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Allies: Why Japan, Rather Than Israel, Should Be the New Britain

05/03/2015 10:58 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's just completed trip to Washington, D.C. and California points up Japan's new status. Our bitter enemy of the mid-20th century is poised to become America's most important ally in the early 21st century.

It's a status that Abe certainly seems to embrace. In his address to a joint session of Congress and appearance at a White House state dinner in honor of Japan, he extolled the strong links between the two countries, which he intends to make stronger. To Congress, he declared that Japan will "now hold up high a new banner that is 'proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation.'" And at the White House dinner, he said that the relationship between America and Japan is so close that it can be summed up in the words of the R&B classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

And out in California, where Japanese culture is already a powerful presence, he spoke at Stanford and in Silicon Valley, visited with Governor Jerry Brown -- who studied Zen Buddhism in Japan for the better part of a year after his first go-round as governor -- and made a nostalgic visit to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where Abe was a grad student in the 1970s.

A true and capable ally is a very valuable thing to have in a very uncertain world. That's especially so for America, which after gaining most of the world's sympathy in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington repelled more than attracted with its subsequent course of action.

Through all that mess, Britain was the staunch ally of the US, as it has been since London decided not to recognize the Confederacy during the American Civil War, the most concrete immediate result of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The alliance, close as it turned out to be in World War I, was even more intense in World War II, with the "special relationship" as close as could conceivably be in the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

But the alliance in the post-9/11 era was very much a mixed bag, with the estimable Prime Minister Tony Blair proving more enabler than help-mate in helping press home the argument for the disastrous invasion of Iraq, largely wrecking his own reputation in the process.

With British public opinion sharply turned against the neoconservative line pursued by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, in most recent years it has become a commonplace in Republican politics that Israel is or is about to become America's most important ally.

Indeed, some top Israeli officials have claimed that very thing.

"Your most important ally - America's most important ally in the 20th century was Great Britain," Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer told the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a year ago at a Washington forum. "Your most important ally in the 21st century is going to be the state of Israel ... You may try to pivot from the Middle East, but the Middle East is not going to pivot from you. The security threats facing the United States are going to emanate from the Middle East for a long time to come."

Can you say self-fulfilling prophecy?

After his beginnings as a right-wing American political operative, the Florida-born Dormer spent years as a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu before resurfacing back in America as a supposed diplomat.

Dormer's master Netanyahu has proved quite inventive in coming up with these security challenges for us. He championed the spectacularly backfiring US invasion of Iraq, from which all manner of mischief has since flown. Lately, he's been pushing conflict with Iran, which he has claimed for more than 20 years was just about to come up with a nuclear bomb with which to destroy Israel.

This is the most obvious reason why Israel, at least under the likes of Netanyahu and his allies in the country's latest most rightward government in history, is not a serious candidate as America's top ally. They're not looking to help carry out our agenda; they're looking to push us to carry out their agenda. An agenda which is not in Israel's own best interest, by the way.

What would Israel bring to the table besides its own self-interest as America's prospective greatest ally? Well, it's not clear. There's talk of it already lending a hand, but it's all very hush-hush. Not unlike your own membership in the Avengers.

The reality is that Israel is tiny. Its forces are impressive on a pound for pound basis, but they can't operate in the open with American forces, given how radioactive Israel has become. They never have.

The entire scenario for Israel as chief American ally presupposes that America will remain pinned down as it has been since the boneheaded reaction to 9/11. That's what Dormer's little jibe about "pivoting" was about. The Netanyahu agenda would have us endlessly embroiled in a religion-based knife fight in a geopolitical phone booth rather than paying proper attention to pursuing interests in a vastly larger world, with the Asia-Pacific Pivot.

In contrast to Israel, the world's 37th largest economy, Japan is a true global powerhouse, the world's third largest economy, a major center of science, innovation, and manufacturing prowess.

Under Prime Minister Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party which has governed Japan for most of the its post-World War II history, Japan is moving beyond its pacifist post-war constitution to enable its extensive and sophisticated Self Defense Force to undertake expeditionary missions. While this is a big symbolic change, it's a not at all unexpected development.

Despite residual bitterness over Pearl Harbor -- which for most American leaders was more than made up for by our nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- American policy toward the defeated Japan was always clearer and more positive than that toward the defeated Germany. Many in American government wanted post-war Germany to become a "pastoral" society, shorn of its advanced industry which could serve as basis for a renewed military machine. That was never the intent with Japan.

Indeed, General Douglas MacArthur, who ran post-war Japan for years after playing a huge role in defeating it, insisted on not only preserving the rich traditional culture which had been perverted into fascism but also rebuilding and even enhancing Japan's infrastructure and industry. And MacArthur, though a conservative in American political circles, pursued progressive social policies in Japan which further prepared it for a fast modernizing world.

It's almost as if MacArthur, one of the most brilliant and controversial figures in American history, foresaw a day when, despite the truly brutal fighting between Americans and Japanese in the Pacific war, the two nations would need one another as trusted allies.

With a rising China, now arguably the world's largest economy, though hardly on a per capita basis, pushing hard for superpower status as the US remains distracted by its fateful adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia, that day looks to have arrived. China, which tried to declare its own "air defense zone" over most of the East China Sea near Japan, continues to push its extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually all the South China Sea, one of the world's most strategically significant bodies of water, to the dismay of its neighbors there.

Now it's building artificial land masses there to serve as military bases to augment its already striking naval build-up.

With the help of Japan, which might be able to beat China in its maritime moves on its own at this point, China's newfound aggressiveness in the Western Pacific should be readily countered. Some high-ranking Chinese officers have talked of expelling the US Navy from the West Pac, thus dealing a heavy blow to America's superpower status and enabling the People's Republic to establish hegemony over the other nations of the region and its vast natural resources.

The goal for the US in this foundational move of its Asia-Pacific Pivot is to prevent that, to maintain a status quo based on open sea and air lanes and unfettered commerce. American interests do very well under this "Open Door" scenario first envisioned by Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State John Hay (who began as the young private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln), and so do most all of China's neighbors. Absent the US, they would be overawed by China and its aggressive tactics.

So the underlying idea is to use the presence of force not to fight a war but to deter situations which might lead to war. Japan can be enormously helpful in all this, especially with the federal budget in straitened circumstances and the US still entangled in the Middle East and Central Asia.

There is also a trade deal on tap, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would include the US and all other nations of the region other than China. Many, after the fashion of NAFTA doomsaying 20 years ago are convinced the deal would have bad effects for the non-corporate world. It's in trouble in Washington, Tokyo, and elsewhere. In any event, vast flows of trade and investment in the American interest will continue to flow regardless of the fate of any new trade deal, so long as Chinese hegemony is averted.

If all this sounds more than a little like classic British strategy -- align with a highly capable rival of the aggressive rising power, always ensure that you can guarantee the lines of communication, the sea lanes in all eras and the air lanes and cyber lanes as well today -- well, that's because it is. "Rules the waves, never be slaves," and all that.

Since the goals are multiple -- prevent Chinese hegemony, prevent war in the region, and engage China commercially and environmentally (we won't keep the planet habitable without China becoming a lot more like California) -- it's a complex and challenging situation which requires a great deal of focus, more than it's been getting. But it's all far more rational than what we've blundered in to since 9/11.

Speaking of the British, they are still our greatest allies. And one of the greatest things about them is that they are having an election on May 7th that we don't need to worry about. Either the Conservatives, who are far too moderate to be American Republicans, will continue in power, or they will not. In which case a Labour Party more left than our Democrats will return to power, probably in some sort of power-sharing arrangement. In the meantime, there might be a hung parliament. But since none of the Brits who may end up in power are making big demands of us, we're not caught up in hysteria around their election.

The special relationship with Britain is enduring, running from the past through tomorrow. The Japanese alliance is newer and more startling, certainly less familiar. Yet Japanese culture and products have become much more familiar since World War II. Many of us practice martial arts regularly and some of us pursue a certain amount of Zen meditation. Meanwhile, Japanese products are ubiquitous, even dominant in areas, and Japanese cuisine is generally prized.

California, the world's seventh largest economy, is at the epicenter of that, of course, though it's become a national phenomenon. So it was no surprise that Abe just wrapped his American trip in California.

Under Brown, California is working with Japan on mutual policies on climate change, renewable energy, trade and investment, zero-emission vehicles, high-speed rail, and water. Abe even brought over a high-speed rail demonstrator for the governor, who very publicly rode China's less reliable system while he was there.

Brown has also engaged in higher profile diplomacy with Chinese officials, including essentially his own parallel summit with President Xi Jinping when Obama came to California for his summit with Xi in 2013, and led a large California delegation of business executives and others on a lengthy tour of China.

There's no contradiction in pursuing good relations with both Japan and China. Engagement with China holds many benefits for all. For potential conflict, addressed with calm and firmness, need not turn to war. A period of creative tension can be very beneficial, not least as a telling contrast with the hysteria surrounding our adventures in the Middle East.

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