Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.09.18

Could This Happen to Us in Asia?

JBPress on September 13, 2013

For the silent majority of Japanese, recent developments regarding Syria look like a merry-go-round in a kaleidoscope. There is no foreign policy team in Washington D.C. Nobody seems to be in command. And ultimately, nobody seems to be willing to take responsibility in the U.S. capital.

People here in Tokyo didn't understand in the first place why President Obama started talking about a military intervention in Syria. A week later, they were puzzled at why he sought authority from the U.S. Congress. Another week later, now they don't know why the U.S. is trusting the Russians.

Whenever a new situation emerges the U.S. Government has provided explanations. Yet the real reasons for U.S. ambivalence have never been clear to the ordinary Japanese citizen. They always have more new questions than answers to their previous questions.

These questions include: Don't we need a United Nations Security Council resolution which authorizes the use of force? Can't the U.S. President attack Syria without obtaining congressional approval? Can the United Nations effectively control Syria's chemical weapons in this never-ending civil war?

The flip-flopping of the second Obama administration reminds some Japanese in Tokyo of their Prime Minister from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) going hither and thither during the Fukushima crisis in March 2011, although sensible Americans may not like the comparison.

Some intellectuals in Japan take the current situation in Washington D.C. more seriously. It is not because the situation in Syria is as strategically important for Japan as it is for NATO members, but simply because what happens in Syria could happen to them in East Asia.

For many strategically-minded Asians, whatever their political hue, the confusion in Washington D.C. is not just about Syria, Iran or even the entire Middle East. It is a more profound issue of U.S. reluctance, if not isolationism, to be proactive in international affairs in general.

Their concerns, like those of Europeans or Middle Easterners, are serious and genuine. Wherever in the world the use of chemical weapons or similar international crimes are committed, now the United States may not only fail to effectively react to, but even acquiesce to, such inhumane wrongdoings.

Syria may not be the last country on the globe to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Rather, there are surely many more candidates for the next user of WMDs, including North Korea or others in the Asian region alone.

This is not to advocate that the United States should immediately start a surgical strike against a limited number of military targets in Syria. Nor should Washington go into all-out war against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Not at all.

The key phrase here is "a proper sense of balance." Many Asians must have been concerned about the extreme U.S. unilateralism culminating in the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iran in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

By the same token, now they must be equally concerned about another U.S. extreme: inertia or isolationist tendencies seen not only in the Republican Party but also now in the Democratic Party. The fundamental question is, "can the U.S. stay in the middle ground?"

It is an irony that, in terms of foreign policy vis-a-vis Syria, the Western democratic countries seem to have been outsmarted by non-Western authoritarian or less democratic nations, but this Syrian lesson is no exception in the history of democracy.
In a democracy, foreign policy depends on the will of the people. But popular will is often capricious and can go to extremes in any direction, although it may be a little premature to conclude that the U.S. as well as its allies and friends failed to address the Syrian issue.

In East Asia, however, another important lesson seems to be being learned. The lesson is perfectly clear and sound: the powers in East Asia that support a status quo may not be able to count on U.S. intervention in case of crises such as that in Syria, at least for the next few years.

The United States and its President have enough reasons to concentrate on nation-rebuilding at home after a decade of military interventions in the Middle East. Yet, this does not mean that nothing can be done to prevent change in the status quo in East Asia and the Western Pacific.

The question still lingers in Tokyo. Can we count on the U.S.? All major players in regional international politics of both status quo powers and their challengers have enough reasons to be concerned. They all know that the future of the region also depends on the attitude of the U.S.