I can’t quite figure out if the study of contemporary Japan is either a good model for understanding other political systems or simply losing relevancy in Washington. AEI’s resident Japan expert, Michael Auslin, shares this confusion. In a series of recent articles he is all over the map, literally.
This year he has brought his knowledge of Japan to US air power, China, Latin America, Turkey, and democracy.
Most recently, he appears to have traveled to Guatemala. Although unclear why he was in Central America, but he did examine the country in the same way as most US public intellectuals do Japan, from the backseat of a limo: “While in Guatemala City, I was driven around in a bulletproof SUV, and chauffeured to a dinner just half a block from my hotel.” Taxi and limo drivers always have keen insights.
In Fearing the Chavez Model, Auslin takes this experience and warns that the populist Marxist state of Hugo Chavez is “the greatest threat to economic and political liberalism since the armed insurrections of the 1980s.” Then he pulls up the narco-chaos of Mexico as another threat. Both persist, he concludes, because of US neglect. Then again, maybe corrupt, weak democracies can produce some crappy results.
The wealthy businessmen who hosted the AEI Japan scholar say they “feel caught between Mexico and Venezuela, between anarchy and Marxism” and abandoned by the US. I wonder if there is some Japan analogy in there.
In Turkey and Japan at the Crossroads, Auslin awkwardly draws some tenuous relationships between the two. He says both countries face critical elections this month. (I am a bit of a loss as to what elections these are in Japan.) He tries to make some point about democracy and the critical decisions that need to be made in these two Asian countries. Other than that he even admits they have little in common. More than that, I am at a loss.
“It is troubling, and perhaps even unfair, that the global reputation of liberalism should be tied to events in just a few nations,” he says. I should say! Liberalism not something one usually associates with Turkey or Japan. The problem he misses as he lambasts these democracies for their retrogressive policies—of which there is no similarity between the two countries--is that liberalism has yet to take hold in either of these “bookends of Asia.” This failure inevitably causes problems in managing the momentous social changes that are taking place.
Somehow he ends up with “Their choices will also matter a great deal to America, which will have great problems maintaining its influence in the Middle and Far East without a close working relationship with both countries, while democrats around the world will watch closely to see which way the winds blow across the Bosphorus and the Sea of Japan.”
I have no idea what he means by all his references to democrats in both articles. Expanding democracy, he inadvertently observes, has made relationships with our best allies more difficult. Something Washington rarely complains about with the French or Germans. Voters in any country are less interested in global politics than in what happens at home.
Maybe Auslin is simply trying to prove his conservative credentials by grasping for a vehicle to criticize the Obama Administration. It is simply too difficult for him and many in Washington to understand the changes taking place in Japan. There is little daylight between his views on Japan and that of the Obama Alliance Managers; thus there is little to criticize.
And none have the imagination or experience to work creatively with Japan’s new government. It is just easier to dismiss today’s Japan as either a Latin American banana republic or a ideologically polarized tinderbox with access to nuclear weapons.
Personally, I was disappointed in the Turkey piece. I was hoping he would note, like Stratfor’s George Friedman, that by 2050 Japan would ally with Turkey in a world war against the US and Poland.