The Cable

Romney's Japan remark raises eyebrows

Mitt Romney's comments Thursday criticizing Japan have U.S.-Japan alliance watchers on two continents worrying that the ultra-sensitive Japanese might not appreciate being the cautionary tale in Romney's campaign stump speeches and that a President Romney might not be a good steward of the decades-long relationship.

"We are not Japan," the presumptive Republican nominee told donors at a $2,500-a-plate fundraiser Thursday. "We are not going to be a nation that suffers in decline and distress for a decade or a century. We're on the cusp of a very different economic future than the one people have seen over the past three years."

Japan experts on both sides of the Pacific told The Cable that Romney's offhand assertion that Japan has been in decline for "a century" isn't a fair characterization of a nation that emerged from the ashes of World War II to build the world's second- (now third-) largest economy on a small island with few natural resources. 

Moreover, they worry that Romney is needlessly insulting the face-conscious Japanese and giving them the impression that if he wins in November, his administration won't appreciate the importance of America's top alliance in the East at a time when the United States is attempting a diplomatic and military "pivot" to Asia.

"Romney seems to be on a steady streak of insulting our allies," said Japan expert Devin Stewart, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council. "Japanese are quite sensitive to statements like this. They are constantly assessing the tone of U.S. candidates relative to those made about other Asian countries. Bashing Japan is now quite passé and even tone deaf.  Has Romney even visited Japan? Is he aware of the 2011 earthquake?"

Although liberal pundits such as Paul Krugman have also likened America's present economic malaise to Japan's "lost decade," this analogy doesn't hold up, Stewart said. "We aren't Japan -- that's obvious. Unlike Japan we have a growing population, robust immigration, and a fairly healthy level of inflation," he said.

Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer wrote in an op-ed Aug. 7, before Romney's Japan remarks, that Romney had missed an opportunity to embrace Japan when he visited England, Israel, and Poland last month, despite the obvious place Japan could play in a Romney foreign-policy agenda.

"For Romney to have taken an international trip that would matter, there's one place he might've considered going: Japan. Between Japan's economic efforts and its rebuilding after the tsunami and Fukushima disasters, it's an extremely relevant country to U.S. interests that would've welcomed him with open arms," Bremmer wrote.

There's also concern that the campaign isn't taking Japan seriously as it creates its foreign-policy platform. Japan watchers note that the Romney campaign website's page on "China and East Asia" doesn't even have a Japan section and mentions Japan, only in passing, as being threatened by North Korea and as a declining economic power.

"In 2010, after 30 years of dramatic growth, China surpassed Japan to become the world's second largest economy after ours," the website reads.

In Japan, the reaction to Romney's remarks has been muted, however, not necessarily because the Japanese aren't insulted but more because they are getting accustomed to occasionally being used as a talking point for foreign politicians.

"Mitt Romney seems to have a starkly different calendar that mixes ‘decade' with ‘century,'" Tomohiko Taniguchi, a professor at Keio University and former spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry, told The Cable. "His now-well-known loose cannon, however, hits Japanese headlines not in too big a way as to jeopardize the alliance that has lasted six decades, during which many in Japan have gotten used to U.S. campaign rhetoric that means almost nothing."

The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The Cable

Jim Baker: Realists have been successful stewards of foreign policy

The neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms about Mitt Romney's selection of realist Bob Zoellick to head his national security transition team, but the realists have been the Republicans who steered the ship of U.S. foreign policy the best, according to Zoellick's mentor, former Secretary of State James Baker.

"I know where I am; I think I know where Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are. I think we were all pretty darn successful secretaries of state," Baker said in a long interview Thursday with The Cable. "I also know something else: I know the American people are tired of paying the cost, in blood and treasure, of these wars that we get into that sometimes do not represent a direct national security threat to the United States."

Baker argued that the George H.W. Bush-led 1990-1991 Gulf War, which was prosecuted by an international coalition Baker himself played a key role in creating, was a more successful model than the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that happen to have been urged and led by neoconservative officials in the George W. Bush administration.

"That was a textbook example of the way to go to war," Baker said of the Gulf War. "Look at the way [George H.W. Bush] ran that war. I mean, we not only did it, we said ‘Here's what we're going to do,' we got the rest of the world behind us, including Arab states, and we got somebody else to pay for it. Now tell me a better way, politically, diplomatically, and militarily, to fight a war."

Baker rejected, in detail, the four main criticisms neoconservatives both inside and outside the Romney campaign have made regarding Zoellick: that Zoellick is soft on China, insufficiently supportive of Israel, was weak on pressuring the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War, and that he didn't support the Gulf War.

Baker said the last charge was simply false. "He was never opposed to the Gulf War. In fact, he was one of my right-hand aides when we built that unprecedented international coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait," Baker said.

Regarding the end of the Cold War, Baker said Zoellick played a key role in the reunification of Germany and of Germany's subsequent admission into NATO.

"[Zoellick] wasn't the lead, but he was absolutely critical and instrumental in our getting German unification accomplished, and we did it over the objections of the Soviet Union," Baker said.

On China, Baker defended the George H.W. Bush administration's reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which has been widely criticized.

"The fact of the matter is that, when Tiananmen Square broke, we ended up sanctioning China in many, many ways," he said. "We didn't fire up the 101st Airborne, but we did put political and diplomatic and economic sanctions on China. But we kept the relationship going. Now, Bob Zoellick was a part of all that -- he wasn't the lead on it or anything, but he sure is not, as far as I can tell, soft on China."

Regarding Israel, Baker said that the first Bush administration admittedly had a rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, though it had a better relationship with his successor Yitzhak Rabin. But good progress was made during that period, he said, even though the Bush administration often took stances on issues that the Israeli leaders didn't like, such as whether U.S. funds could be used to build settlements.

When Baker was secretary of state, the United States convinced Arab nations to sit face to face with the Israelis, got the United Nations to repeal the resolution that equated Zionism with racism, and facilitated the emigration of Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union, all by focusing on the U.S. interest in working with both sides toward peace, which has been a bipartisan and longstanding policy of many administrations over the years, he said.

Baker pointed to a recent New York Times column by Tom Friedman arguing that the most successful American leaders on the Middle East process were Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and himself.

In any case, Baker said, Zoellick "wasn't involved extensively" in making policy toward Israel.

"He was not the lead guy. The lead guy there was Dennis Ross, and nobody ever accused Dennis Ross of being hard on Israel," Baker said.

Zoellick's outstanding qualifications for a leadership position in the Romney campaign or a future administration are his experience and competence, Baker said.

"The fact of the matter is that if the Romney campaign and the Romney administration employ somebody like Bob Zoellick, they're going to get somebody who's been there, who's done that, who understands how to make things work, and who understands how to get things done. And that's what we need, above all, in our leadership," he said.

The realist view practiced by Zoellick, Baker, and the elder Bush, of a pragmatic foreign policy that understands the limits of U.S. power and eschews costly and lengthy interventions in countries that aren't crucial to American interests, is even more relevant today, he argued.

For example, Baker doesn't agree with prominent neoconservatives that the United States should do more in Syria.

"Well, my view is that sooner or later, Assad is going to go. I don't think he can survive, and I think we ought to do everything we can -- politically, diplomatically, and economically -- to make that happen. I believe we are doing that. I think we ought to be very careful about the slippery slope of military intervention of any sort," he said. "The Syrian threat's not a threat to us."

Baker said that the United States can't allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but argued that the military option should only be used as a last resort and that there is still time for diplomacy before military action would have to be considered.

"We ought to do everything we can, tighten these sanctions as tight as we can get them -- they're showing some indication of beginning to work. We ought to see if we can't get them to work better, keep doing that. We're not at a critical point yet," he said.

"Our biggest threat today isn't Syria, or even Iran, or Russia or China. Our biggest threat today is our own economy, and we cannot continue to be strong diplomatically, politically, and militarily and be weak economically," he added.

Baker also responded to Romney's claim in stump speeches that Baker had once claimed that Ronald Reagan told him to hold no national security meetings in his first 100 days of his presidency. In fact, Reagan had national security briefings every day and intermittent National Security Council meetings, Baker said.

"I think it was misunderstood a little bit. What I said was that we focused, with laser-like efficiency, on the economy, because we knew ... you see, we came in under similar circumstances that Obama came in, but he didn't focus on the economy the way we did," Baker said.

"By the beginning of the third year of Ronald Reagan's term, we were coming out really good, creating jobs, big economic growth, because we put in place pro-growth economic policy," he said. "Well, a part of the reason we were able to do that is that in fact we in the administration focused with laser-like effectiveness on our economic program. We weren't going to let anything get in the way of that, including conflict in Central America, which some people were suggesting we ought to deal with, and that sort of thing."

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images