Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has a problem. Since taking office in 2012, he has been trying to repudiate Article Nine of his country's constitution, renouncing "war as a sovereign right of the nation."
But the more he tries, the less the public is convinced. Yet Abe refuses to give up, and is coming to Washington next week to enlist America's support for his effort to break through constitutional constraints. President Obama and Congress should reject the invitation.
Amending the Japanese constitution is a two-stage affair. Proposed changes must be endorsed by two-thirds of both houses of parliament. They then go before the voters at a special referendum, where a simple majority suffices for approval.
Abe has a fair chance of crossing the first threshold. His Liberal Democratic party, in alliance with a junior coalition partner, Komeito, already has two-thirds in the Chamber of Deputies, and they may well enhance their strong majority in next year's elections for the upper house. But the prime minister owes his recent landslide victories to the popularity of his economic stimulus programs, not his ambitious plans for the armed forces. In a recent poll, only 23 percent supported an expansion of military activities while 68 percent are opposed.
Rather than risk defeat in a referendum, the prime minister has embarked on a constitutional end-run. Since Article Nine explicitly bans the "threat" of force, previous governments consistently understood it to permit Japan's self-defense forces to respond only to direct attacks on the homeland. But in July, the Cabinet announced an Orwellian "reinterpretation" which authorized "self-defense" even though only foreign countries were under attack. Under this new view, Japan could engage in preemptive strikes when they "threaten Japan's survival and pose a clear danger ... to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness."
When Abe announced plans to ram through implementing legislation, the public responded with the largest street protests since the 1960s. This forced the prime minister to retreat, but he has now renewed his campaign for legislation that would, for the first time, authorize military interventions without prior approval by the Diet. Fearing another wave of popular opposition, his coalition partner Komeito is resisting this decisive step.
With the two parties bargaining behind the scenes, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has now entered the fray. In a recent visit to Tokyo, Carter announced that the Defense Department was revising its long-standing "defense guidelines" with Japan. The old rules tracked Japan's Constitution by authorizing its Self-Defense Forces to aid the American military only in direct defense of the country. But the new ones, according to a "senior official," represented a "big, big change."
Carter's initiative dramatically reinforces Abe's effort to override Cabinet opposition. After all, the Constitution's insistence on a referendum is part of General MacArthur's larger effort to build democratic foundations for post-war Japan. If today's Pentagon says it's fine to ignore MacArthur, it's a lot easier for domestic politicians to join Abe's assault on the Peace Article.
Worse yet, if Carter's intervention succeeds, it will set a terrible precedent for the future. Abe's Liberal Democrats have already proposed a constitutional revision that would restrict freedom of speech and association if it "harm[s] the public interest and public order." If the prime minister succeeds in his current exercise in radical "reinterpretation," what is to stop him from trying again?
The Pentagon's present course is dictated by very different questions. Secretary Carter is painfully aware that our military is already overstretched in confronting chaos in the Middle East and Russia's challenge to Europe. Given this grim picture, it is tempting to offload some of the burden to Japan in dealing with longer range threats in the Far East.
Whatever the merits of this military strategy, it should be trumped by more fundamental commitments. By any reckoning, the MacArthur Constitution has been one of the great successes in democracy-building during the 20th century. With its aid, the Japanese people have transformed their nation into a bastion of democratic values in Asia. This is hardly the moment to shatter the foundations of this achievement.
President Obama should tell the Pentagon to stop its reckless rush to redefine the alliance. He should insist on giving the Japanese people the time they need for a broad-ranging debate on the legitimacy of their government's current course.
Rather than announcing a decisive victory over his Constitution, Prime Minister Abe should use his upcoming speech to Congress for more productive purposes.
Bruce Ackerman is a professor of law and political science at Yale, currently serving as the Daimler Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.