PROMINENT HISTORIAN POSITIVE ABOUT AMERICA’S RISE UNDER BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
On March 9, the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately financed think tank I head in Tokyo, invited prominent historian Paul Kennedy to an on-line international symposium titled Is America in Decline? The Yale professor walked early into his study in his New Haven, Connecticut, home to prepare for his appearance, making sure his microphone worked. Similarly, his counterparts in Tokyo—JINF’s Deputy Director Tadae Takubo and myself—were ready considerably ahead of schedule.
After introducing myself, I proposed to our honored guest speaker: “It may be a little early, Professor Kennedy. But shall we begin now that we seem ready?” “Yes, why don’t we?” Kennedy replied with a sunny smile.
His name reminds most of us of his much acclaimed account of the history of great powers between 1500 and 2000—The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House; 1987). I read the Japanese translation in two volumes by the late Chikara Suzuki (Soshisha Publishing Co., Tokyo; 1988 and 1993). At the time, I was a young journalist writing for monthly magazines such as Bungei Shunju and Shokun. Kennedy stood out like a beacon to me. So I was quite touched when he responded to my proposal in a surprisingly unassuming fashion.
Is America on the decline? If so, will America continue to decline? Is its decline relative or absolute? No other questions seem more critical for Japan at this juncture. After all, one cannot discuss the national security of today’s Japan without reflecting on America’s presence and its immense contribution as our ally. Meanwhile, whether or not China’s aggressive efforts to expand its influence can be checked is a matter of enormous significance that will affect not only Japan but the entire world.
Kennedy began our discussion by proposing that we first go back 500 years in history, explaining:
“China was the greatest world power then, while European nations were still small nations—often small kingdoms, and there was no United States of America. But over time European powers organized themselves better economically, productively, and for war and expansion and were controlling much of the world by the 19th century. And then there came a newly modernized power in the international system, Japan, and an increasingly independent and powerful Untied States.”
In the 20th century, continued Kennedy, Europe was significantly weakened as a result of World War I, while the United States and Japan became powerful. World War II made America literally the strongest power in the world, while a defeated Japan was reduced to being among the poorest nations of the world, losing several million of its citizens during the war.
“America’s Rise Disappointing to China”
After the war, Japan rose again as a world power, while America became the indisputable leader of the world by pushing the Soviet Union to a total collapse. And now the world is anxiously focused on the reality of America’s power and what its future holds.
Against such a backdrop, China has persistently promoted propaganda about America’s decline. Kennedy quoted Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister (2007-2013) known for his pro-Chinese views, as referring to “remarkable continuity in Chinese strategy toward the United States since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013,” noting that Xi “believes history is on his side.” (How to Keep US-Chinese Confrontation from Ending in Calamity, Foreign Affairs March/April 2021)
China has vowed to surpass the US as the the world’s leading power and tower over the world by the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. Rudd calls the reader’s attention to China continuing to “advance on all fronts,” noting that Beijing “now intends to complete its military modernization program by 2027 (seven years ahead of the previous schedule) with the goal of giving China a decisive edge in all conceivable scenarios for a conflict with the United States over Taiwan.” He further noted that Beijing “has been surprised by the relatively limited degree to which Washington has pushed back, at least until recently.”
Asked what he thought of China persistently promoting propaganda about America’s decline, Kennedy answered that Chinese media outlets are interested in writing about America’s decline “because they want to see America go down without warfare.”
China’s penchant to spread stories about America’s decline presumably is a reflection of “the three warfares” the Chinese are good at—public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. The Chinese may be hoping to impart the impression globally that America’s power is waning in order to draw many of America’s allies towards Beijing by weakening their confidence in America, or drive a wedge between America and its allies. This may likely be one of their tactics to make the world believe China is more dependable than the US.
“I would say America’s decline is just relative—not an absolute decline. America will have to share its position with the world’s rising economies, but it will stay strong. The Chinese might be disappointed.”
Kennedy emphasized that America will not bow to China, as it draws power from its strong economy. Dynamic economic growth will “bring prosperity to the American people, leading to confidence in the government and respect for democracy,” and this in turn will bring about stability.
Japan’s Next Step
Kennedy predicted that the US will have to face up to China by forming close alliances with other democracies of the world. He credited former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with proposing the QUAD security framework, which is the cornerstone of America’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy. He observed:
“One can find similar cases looking back on history. Before World War I, Germany ended up with a big navy, which made France, Britain, and Russia wary. This development led to the first world war. History shows what the war brought about.”
“Another case in point is the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Soviets, like the Germans, strengthened their navy and even advanced to the Mediterranean Sea. The US, Britain, France, and Italy developed close military cooperation to effectively block the aggressive actions by the Soviets.”
The “Quad” security framework has brought the US, Japan, Australia, and India together. Britain’s expression of its readiness to join, together with interest on the part of France and Germany, have resulted from China’s aggressive posture toward the region. The historical cases Kennedy brought up prompt one to conclude that reckless challenges inevitably fail. In terms of the ongoing crisis in this part of the world, China will ultimately be the loser, as Kennedy sees it.
The US secretaries of defense and state arrived in Japan on March 15 to attend the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”) meeting. Their visits are timely. It is reassuring that the US government announcement dated March 14 (Reaffirming the Unbreakable US-Japan Alliance) specifies 1) “the US commitment to the defense of Japan is absolute”; 2) “The US affirms the Senkaku Islands fall within the scope of Article V of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security”; and 3) “The US is committed to …countering PRC provocations in Asia and around the world.”
Following Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President, there was widespread concern that he would form a second Obama administration which will be conciliatory toward Beijing. However, the recent government announcement, the timely holding of the “2+2” meeting in Tokyo, and Biden’s invitation to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as the first foreign head of state to meet him in person dispel such a negative view of the new American leader and his policy toward Asia.
As regards Japan’s posture toward the world’s two biggest economies going forward, Kennedy aptly pointed out that, while Japan will have “many economic possibilities” if Tokyo’s economic relationship with Beijing worsens, there will be no substitute for America should US-Japan bilateral security relations sour.
I cannot agree more. Our two-hour dialogue with the distinguished historian convinced me that in order to survive as a normal democracy, Japan must realize a drastic reform at all costs, including revising our constitution.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 943 in the March 25, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)