REVIEW: Article

The United States-Japan Partnership: A Network of Common Interests

For the last three and a half years, it was my good fortune to participate in what I believe is the most vibrant, complex bilateral relationship the United States (US) has anywhere in the world—the US-Japan partnership. Our future is deeply connected to Japan’s, not only because of the strength of our intergovernmental relations but also because of the enduring bonds of friendship, commerce, and shared values between the two nations. The basic elements—a security relationship that is the cornerstone of peace and stability in Asia and an economic relationship that represents 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product—enrich both countries and the world.

I first came to Japan over thirty years ago, in 1969, as a young member of Congress. There were very few of us in Congress in those days making trips to Japan—this was before Japan’s status as a global economic power, and before Japanese products and Japanese cars had become household names in America. As I recall, I came to attend the Shimoda conference—one of only a handful of programs at the time supporting better understanding between Americans and Japanese. In the thirty years since, the landscape in Japan has greatly changed. I have been privileged to witness the dramatic emergence of a vast network of people-to-people ties—a network that girds and, I believe, safeguards the US-Japan relationship.

With the benefit of perspective that my tenure in Japan has given me, let me step back and talk about our broader relationship and where I believe it is headed. For over half a century, this partnership has been tested by great world upheavals. We have been strengthened as allies in the process. Today, the end of the Cold War presents new challenges to the alliance, challenges we are just beginning to grapple with. The regional dynamic is in flux. The threats we face—the very nature of conflict—has changed. Today, as allies, we must fend off problems as varied as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, averting global economic instability, and responding to environmental threats like global warming.

The US and Japan have learned to pool their best creative energies and innovative talents for the betterment not only of their own two peoples, but for people everywhere. It is this understanding, which leads us to work together today on a multitude of international development challenges—a “Common Agenda” of cooperation. This partnership brings together the skills, enthusiasm and knowledge of the two governments, academia, business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to tackle environmental, health and social problems throughout the world. 

The peaceful end to worldwide contention with the Soviet Union has brought a substantial security dividend. But the end of the Cold War has not brought all of our security concerns in Northeast Asia to resolution.

The US and Japan have a tremendous stake in the peaceful, democratic evolution of China. Our common effort over the past year in support of China’s participation in the World Trade Organization was one step in the direction of bringing this regional giant into the international free-market economic system. The Bush Administration has stressed America’s desire to work with Japan, South Korea, Australia and our other regional allies to respond to a dynamic China and nurture a constructive relationship. I believe this is an achievable goal.

Dramatic events on the Korean peninsula last year, particularly the North-South summit meeting in June, have opened up new possibilities for reconciliation. Our trilateral consultative process has been a key ingredient in the progress we have been able to make. While the new administration is in the process of reviewing our policy toward North Korea, I believe that whatever the outcome, we will try to build on the progress we have made up to now and maintain a close collaborative approach to North Korea with Japan and Korea.

An effective US-Japan alliance remains critical to both countries’ interests. We must not forget the central lesson from our Cold War experience: democratic alliances, standing firm, will succeed in defending against any and all threats to peace. Changes in the regional and international security environment do not alter that fundamental judgment. But changes in circumstances do mean that we must adapt our alliance if we are to keep it strong.

Let me mention a few of the adaptations already underway. Thanks to the new Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, issued by both governments in 1997, we are better prepared to meet possible contingencies. Base consolidations will continue, allowing us the best defense with the minimum burden to citizens living near US bases. The Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) process aims at reducing our impact on the people of Okinawa as much as possible, through a number of changes in training procedures, base relocations, and land returns. 

Looking to the future, there are several areas in which the United States and Japan are likely to benefit from working together more intensively. The post Cold War environment in the Asia Pacific region dictates that we not focus exclusively on planning for potential armed conflicts, but that we consider how to work cooperatively to meet common threats. Japan has a very significant role to play in designing and building a more secure region. The range of possible diplomatic and military confidence-building options is extensive. They include cooperative efforts to counter piracy, diplomatic efforts to foster a greater sense of shared security in the region, and joint training for humanitarian and disaster relief missions. We understand Japan’s constitutional limitations on participating in collective self-defense. But much can be done, today, that does not call into question that constitutional threshold.

In the post-Cold War era, the threats to peace are increasingly likely to take the shape of “situations other than war,” such as internal conflicts, terrorism, weapons proliferation, and natural disasters. Dealing with such challenges will require flexible and highly-trained mobile forces.

Indeed, the nature of many of the international challenges we now face, or can envision, requires a common response. Moreover, the expanding interdependence of our world increasingly means that situations that in the past could be dismissed as someone else’s problem in fact affect all of us.

Japan is an integral part of the world community and truly a world power— perhaps more so than even many of its own citizens realize. Japan’s prominent international trade creates a very tangible link to events almost anywhere. Around the world, Japan matters, and not simply because its economy is the second largest in the world. Politically, Japan has a distinguished record as an active promoter of peace ever since becoming a member of the United Nations. Its contributions have earned deep gratitude in many corners of the globe. And yet, despite the praiseworthy role Japan has played in helping to resolve crisis after crisis, there remain many who believe that Japan could do more to contribute to international peace and security.

The United States, and I believe the world community as a whole, would welcome greater Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations. When Japan is ready to do so, I would urge that we explore, as allies, how we might coordinate our training and planning to be able to serve together most effectively in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. In the years and decades to come there are likely to arise crises in which the international community feels a duty to intervene with humanitarian or peacekeeping assistance. The sense of duty may stem from a moral imperative to help innocent victims or out of recognition that unchecked aggression ultimately threatens us all. In any case, there are unfortunately potential crises in the region which the US and Japan both will see a clear need to help resolve. We should prepare for those moments, so that when they appear suddenly we are ready to come to the defense of the principles in the United Nations charter that we have promised to uphold. 

Just as we are working to adapt our security partnership to the post-Cold War realities, I see a similar process of adaptation underway in Japan on the economic front. In my 30 years of association with Japan, economic change almost beyond comprehension has been the one constant. Japan has gone from being an economy ravaged by wartime defeat to becoming an engine of world economic growth. It is the second-largest economy in the world, representing 70 percent of Asia’s economy. The past decade has seen growth slow, but I am confident that the technological and managerial innovation—not to mention the sheer human talent—that made Japan a leader in the 1970s and 1980s will again revitalize the economy.

In the past three years, I have seen the cell phone industry expand dramatically, driving down prices and putting them in the hands of half the people in Japan. As this process of pro-competitive regulation expands throughout the economy, we will see higher growth and more innovation. Japan is already seeing more foreign direct investment entering the economy, creating jobs both in Japan and in the US. Foreign investment brings with it new management techniques that make domestic companies more competitive. As the process of deregulating the economy and modernizing the legal framework in which business operates expands across the economy, we can expect to see both Japanese and foreign firms participating in Japan’s recovery.

At the same time, I sense a certain amount of anxiety in Japan about the future. Good, hardworking people worry about their savings and pensions, they worry about the unemployment rate, and they wonder whether they or their children will be able to find work, buy a home, and enjoy a bright and prosperous future.

Americans have known this anxiety too. In the 1980s, America questioned whether it was up to the challenge of international competition. Americans read “Japan as #1” by Ezra Vogel and wondered if we could compete. We were forced to undertake a massive restructuring of our industries and to reconsider how we conducted business with the rest of the world. It was not easy. People who had worked nearly all their lives in one sector suddenly found themselves out of a job. They had to begin anew, learning different skills to fit the times. Our businesses needed to learn new techniques—many of them from Japan—and to adapt to the demands of the emerging global economy. Our nation succeeded, however, and reaped the benefits from facing this challenge.

Japanese leaders with whom I have met over the past three years almost all agree that Japan needs to continue implementing reforms in order to create that brighter future for its young people. I know that Japan will succeed in this difficult endeavor of restructuring and adaptation. It is in both countries’ interest to have a strong and secure Japan. America will be an unwavering partner throughout this process.

To recap: the United States’ and Japan’s economies are the two largest in the world, accounting for 40 percent of the world’s economic activity. Our security alliance is stronger than it has ever been. Democracy, the foundation of both societies, is being tested, and struggled for, in a widening circle of countries. There are so many problems in the world where our shared values and combined energy is already being put to good purpose—fighting AIDS, controlling weapons of mass destruction, preserving peace, spreading the benefits of the information technology (IT) revolution, and saving coral reefs.

I know that we can build on these successes. The US-Japan relationship is as strong as it has ever been. By going forward with this process of growth in our bilateral partnership, I am confident that we will be leaving a safe, prosperous legacy for future generations. I am convinced that, if we so choose, this vast network of ties we call the US-Japan relationship can become the key partnership that shapes the 21st century. I look forward to being active as part of a bilateral network of American and Japanese private citizens, sharing our frank views with each other, and with those in need, around the world.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to Japan, 1997-2001;
Member, United States House of Representatives, 1965-1994;
Speaker of the House, 1989-1994