The State of the Union: A View from Japan

February 5, 2003

The State of the Union: A View from Japan

 President Bush's State of the Union address is, of course, directed primarily at a domestic audience, yet the speech was heard all over the world.


 President Bush's State of the Union address is, of course, directed primarily at a domestic audience, yet the speech was heard all over the world.  It should not be surprising, however, that Americans and non-Americans may have heard vastly different things in what was said.

Take the question of "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD).  President Bush said that what the world feared most was the fact that "outlaw regimes" sought to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.  There is a slightly different perspective here in Asia.  You cannot tell others not to smoke a cigarette while you are smoking thousands of packs every day.  Why should the United States continue nuclear weapons tests while telling others, including not only "outlaw regimes" but also some important allies such as South Korea and Japan, not to seek to possess nuclear weapons?  The blatant inconsistency of American policy toward WMD issues (why are certain states who possess WMD threats yet others are "responsible powers") has precipitated reasonable doubt and discontent with U. S. leadership in the international arena, not only among Washington's enemies but also among its friends and allies.


Historically, the main method the United States used to acquire and maintain its global leadership has been a confrontational approach: Find the enemy, create a simple dichotomous world view between good and bad, and forge an image of severe confrontation against the enemy in order to solidify its own allies.

Terrorists and their supporters are the next enemies, following "Hitlerism, militarism, and communism."  President Bush declared: "Once again we are called to defend the safety of our people and the hopes of all mankind.  And we accept this responsibility."   It is not entirely clear, however, whether the rest of the world has consented to the United States taking on this role.

In last year's State of the Union Address, President Bush stated that Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and "their terrorist allies" constituted "an axis of evil" without any clear evidence that these countries had "terrorist allies."  A respectable world leader would not use such a vulgar expression, which was infra dignitatem.  He did not use such a coarse expression this year, but promoted a clear stratification among the members of "an axis of evil."  "Disarming Iraq" constituted one independent section in his address, while he spared only one paragraph for Iran and two paragraphs for North Korea--North Korea, which after all has  admitted that it violated the Agreed Framework of 1994 and secretly pursued its nuclear development project.  It does appear that Washington recognizes that North Korea is a different sort of challenge.  General Gary Luck, the American commander in Korea, testified before a Senate committee that, in the event of a war with North Korea, the United States would suffer from 80,000 - 100,000 American casualties and over $100 billion worth of economic losses.  North Korea has the fifth-largest military in the world (over 1 million armed forces in comparison with about 430,000 men in Iraq) with numerous short- medium- and long-range artilleries, multiple rocket launchers, and ballistic missiles equipped with biological and chemical warheads located within a short distance from Seoul and Tokyo, the capital cities of America's most critical allies in Asia.  Objectively speaking, North Korea seems to pose more serious and immediate threats to the United States and its allies in Asia.  Nonetheless, President Bush explained his policies in a rather calm tone: "The North Korean regime will find respect in the world, and revival for its people, only when it turns away from its nuclear ambitions."  

In comparison with this softer mode, President Bush delivered a quasi-ultimatum to Iraq.  In contrast to the open confession by the North Korean regime of its nuclear program, President Bush has to depend on "intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody" as evidence to find the connections between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.  The President could only say that Hussein supported terrorists "including members of Al-Qaeda" without demonstrating clearly if Hussein systematically helped Al-Qaeda or has any direct connection with the September 11th terrorist attacks.  President Bush could only imagine the worst case without solid, hard evidence: "Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own."  Since Secretary of State Colin Powell is supposed to show us intelligence information concerning Iraqi's links to terrorist groups on February 5, we shall refrain from making definitive analysis and judgment on this issue until then.  

President Bush said, "We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: . . . we will lead a coalition to disarm him."  Now, world opinion favors avoiding war against Iraq.  Even within the United States, some conscientious voices against the military solution of the Iraqi issue rose to surface.  It is getting more difficult to form a solid coalition to support U.S. military involvement in Iraq and quite risky for the Bush administration to implement a unilateral, military solution without secure endorsement both at home and abroad.  If the United States undertakes a military attack against Iraq without firm consensus, it will lose confidence and trust of the international community including its friends and allies, further isolate itself from the world community, and become a self-appointed, ruthless, yet lonely policeman.  The United States may have enormous military power, but it will find itself without any true friends or allies in the international community.

Finally, it bears noting that President Bush reaffirmed and justified his first-strike principle.  As long as the United States continues to blame on others without trying to find out why they are hated abroad, the country will have to live under threat, confrontation, and anxiety for a long time to come.  From this side of the Pacific, it seems that if Kim Jong-il and Saddam Hussein used the same logic, they could justify their preemptive attacks against the United States or any other nation that they defined as "terrorists and tyrants."  This first-strike doctrine is nothing but a symbol of the self-centered approach of the United States.    

And this is a matter of concern to us and to many around the world.  In Japan, many of us feel that the spread of the technology that permits the construction of WMD is inevitable.  Forcible suppression is a short-sighted strategy.  The U.S. should instead be taking the lead in reducing tensions (perhaps even by cutting back on its own massive stockpiles of WMD).  In turn, we look for greater self-contemplation and self-restraint on Washington's part.

Yone Sugita is an associate professor of American history at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies