. Some of it is just changing perspective. Japan simply does not loom the U.S. consciousness the way it did in the bad old “fear-and-loathing” days of the eighties and early nineties. It’s been a long time since anybody’s blathered about “Theory Z,” or “Japan as Number One.” Or any of the one-time revisionists – the Fallows-Choate-Prestowitz group – that got attention by stirring the Japan pot. Those guys have long since moved on to China. Which I think is a good thing, on the whole.

RCA: You make an interesting point. Some interest, in fact, much of the interest in Japan during the seventies and eighties was really negative, wasn’t it. We were worried about Japan as a threat. So, therefore, the decline in interest might even be a positive thing for the bilateral relationship.

GAR: Well, this is the point I will get to later. Were I to plot this on a graph I would have two axes. One, is interest in Japan, good or bad. Perceptions of Japan, perhaps I should say. Good or bad. And the other is perceptions of Japan’s relevance. Or irrelevance. That’s probably the theme I would develop were I giving a talk on this.

RCA: That’s a very academic concept. We’ll have to build a graph and have some people calculate and put numbers on it!

GAR: We don’t have to do that. We can go through this pretty simply. To me the real problem in how we view Japan is a growing perception of Japan’s chronic inability or unwillingness to measure up as an ally. That’s what I meant by perceptions of relevance. Who was it who said that “Japan disappoints in its ability to disappoint”? I’m not only speaking of defense issues here. I would say that there’s not been much in the past few years to show even by the comprehensive security standards that Japan itself espouses.

RCA: What causes that, do you think? On the Japanese side. I’ve focused more on the U.S. side. But there are two sides to this issue.

GAR: Here we go back to the basis of perceptions in the alliance relationships. We give a lot of good talk about how we’re now an equal alliance, and a global partnership. You’re familiar with the series of 2+2 statements that have come out the last couple of years. Actually, 2005 to 2007 was the height of it. But although we have a lot of talk on the subject, my view of the day-to-day, or month-to-month, for that matter, workings of the alliance suggest that we’re still very much in the patron-client mode. And we always have been. Just like the current Japanese political scene, we’re still caught in the post-war system. Everybody knows that we should get out of it, in principle. But in practice, it’s very hard to do. Even for people like me, who never fully bought into “Japan as another Britain” theme behind our current alliance transformation agenda, it’s difficult not to be somewhat discouraged by recent developments.

The Koizumi years offered a tantalizing glimpse, I think, into how real alliance cooperation could evolve. But, as you’ve seen since Koizumi left, we’re now back to wallowing. Problems of implementation of agendas that somehow never seem to get unstuck and there’s every reason to expect more of the same, given the current political situation in Japan.

RCA: I’m reading this into your comments. But you seem to suggest that folks in Washington who deal with Japan are a little frustrated at the moment with the Japanese as well.

GAR: Yes. I think it’s hard for them not to be somewhat frustrated. I know from having worked inside the system and having gone through this cycle myself, it is truly difficult to be caught up in a major alliance-building issue in which you are intellectually and emotionally vested. Think you’ve gotten somewhere, only to get to the top of the hill and find there’s a lot of back-sliding. Like four or five feet for every six you think you’ve gained.

It’s a frustrating period. Given changing administrations here and (current) administration inertia, and the current political stalemate in Japan, I don’t see much change in the future.

There’s another point, though. That’s more of a generational matter. Those like you and me from the baby-boomer generation, whose views of Japan pretty much emerged in the Cold War context, have always accepted the indispensability of the U.S.-Japan alliance in our approach to the Asia-Pacific region. Even if we were frustrated on many specific issues.

RCA: Right.

GAR: Even when I would go home at night, wondering just how it is that I got involved with Japan, I never questioned that basic assumption. Now, the post-boomer specialists, let alone those not deeply involved with Japan, I think just do not share that assumption to the same degree. It doesn’t reflect fascination with China, or hostility toward Japan. That’s why I spoke of those two axes of good-bad and relevant-irrelevant. Rather, it’s just a more – well, I don’t know if you’d call it realistic, or cold-blooded – evaluation of Japan’s place in broader U.S. interests. One comment yesterday, “Sure, all of the alliance rhetoric is fine. But what has Japan done for us lately?”

RCA: You mentioned a moment ago that things were looking up under the Koizumi Administration. And then they declined. Why is that? Why should that be?

GAR: I think if you look at the Koizumi years, coinciding as they did, with the ascendance of the Bush Administration, there was a high water mark in how people here thought the alliance-building agenda could unfold. The alliance transformation agenda, base realignment, more discussion of roles, missions, and capabilities, improved institutional interaction, more joint planning, and all that. That didn’t just originate with the Bush group. It really had its origins in the nineties. It’s something that’s been evolving a very long time with us. But it just could not get traction given the pre-Koizumi governments. There was marginal progress here and there. But Koizumi, in his willingness to take initiatives and break with that pattern, gave it more emphasis, and allowed people to see the tantalizing possibilities – what might be possible in a more proactive U.S.-Japan alliance. As one senior official put it who’s no longer in government, but who was very active during the transformation build-up: “You know, if we get all of this implemented by 2010, we just might have the relationship with Japan that we should have had in 2000.” I think that’s very typical of the mindset seen among U.S. officials working on Japan. This is true not just of the Bush Administration appointees, but the career types as well. Many of whom, again, got their start during the Clinton years.

RCA: So they’re frustrated with Japan’s either political ability or willingness to participate more actively in the bilateral relationship.

GAR: There’s a problem you see among policy specialists. Whether in academia or in government planning offices. Or immediately associated think tanks. Somewhat like lawyers as well. The assumption that somehow if you form the right ideas, get them down on paper, negotiate them, and have them signed off on some impressive statement – like a 2+2 joint statement – that the work is basically done. And implementation is just a matter of follow-through by people much lower down on the feeding chain. Well, of course, that’s anything but true. Anybody who’s really worked issues in the system knows that getting the agreement signed, or the policy statement issued, is, at best, half of the game. And probably not even that. Implementation is everything. And what you’ve had over the last two years, especially, is a breakdown in implementation. The policy process simply got ahead of institutions and politics. So, yes, there has been a lot of back-sliding. The goal seemingly within reach has, if anything, receded. And that’s caused a lot of the frustration here.

RCA: I look at these things from a comparative politics perspective. We’re all both the beneficiaries and the victims of our backgrounds, I guess. But I see the Japanese government responding to two environments. One domestic and one international. When you talked about Koizumi what came to my mind – I might be wrong – but I thought, well, the sudden terrorist attack on the United States soon after his inauguration gave him an opportunity to be more cooperative with the United States without really an awful lot of cost to Japan. Do you think that’s off the mark? Domestic, political cost, I should say.

GAR: Of course, it was relevant. 9/11 was a great enabler for him, just as it was an enabler here. It gave him more of a means to do things I think he was already inclined to do.

I would come up with another analogy. Which may be a stretch on my part too. Both on the domestic scene and on the views of the alliance relationship. I tended to view Koizumi as Japan’s Gorbachev. He broke the system, in a sense. But didn’t leave anything behind in the way of a well-formed alternative. And people have been wallowing in his wake to fix it. I think Gerry Curtis came out in an interview in the Oriental Economist recently where he talked a little bit about that part of Koizumi. Compared him unfavorably in a sense to transformational leaders like Roosevelt and Thatcher, who so thoroughly changed the paradigm that their successors, regardless of which side of the aisle they were on, had to follow. That didn’t happen in Japan. Just as it didn’t happen in the Soviet Union. The system was broken and eventually it collapsed under its own weight. I think that’s obviously what you’re seeing in the political situation now. And that situation, to me, all but guarantees creation of not only inertia but paralysis. That’s going to frustrate any policy agenda.

RCA: How do you think that Prime Minister Aso will handle this? He’s widely described in Japan’s media as a hawk, as very conservative. Will that make a difference in Japan’s response or participation in the bilateral relationship.

GAR: I don’t know that there’s a great deal that Aso can do, given the political situation. Of course, everything depends on this election. Whenever it’s going to be held now. There seems to be more speculation on when exactly that will take place; speculation on the outcome. Will the LDP manage to scrape by? Will they try another grand coalition idea? Will the DPJ finally get its chance to bat? I think almost regardless of the outcome, what you’re going to see is more inertia, to the point of paralysis for a while to come. I don’t see this as a time for great initiatives. And I think that whoever comes in with the next U.S. Administration, with whatever ambitious ideas they have, are going to run aground pretty quickly.

RCA: Let’s save the U.S. administration for just a little later, if you’re willing to talk about it. I’ve got a genuinely puzzling question. You can shed light on this, I’m sure. That is why Japan has been so concerned about the abductee issue. At the expense of other issues in their handling of this North Korea business. What’s going on there?

GAR: We’ve discussed this earlier. I see two levels of problem. One is the domestic political furor over the abductee issue itself. How this has been blown out of proportion by the victims’ families, and their association that’s grown up around them, further magnified by the media. In a way we’ve seen a number of times before in Japan. It’s just come to occupy a volume of the political spectrum out of proportion, if you will. And a Japanese government that simply hasn’t had the ability, or perhaps even the courage, to draw a line around it and say, all right, we understand the concern. We have other concerns as well, and we need to handle this one accordingly. That’s part of it. Now, when I say “other concerns,” they are the broader issues of the Korean nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, and so-forth. The other concern, of course, is that a lot of this abductee issue is a screen for more genuine, even if still somewhat misplaced concern, over the effect of our dealings with North Korea on nuclear deterrence. And here again, we’re going into one of our periodic gyrations. Is the U.S. trying to pull us too closely into their orbit? Or is the U.S. deliberately slighting us and pushing us away?

RCA: What’s your view on that? How will that come out?

GAR: On one level, I understand how the concern extended over to the deterrence debate comes up. It’s part of a recurring pattern in U.S.-Japan interaction. From the Japanese perspective, fear of entrapment versus abandonment. On the other hand, objectively, I find this a very contrived argument that does not survive serious scrutiny. What is North Korea’s actual ability to threaten Japan with missiles and nuclear weapons? I would say it’s still minimal, it’s still under-developed. Highly unknown. The potential is there. But nobody seems to agree on whether North Korea has a workable weapon and delivery system to seriously threaten Japan or anybody else.

But again, perception runs far ahead of reality here. The reality is still that the Mutual Security Treaty is there. I have never heard anyone seriously question that it would be operative in case of any North Korean effort to attack Japan. And whatever the perspectives of North Korea’s leadership – not just Kim Jong Il, but the people around him – they’ve got to know that any attempt to attack Japan would be committing suicide. The U.S. would not, could not, stand aside from that. In addition to all of this, the whole point of U.S.-Japan missile defense cooperation over the past decade has been to put into place a system that can deter and at least defeat a minimal sort of threat that North Korea poses with its missiles. And that system is coming into place. It has been deployed. Successful tests have been run. Whatever you think of the higher-flying Star Wars initiative, and whether space-based defense is realistic, I think that what we have on the ground and in the water now around Japan has become credible over the past couple of years.

RCA: Seems to me there are two issues here. One is whether Japan has the military capability to prevent North Korea from doing damage to Japanese cities. And the other is the kind of mutually-assured-destruction threat that should North Korea decide to attack Japan North Korea would be obliterated by the U.S.

GAR: Yes. They are two interlinked issues. One depends on the other. You remember in the 1980s all of the furor over the INF, or intermediate nuclear force issue, in Europe. A lot of conflict and political dissention over U.S.-NATO plans to deploy intermediate range missiles in Europe to counter Soviet introduction of missiles targeted on Europe that couldn’t reach the U.S. For all of the fuss over it, in fact, the INF deployment ultimately was successful in convincing the Soviet Union that they didn’t really have a nuclear or strategic card to play against Europe decoupled from the U.S. That they could both be met in Europe, and there was still the overall strategic matter to settle with the U.S. And the success of that INF program was one of the things that led the Soviet Union to back down and undertake serious arms control negotiations. The situations are not the same with Japan and North Korea, obviously. But I do see a similarity in what we need to have. An ability to deal with the rather minimal North Korean threat now, and get people to understand that we can do so, and put that threat in perspective. That’s something that enables the extended nuclear deterrence as well.

RCA: You know, if I were Japanese and concerned about these things, and Japan’s future in the global world order, I’d be a lot more concerned about China than I would be about North Korea.

GAR: Indeed.

RCA: Tadae Takubo recently published something in which he said that Japan’s relationship with the United States is more important as China’s military capabilities increase. And if you’re Japanese, he argued, you either want to maintain the U.S-Japan security relationship, or you want to accept Japanese status as a vassal state of China. That’s pretty harsh talk …

GAR: But there’s a grain of truth there.

RCA: It’s a real problem. Well, I’ve agreed not to ask you to speculate on the timing of the next election, or how long Taro Aso will remain prime minister of Japan. But I wonder if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about the American political situation. We’re going to have a presidential election here in the United States. How is that likely to affect the United States relationship with Japan?

GAR: If you’re talking about the approaches of the McCain versus Obama people toward the place of the U.S.-Japan alliance …

RCA: That would be terrific.

GAR: There is a lot that both the McCain and Obama camps agree on. Japan relative to China, and relative to the Korean Peninsula, is not that controversial an issue. There has been, as you well know, an extraordinary continuity over the years and administrations. A consensus on the centrality of Japan’s position. How the U.S.-Japan alliance has been of great mutual benefit. And there isn’t really a viable alternative to close cooperation with Japan, etc. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the alliance transformation agenda of the Bush Administration really got its start prior to that, in the nineties. So, I think you will see a certain amount of that continuity. Whoever is elected.

But, the points of emphasis I find differing somewhat as I listen to the conference statements, read the policy papers and so on. I think I see in the McCain people what I would summarize as “more of the same.” In terms of treatment of an alliance transformation agenda. Which is not surprising given how many of the likely McCain appointees already have had experience in at least the first Bush Administration. And also belong to same circle of Republican advisers who’ve been involved with Japan at least since the beginning of the Reagan Administration. So, again, not too much surprise there that they would continue more of the same. Problems that you see in implementation now, like (relocation of) the Futenma facility are viewed as obstacles to be overcome rather than intractable problems that might require reconsideration.

On this point the Obama Team differs somewhat. I think there is a little more skepticism on the relevance point, more of an inclination to reconsider, if not the basic approach to alliance transformation, at least how we implement some of the issues. I think you will see some questioning if the Obama people come in about how we really want to pursue some of the base realignment initiatives. How we approach Japan on funding host nation support and some of the other standard issues in alliance cooperation.

RCA: If I understand your interpretation here, should McCain be selected president there’d be virtually no change in our approach to Japan.

GAR: Very little, anyway.

RCA: And should Obama be selected there would be a little change, but nothing shocking or startling.

GAR: I don’t think so. I think that just in the fact that the Obama people are perhaps a little more inclined to take a serious look at Japan’s own approach of “comprehensive security” if you’re really going to have an alliance relationship you’ve got to look at more than just the defense aspects of it. Everything from economic cooperation to foreign aid policies, and so forth; all of that has to come into play. But as I mentioned earlier in the conversation, I think that whichever side comes in, they’re going to find it difficult to deal with the current political situation in Japan. Bright new ideas, which may or may not really be new, are just aren’t going to persevere too long. Until Japan gets its current political mess at least resolved to the degree that people can think seriously about standing up on real policy issues.

RCA: We’ll have to wait to see what happens about that.

GAR: I don’t mean to be too … I’m probably sounding more negative than I am, Bob. I think this process this process we’re going through, both on the political scene in Japan, and the alliance relationship, as messy as it’s going to be in the short-run, is going to work out better in the long run. I see both issues, in effect, as jettisoning the last of the postwar system baggage in Japan. In the case of our relationship with Japan, putting it on something approaching more genuine interaction. On an alliance level. And not a continuation of patron-client patterns of behavior. So, I’ll end with that thought.

RCA: That’s a good thought. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that we should include here?

GAR: I’m sure there will. That will occur to me about five minutes after we hang up. But for now, no.

RCA: As usual, Gregg, I am most grateful for your contribution to the Japan Considered Project, which is your time and your expertise. Many of our listeners write in asking me to be sure to have you on the program more often. So, thank you again.

GAR: I’m pleased to participate. It’s good for me to talk about these things too. Sometimes one gets so much wrapped up in the specifics of day-to-day work that we tend to lose the bigger picture perspective. I enjoy the chance to talk about these things. So thank you, Bob.

RCA: You’re good to say so. And good bye.

Concluding Comments

Well, there you have it. A most interesting read on the current relationship between Japan and the United States, from a most credible Washington perspective. And even some prognostication concerning the future. There really aren’t many folks in Washington one dares these days to ask about the presidential election. Gregg’s one of the few who can be relied upon to give an interpretation that doesn’t reflect his political proclivities or aspirations.

Next program we’ll return to the question of political reform, and interesting developments at the domestic level. But for now,

Goodbye all. Until next time.