Media  International Exchange  2017.12.28

Establish a platform for discussing solutions to global challenges in Japan, arousing the expectations of an increasingly unsettled world

An article published in JBpress on October 18, 2017
The Peculiar Situation in the US under the Trump Administration

Roughly nine months have passed since US President Donald Trump took office. During this period, the lineup of the Trump administration has significantly changed. A number of high-ranking officials at the White House have resigned, most notably Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Yet the administration's confusion over policies and operations seems to have remained unresolved.

The first six months of the administration was regarded as a warm-up period in which minor lapses in policies and operations were considered tolerable.

Even though the key members of the administration have considerably changed, yet the protracted confusion for nine months is perplexing the most learned experts in the US, who say this kind of situation is unprecedented.

Nevertheless, the approval ratings for President Trump have remained stable at more than 35 percent or even close to 40 percent. The gap between these stable approval ratings and the deepening concerns of experts over policy and operational disorientation suggests how complicated the problem facing the US is.

Strong public discontent with widening income disparity was behind the election of President Trump, who is originally rather anti-establishment in nature. The public feel that the fruits of US economic growth since the 1980s have only benefited the highest income earners and have failed to significantly increase the incomes of the middle and lower income earners.

In fact, the top 3 percent of income earners accounted for 54.4 percent of the total income in 2013, compared with 44.8 percent in 1989, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

The public distrust is directed at the negligence on the part of politicians in Washington D.C. who have lead policies and operations, as well as the bureaucrats, scholars, experts, and Wall Street leaders who have supported them, etc.

Given the lingering antipathy toward the Establishment over the widening income gap, there is a good chance that the Trump administration will continue to secure stable support from the general populace, as long as it maintains the stance of fighting against the Establishment, even though it sticks to its anomalous policies and operations.

Such policies and operations will have side effects not only for the US but also for the whole world.

The diplomatic stance of the Trump administration and responses from major powers

One of the characteristics of the Trump administration's foreign policy is that it calls on its partner countries to assume what it calls the fair share of the burden.

Traditionally, the US has taken the initiative in addressing global challenges on both the economic and security fronts on the back of its overwhelming economic and military power; it has also demonstrated its willingness to shoulder the necessary costs.

Unlike previous administrations, however, the Trump administration has been characterized by its reluctance to deal with global challenges through multilateral agreements and organizations. This is highlighted by its withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP) negotiations and the Paris Agreement.

The administration has also demonstrated its stance of disallowing a free ride by any of its partner countries and calling on them to shoulder the fair share of the burden. For example, it demanded that European countries take more responsibility in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In the face of the changing stance of the US, European countries and other major powers have not committed themselves to assuming any more of the burden that has been shouldered the US.

This makes it difficult to hold constructive discussions on how to solve global challenges, as seen by worsening relations between the US and Germany over the former's call for more cost sharing for NATO.

Unless the Trump administration or the leadership of the other major powers does not change its stance, it is likely that coordination among major countries over how to tackle global issues will be difficult.

Difficulty addressing global challenges

Common global challenges to date center on transboundary issues such as the global environment and climate change, growing terrorism, and acceptance of refugees. Coordination among nations plays an increasingly important role in solving these issues.

Solutions to these global issues are difficult if each country sticks to the stance of making one-sided demands, as evident in the issue of refugee acceptance in Europe. This highlights the need to select an option that is feasible from a global perspective and goes beyond the interests of individual countries.

Reaching an agreement on such a solution requires each country to make some measure of compromise and resign itself to bearing the fair share of the burden. Yet this is an extremely difficult option for a government whose domestic political base is fragile.

A look at the governments of major powers suggests that most of these countries do not have a government that is stable enough to withstand such international compromises.

Historical changes in the modality of addressing global challenges

A quick historical review of the modalities of tackling global challenges shows that until the 19th century, the use of force to gain ascendancy over rival powers was the norm.

In the 20th century, this modality was replaced by international frameworks where representatives of countries discussed how to solve problems without recourse to the use of force, based on the lessons learnt from the First and Second World Wars.

The United Nations (UN), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the G7, the G20, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are just some of these international mechanisms.

Yet addressing major issues through such organizations and frameworks often calls for eventual agreement among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who have strong military power. This arrangement was suitable for the era when security was the principal global issue.

However, soft power, which builds on economic, cultural, religious, and other non-military aspects, is playing an increasingly important role in resolving more recent global issues.

A suggested platform for addressing global challenges

In summary, the United States under the Trump administration is calling on other powers to bear their fair share of the burden in addressing global challenges. Yet these powers remain reluctant.

This is making it more difficult for major powers to build a consensus on how to deal with global challenges. Given the political climate within the US, it is quite possible that Washington will maintain such a diplomatic posture for some time.

Recent global challenges increasingly call for solutions that go beyond the interests of individual countries; soft power is playing a more and more important role in this regard.

As it stands, major international agreements and organizations are made up of representatives of sovereign nations. Members of such international structures have no choice but to put the interests of their countries first. This makes it difficult for them to frankly discuss how to solve recent global challenges as characterized above.

Given these circumstances, it is necessary to build a new platform which is more conducive to exchanging candid views on how to form the world order.

Such a new platform should be designed to meet the following requirements:

  • - Major powers with a strong influence on world order formation should be represented.
  • - Discussions on how to solve global issues should go beyond the interests of individual participating countries.
  • - Participating countries should be represented by scholars and business leaders rather than government officials so as to prevent their governments interfering out of political or diplomatic considerations. A track-two conference should be the norm.
  • - Participating members should exchange frank and honest views based on a spirit of mutual understanding and trust.
  • - Participating members should be as permanent as possible. Their remarks and statements should not be made public.
  • - Concerns that have been shared as a result of discussions and those that have not been shared but deserve attention should be made public as input for formulating national policies and medium and long term visions.
  • - The outcomes of discussions should be used as input for future intergovernmental talks only; they should not play any role in shaping the national policies of participating countries.

  • Such a platform will lend itself to discussing how to solve global issues where consensus-building might be becoming increasingly difficult; it will play a significant role in sharing concerns, and building mutual understanding and trust among major powers.

    The role Japan should play

    Who should provide such a platform?

    Of course, there is no set answer. Yet, Japan might be a promising candidate. For one thing, Japan, while being an Eastern nation, has built close relationships with Western countries since the Meiji Restoration, and now enjoys a certain level of trust from both the East and the West, as I discussed in my July article.

    In addition, Japan sticks to its stance of relying only on soft power without recourse to military power as a means of resolving global issues; this is Japan's policy of renouncing war and not possessing armed forces under the Constitution.

    These two unique characteristics stand Japan in the best stead when it comes to providing a platform for addressing global challenges which emphasizes soft power rather than military power.

    Furthermore, the Japanese traditional spiritual culture of wa embraces such concepts as harmony, reconciliation, and peace. The Japanese hospitality of omotenashi also enjoys international acclaim.

    I suggest that based on all these ideas, private companies take the lead in establishing a private entity in Japan which is tasked with building a platform for a track-two conference to be attended by learned experts from the world's major powers. In this way, Japan can contribute to shaping the world order.

    (This article was translated from the Japanese transcript of Mr. Seguchi's column published by JBpress on October 18, 2017.)