The end of values diplomacy

Prime Minister Aso Taro is a firm believer in "values-oriented diplomacy," the use of Japan's foreign policy tools to promote the spread of "universal values" like democracy and human rights.

As foreign minister under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, he spoke of Japan's role in creating an "arc of freedom and prosperity," a belt of what he saw as nascent democracies on the edge of the Eurasian continent that Japan could take under its wings and nurture to maturity. In his 2006 speech at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Aso argued that Japan had a long record of actions in support of democracy promotion, insisting that the Abe government was doing "nothing more than giving a name to the diplomatic achievements" that had characterized Japanese foreign policy since the end of the cold war and "giving it a new positioning within our overall diplomacy." Aso envisioned cooperation with NATO, the EU, and Asian democracies on behalf of the goal of promoting democracy.

The arc of freedom and prosperity resurfaced in Aso's January address at the opening of the current ordinary session of the Diet, using it to frame Japanese ODA in Africa, Japan's participation in the war on terrorism the overseas contingency operation in Afghanistan, its environmental, energy, and natural resource diplomacy, and, the most recent addition, its anti-piracy activities off the coast of Somalia. A short while later, in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos Aso stressed his belief in "Peace and Happiness through Economic Prosperity and Democracy" and reiterated the importance of Japan's efforts to build the arc.

After Aso was chased out of Thailand this week — along with the other leaders of the member countries of the East Asia summit — it is difficult to see the value of "values-oriented diplomacy" as the central concept for Japanese foreign policy.

Aso hurried out of Thailand when demonstrations by supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra forced the Thai government to cancel ASEAN and EAS meetings. The demonstrations marked the latest step backwards for Thailand, which until the 2006 coup that ousted Shinawatra had been making considerable progress towards more stable democracy since the promulgation of the 1997 constitution. As Tim Meisburger of The Asia Foundation explains, steps in the direction of democracy have been undermined by a political struggle that pits traditional elites against the urban and rural poor mobilized by Shinawatra, resulting in the back-and-forth battles among Yellows and Reds in recent years. As Colum Murphy of Far Eastern Economic Review argues, there are a number of steps that the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva needs to take if Thailand is to reverse its slide into disorder. Whether the Thai government will do so appears uncertain.

The upshot is that despite the Bush administration's emphasis on democracy building in Southeast Asia (see this review of the administration's "accomplishments") and despite Aso's "values-oriented diplomacy," Southeast Asia is less democratic today than it was a decade ago. Neither country has been able to halt Thailand's slide away from democracy. Neither country has been able to advance the cause of democracy in Burma. While Indonesia has just had a parliamentary election that shows that it is "strengthening of the processes of orderly, healthy competition within the Indonesian political system" — prompting the Economist to note that Indonesia "has a fair claim to be South-East Asia’s only fully functioning democracy" — it is doubtful that US or Japanese efforts to promote democracy would rank high on a list of reasons for Indonesia's democratic consolidation.

After Aso's abrupt departure from Thailand, it is time for the prime minister to jettison the promotion of univeral values as the primary goal of Japan's foreign policy. The US has already done so — recall Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech to the Asia Society in February, in which she not only did not mention democracy, but actually passed the values agenda off to Southeast Asia, saying "we look forward to working with our other partners and friends in the regions, allies like Thailand and the Philippines, along with Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to ensure that ASEAN can live up to its charter, to demonstrate the region’s capacity for leadership on economic, political, human rights, and social issues." Should democracy promotion remain a priority for the US and Japan in the region? Yes, but only one among several, and certainly not the most important.

What should take the place of values-oriented diplomacy? I think Fukuda Yasuo pointed the way last summer in his outline of what would amount to a new middle-power role for Japan in Asia. The new Fukuda doctrine may yet survive its progenitor. What other options are available to the Japanese government?

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