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"Japan, the United States and Myself: Global Challenges and Responsibilities" - The Mansfield Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, Washington, D.C., 10 March 1999

Speeches and statements

"Japan, the United States and Myself: Global Challenges and Responsibilities" - The Mansfield Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, Washington, D.C., 10 March 1999

10 March 1999

Friends of the Mansfield Center,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure, and a great privilege, to be invited to give the Mansfield lecture and I wish to warmly thank the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, and the Library of Congress, for this opportunity. I am especially honoured that speaking here tonight allows me to be associated with one of the persons I cherish and respect most - an individual who deserves grateful credit for having effectively highlighted the global importance of US-Japan relations: I am thinking of course of Mike Mansfield.

By the way, I shall start from US-Japan relations. This may surprise you, and perhaps you have been puzzled by the title I gave to my lecture, referring to the United States, Japan and "myself". I realize that to add "myself" to such a central element of this century's international relations may sound terribly out of place. Let me therefore spend a few moments clarifying it.

Since the mid-nineteenth century the relationship between the United States and Japan has been of course an important element of the international geopolitical scene on its own merit. Perhaps its most defining feature has been the dramatic shift it underwent 54 years ago: two nations who fought each other in a colossal war have now been close allies for well over half a century. But there is another aspect to it, which is too seldom spoken about. One always refers to US-Japan "relations". I would like to talk about US-Japan "commitments". We are so focused on their political, economic, financial and cultural differences and affinities, that we tend to forget how, together, the United States and Japan can and should be essential to the world's wealth and stability - let me even go further: they should be the driving force behind the achievement of global peace and prosperity.

Naturally, as a Japanese with a family tradition and a lifelong involvement in international relations, and having spent many of my formative years in the United States, I have a keen interest in relations across the Pacific. But as High Commissioner for Refugees, I feel even more urgently concerned by this relationship - by how it is of support to refugee protection, to humanitarian ideals and to the concept of global solidarity in general. Much of the work of my Office to protect and assist 23 million refugees, returnees and internally displaced people worldwide depends on commitments from United States and Japan - in terms of political backing, moral support and financial contributions, but above all in terms of global leadership.

When I look to the future of US-Japan relations, however, I find many reasons for concern. In both countries, inward-looking trends are prevailing. The sense of international commitment is receding. Foreign policy is increasingly based on populist politics - quick fixes and tactics are substituting for long-term vision and comprehensive strategies. This has an impact on the relationship between the two countries: has their importance to each other actually diminished? Is Japan not a priority for the United States any more, and vice-versa?

Building a strong economy was the cornerstone of Japan's ethos in the post-war years. This allowed the country to emerge from the ruins of war, to achieve a dominant economic role in Asia and to eventually contribute to the so-called "Asian miracle". This very strong focus on economic recovery, and the spectacular growth that it produced, also partly explains the way the country has responded - or rather, insufficiently responded - to its recent economic problems. The crisis has hit and seriously undermined Japan's very source of strength - the economy. Its reaction can be described almost as a paralysis. This has drawn harsh criticism from the United States, and calls for action from Japan's Asian neighbours. At the same time, the crisis seems to have revealed Japan's deeper incapacity to act and lead.

I believe that it is important for all of us to try to understand what has gone wrong in Japan's evolution since the post-war period. Not being an expert, but having been privileged enough to observe this evolution from different and interesting vantage points, I will examine this from a personal perspective.

* * *

Of the early post-war years in Japan I recall above all a tremendous determination and desire to learn, to make progress. More broadly, the country was eager to regain an honourable place in the world. These attitudes had a very idealistic, and strongly internationalist basis: Japan believed in the value of the "international community" - it believed in the United Nations. As an example, let me quote Foreign Minister Shigemitsu, who led the first Japanese delegation to the United Nations in 1956: "We have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of peace-loving peoples of the world. We desire to occupy an honoured place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace. Japan is gratified that, together with the maintenance of peace, the United Nations places great importance on humanitarianism."

Pacifism prevailed, too. You all know how deeply military defeat affected Japan. The country was in shock in the post-war years. Anti-military, anti-war feelings were extremely strong, and of course there was the protective shield of the US security umbrella. It was from this environment - that of a country where tireless efforts to rebuild the economy mingled with strong internationalist and pacifist ideals - that I came when I arrived in the United States, in the Fifties, to continue my studies at Georgetown University and then at the University of California in Berkeley.

Coming to America from Japan I found an open environment, tolerant people, liberal academic circles. You could almost breathe America's growing confidence in its ability - and indeed, its duty - to lead the world. There was an extraordinary openness, a true international spirit. Many professors and students were migrants, and even refugees (I remember the huge impact of the Hungarian 1956 uprising on American campuses). For Japanese students, like me, it was a heady experience - being at the sources of American power, democracy and technological progress, and being able to learn from them.

As a child, I had lived for eight years in the United States and in China, following my father's diplomatic postings. I was also very much influenced by my family's critical attitude towards the militarization of Japan between the two wars - particularly after my great-grandfather, Prime Minister Inukai, was assassinated by the military in 1932. And of course I belonged to the post-war generation of Japanese scholars of history and political science whose primary motivation was to examine the causes of World War II.

I was particularly interested in studying the causes that had led Japan to an expansionist policy in Asia, and to war and defeat. When I returned to Japan, therefore, I concentrated on the study of Japanese political and diplomatic history at the University of Tokyo, and soon published my doctoral dissertation on the making of Japanese foreign policy in Manchuria in the early Thirties. My interest in Asian international politics - and particularly in US-Japan-China relations, continued through the Eighties. Of my academic period, I remember most vividly the extraordinary cooperation between Japanese and American scholars. Doing research and writing books together were not only an intellectual exchange - which produced masterpieces like Pearl Harbour as History, by Dorothy Borg and Shumpei Okamoto - but also a way to build strong friendship - and a vehicle to bring the two countries together.

* * *

The alliance with Japan was a key element of the American security architecture during the Cold War. Therefore, US-Japan relations remained extremely close during most of that period. True, the Viet Nam war and - later - rapprochement with China were two major political issues between the two countries; and the Japanese Left often opposed the alliance with America. US-Japan government relations, however, remained solid. For Japan, that was a time of very rapid, "miracle" economic growth - twice as rapid as France and Germany, and three times the United States. Standards of living in the country improved. Japanese management became an admired, studied and imitated model.

While Japan's economy boomed, its governments continued to base their foreign policy on the internationalist, pacifist attitudes of the post-war period. The call for "international contribution" by Prime Ministers Fukuda and Nakasone and their successors was reflected in a substantial increase of overseas development aid. And in an area closer to my current responsibilities, Japan accepted over 10,000 Indochinese refugees starting in 1979 - an unprecedented event in its history.

By the late Eighties, Japan had become the largest creditor nation of the United States. This marked a turn in the tide of US-Japan relations. When Japan started purchasing US government bonds, substantial portions of real estate in Hawaii, and even American landmarks such as the Rockefeller Center in New York, it began to be perceived as a threat to America, for the first time since World War II. A number of books published in the United States during those years - for example, "Japan as Number One" by Ezra Vogel comes to mind - witness to this attitude. Admiring and imitating the Japanese model fell out of fashion. Praise for the industrious, savings-oriented Japanese became scorn for narrow and inflexible economic management methods. The United States started criticizing Japan for not sharing enough of the world economic and financial burden.

This provoked a backlash in Japan. A nationalistic, arrogant mood resurfaced. The crisis point was the Gulf crisis in 1990-1991. Although 70% of Japan's oil imports were from the Gulf region, the country was not ready to send its military in support of Operation Desert Storm. The perception abroad, and in particular in the United States, was that Japan once again did not want to shoulder its fair share of the burden. There was much debate in Japan, including on constitutional matters, and the response was certainly slow - but in the end taxes were raised and Tokyo contributed 13 billion US dollars (more than its annual development aid budget) to Desert Storm. This was very substantial, indeed, but much as there had been pressure on Japan to contribute, there was - at least from the Japanese point of view - very little international appreciation for a major effort.

After the Gulf experience, Japan made another "internationalist" gesture by passing the so-called "UN Peacekeeping Cooperation Law" in June 1992. Its immediate consequences were the dispatch of observers to monitor elections, starting with Angola, and the deployment of self-defence forces to support the United Nations Transitional Administration for Cambodia, and UNIFIL in the Golan Heights. In 1994, self defence forces were also sent to Goma, in the former Zaire, to assist UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies with the response to the huge Rwandan refugee emergency. All these interventions - including unprecedented military interventions - certainly represented a breakthrough in Japanese foreign policy. It should be noted, however, that their mandate was carefully limited and defined, reflecting the prevalence - still - of a non-military, largely pacifist consensus in national priorities.

* * *

Let me now go back to my own changing perspective. Starting in 1968, I served on the Japanese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and in other fora, including three and a half years as Minister at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in New York. I therefore witnessed at first hand the increasing international involvement of my own country. In those times, American and Japanese positions in the United Nations were close, but coloured by different interests: the Middle East and Palestinian issues were a case in point. As the Cold War drew to a close, international relations entered a more confused, less rigidly structured period. UN politics became determined by shifting alignments reflecting diverse national and bilateral interests, with multilateralism frequently losing ground and failing to resolve global challenges.

In 1991, at the height of the Gulf crisis, I was elected United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The prediction that the end of the Cold War would put an end to, or at least greatly reduce, the refugee problem proved wrong.

My first field mission, in April, was a helicopter reconnaissance of the mountains between Turkey, Iran and Northern Iraq, where over one million Kurds had taken refuge in the fastest mass exodus in contemporary history. The Gulf crisis was a major turning point for humanitarian and refugee work. It gave a new dimension not only to material assistance to victims of conflict and mass displacement, but also to the manner in which political action and humanitarian aid interact with each other. The Kurdish exodus was followed closely by other crises of major proportions: let me just mention the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which displaced millions of civilians; a new explosion of genocidal violence in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, which caused the flight of millions of people from Burundi and Rwanda. More recently, conflicts in Kosovo and Sierra Leone dashed the hopes that the post-Cold War turmoil would just be a transient adjustment period. Something had fundamentally changed. Humanitarian action was not any more confined to the rear lines of political and military conflict, as it had been, mostly, during the Cold War. In Northern Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, former Zaire and Bosnia - and still today in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan - humanitarian action has moved to the heart of wars: to their geographical centre, thus exposing humanitarian workers to the same kind of dangers to which are exposed civilian victims of conflict; and to their political core, often becoming, unwittingly, an instrument to prolong fighting, and an unarmed pawn in the hands of the armed parties.

To be effective, humanitarian action has always required political solutions. In the post-Cold War context, in which criss-crossing national interests have substituted for the ideological divide which predominated before, political support is even more essential to the solution of conflicts. And yet it has become harder to mobilize.

Most crises today are not addressed through the exercise of global leadership mobilizing international commitment, but through an ad hoc convergence of interests and makeshift ideals. Take the work of my Office, for example: it protects and assists millions of civilians fleeing violence and conflict, or trying to rebuild their homes and lives in situations of very fragile peace. But its action depends on creating an environment in which people stop being refugees, can return home safely, and live again in peace within their communities. In many cases efforts to create this environment are considerable. They include most of all political support, and also material and financial resources, sometimes with military back-up. They must be based on a comprehensive and well planned political solution. Bosnia and Kosovo are examples of crises which are being addressed through such efforts, mostly thanks to the leadership of the United States. However, since the abortive Somalia operation in 1993, the US has become cautious in dispatching ground troops or approving UN peace-keeping forces to prepare the ground for political settlements. In many crisis situations, like Afghanistan, Angola, Southern Sudan, Sierra Leone, no such leadership has been exercised, and innocent people continue to suffer and die.

* * *

As I said earlier, Japan in the past 54 years has made significant efforts to become a meaningful part of the international community. This may appear normal to many in Europe or the United States. But it is less obvious if you are familiar with Japan - its insular mentality, its "loneliness," one should almost say - and of course if you remember that the starting point of this internationalist trend was a devastating defeat.

I believe that at this delicate juncture in history, it is indispensable that Japan continues on this path. Its international commitment must be reinforced and "internationalism" must be one of its leading policy goals. Before it is too late, Japan must move away from inward-looking and nationalist trends and its "depression diplomacy," as referred to by Yoichi Funabashi. The temptation of such trends will remain strong as long as the current economic crisis persists, but the Japanese must not forget that not only their economy, but also their political and security interests have a global base. Japan has benefited for decades from a favourable open international environment. It must now continue to endorse an internationalist approach. Policy guidance must be based on the reaffirmation of a globalist stance, and actively seek public consensus in the same direction.

I am also very worried that the public commitment of the United States to provide international leadership is receding. Look at its elected representatives, its administration, its media, its civil society associations: with many notable exceptions, which must be recognized, their focus and attitudes are generally becoming inward-looking. They are often based on an internal political agenda, and often an electoral one, rather than on a broader commitment to international leadership. In this context, the unpaid American assessed contributions to the United Nations are a very serious problem. They cast a heavy shadow on the organizational viability of the United Nations. More important, they are perceived as reflecting a diminished interest in the international organization.

I do not wish to underestimate the deep causes that are at the root of this problem, and in particular the very fundamental frustration, in certain sectors of American leadership and society, over the impossibility to fully exercise a controlling influence in the United Nations. But America, today, must choose, once more, to be internationalist. Let us not forget that at all other critical junctures of its history, the United States opted for internationalism. In doing so, it provided global leadership in the true sense of the word - leadership that allowed millions of people in the entire world to live in peace, freedom and relative prosperity. If America's choice today is once more in favour of internationalism - and I hope it will be - it will be difficult to seek public support for it, without, at the same time, providing a significant proof of commitment to the United Nations.

The direction which the United States will take is likely to have an impact on its major allies, including of course Japan. It is of grave concern to me that the United States' interest in Japan seems to be decreasing. The very importance of Japan in the Asian geopolitical context is seen as diminishing. President Clinton's nine-day visit to China last year was perceived as if America were focusing on China and by-passing Japan. This impression was reinforced by the criticism, expressed together by the United States and China, of Japan's financial policies. Indeed, Japan today is increasingly being seen as contributing to the risk of a major world recession.

Let me therefore go back to my starting point. We always speak of US-Japan relations, but we should think of US-Japan commitments. We should reflect on the broad economic, social and democratic roots of our relationship that were carefully cultivated in the post-war years. As I said, when many of us came to study in the United States, we left behind a country recovering from war, but full of the energy of a newly discovered openness to the world; and we had in front of us what we considered both the cradle and the realization of universal values upon which a free, democratic and just global leadership had been achieved, and had triumphed. In spite of all differences, there was a profound affinity between Japan's aspiration and potential, and America's achievements and strength. That affinity was rooted in an outward-looking, internationalist approach, in all fields - political, economic, social and cultural.

I am deeply concerned that such an approach may be weakening - in bilateral US-Japan relations, and in the relations of the two countries with the rest of the world. This is most worrying to all of us, whose efforts will be in vain if nationalist or isolationist tendencies prevail. Internationalism today must be based on a keener recognition of the diverse development needs and cultural values in the world. This commitment to inclusiveness has two complementary facets: it must be turned - externally - towards less developed countries, and - internally - towards the most vulnerable elements of societies - and especially minorities, migrants and refugees. It must be directed towards working for the realization of an inclusive international community, prosperous and secure, based on democratic values.

In conclusion, the United States and Japan must restore the sense of shared engagement that prevailed in the post-war years. Their commitment to bilateral relations can and must continue to be the cornerstone of an international system based on the mutual respect and enrichment of different societies and cultures, on democratic values, and on peace and prosperity for all - the international system which the founding fathers of the United Nations wanted the global organization to uphold.

This, in turn, could lead to some clear initiative to rekindle internationalism in the next century. Let me therefore conclude my reflections with a proposal. Humanitarianism may offer a well defined ground for America and Japan to launch such initiative. Why not, together, set a common humanitarian agenda based on a joint commitment to global solidarity towards refugees and other deprived people?

On our part, we stand ready to respond.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.