Walter Mondale’s Comments on US-Japan Challenges: Short but Not Sweet


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Last Thursday, the 6th of December, I spent my evening at a 50th Anniversary black tie dinner commemorating the founding of the Japan America Society of Washington DC with former Vice President of the United States and Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale. I was the guest of Society President and former Ambassador John Malott — and I’ve taken a few days to mull over both Mondale’s speech and a discussion I had with the former vice president privately.
On one level, Walter Mondale’s speech seemed safe and non-controversial, but reading it again — his remarks were densely packed with some important messages.
First of all, Mondale addresses the realities of ‘divided government’ in both Japan and the U.S. — and in a nuanced passage refers to Japan Ambassador to the U.S. Ryozo Kato‘s comment that the “relationship is under stress.” And then Mondale notes that Japan as a subject, language, and focus of diplomatic efforts is no longer drawing the best and brightest.
Mondale stated:

Tonight, we certainly can celebrate the strength of the US-Japan relationship. Bilateral strategic thinking now occurs in a regional and global context in response to various challenges including the rise of China; North Korean nuclear threats; terrorism; the energy crises and the growing and serious risks of global warming; not to mention the increasing risk of global economic instability. Addressing these issues together, as we do, signifies our dedication to a better future for our own citizens and others around the world. Working together, as allies, as democracies, as the world’s two largest economies, nations with a shared, deeply rich history of cooperation is a blessing to be nurtured by all of us.
The other day, Ambassador Kato was quoted as saying our relationship is under stress. We’ve certainly have many challenges, including coordinating our approaches to North Korea, implementing the far-reaching program to restructure American bases in Okinawa and mainland Japan, and, finding common ground on our arrangements for burden sharing and host nation support.
Dealing with these challenges is further complicated by divided government in both of our countries and the prospect of upcoming elections. America, for example, finds itself divided over the Iraq war. In Japan, we see differences over Japan’s refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.
In this respect, one of the largely unappreciated assets in our relationship is the community of gifted, experienced, often language proficient, career officers who have spent their careers in Japan and in the United States, supporting the crucial dialogue between us. Ambassador Kato is a good example. There are many others of you in this room. E.g., Bill and Judy Clark, Bill and Peggy Breer, Rust and Kris Deming, Bill Sherman, and the best diplomat of all, Jean Pearce.
Both governments need to continue to ensure that we select and train the best officers. When American officials look to Japan, they continue to expect to see superb counterparts, dedicated to our relationship. And when Japanese officials look to America, at State, Defense, the NSC, Treasury, and elsewhere, they expect to see their equivalent in important positions.

I realize that for many this subject may not be as sizzling as discussing Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq — but Japan is an important country and has key resources, particularly financial, in dealing with any of the world’s next set of tackled challenges.
But what I find interesting is that there is very little discussion of “how” Japan-passing became the norm it seems to have become. The rise of China is only a part of the story.
In fact, I think strategic decisions taken by Prime Minister Koizumi that helped spoil Japan’s unique model as a modern, 21st century state that derived its sovereignty from multilateral embeddedness.
Koizumi’s decision to essentially sidestep the United Nations as the key legitimatizer of its national security actions and to do what George Bush and the United States asked it to do in Iraq made Japan’s acts seem arbitrary and not principled. With this single action, Japan became a “normal state” in the sense that it made itself look like any other supplicant of the United States and behaved along the lines of classic military alliances. Before this time, Japan had been the most important nation preserving and promoting international integration through multilateral institutions — and it has an impressive array of Japanese leaders heading many of the world’s most important international institutions.
Japan’s power model was based upon collective action — and when it deployed its forces to Iraq without UN mandate — it became a bland, ordinary nation.
There are other challenges today — and I agree with Zbigniew Brzezinski that “America’s challenges in the Middle East are the ‘defining challenges’ for the United States in this era.” Thus, it makes sense that the distractions of Iraq and Iran as well as China are impacting the numbers of those tending Japan.
But the bigger reason is that Japan made itself ordinary. It could have been a rather unique model for thinking about the look and design of a different kind of 21st century state. That does not seem to be the case today.
Mondale’s speech also addressed “mega threats” of climate change and nuclear proliferation — quoting Strobe Talbott. These same mega threats I should note were outlined as the last section of George Soros’s last book, The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror — and are becoming the new mega challenges drawing international attention.
He also reflected on the important “soft power” work of Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye. It’s a short, dense speech that is worth reading as a serious roster of big problems as seen from the vantage point of one of the country’s elder statesmen.
But the part of the evening that was most interesting to me was the private, somewhat lengthy chat I had with Mondale about how the Office of the Vice President had changed — and how the Office of the Vice President under George W. Bush had written itself explicity as an institution of its own in to many of the executive orders on secrecy and national security directives. We talked about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and how this was probably going to worsen the divide inside the Bush White House.
I can’t report on what Mondale specifically said to me on these issues out of courtesy — but I can say that he bears a small part of the blame as he was the first Vice President of the United States to have an office in the West Wing. It all started there. . .
It’s also interesting to note that two of the guests at Ambassador Ryozo Kato’s home hovering around at the huge “Emperor’s Day” celebration on December 3rd were none other than Scooter Libby and Douglas Feith. So, at least some part of the DC establishment are connected with Japan — just the wrong part.
— Steve Clemons


4 comments on “Walter Mondale’s Comments on US-Japan Challenges: Short but Not Sweet

  1. Dirk says:

    Mondale: “In Japan, we see differences over Japan’s refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.”
    The Japanese opposition in charge of the upper house is merely asking for LDP assurances that ships receiving fuel are engaged in the Afghan war and NOT in the Iraq war.
    I guess this is a problem since Afghanistan doesn’t have a coast…maybe.


  2. thatmichaelguy says:

    ‘Mondale notes that Japan as a subject, language, and focus of diplomatic efforts is no longer drawing the best and brightest’. As if der USA is! Give us a break or brake to what has been going on in here ‘under the bush’ – er du Bushies.


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