A Community of Shared Values — The Transatlantic Community and Japan under Pressure

The Atlantic Community is still needed today – but less as a geographical concept. The (trans)atlantic community in the postwar period has always been a community of values, and this aspect is now more important than ever before. Given the rise of authoritarian models of politics, economy and society, exemplified not least by Russia and China and their increasing challenges to the rules-based liberal international order, those who are in a position to defend and strengthen the values and order need to cooperate with each other more. This necessitates the countries in the Atlantic community to cooperate with other like-minded countries, such as Japan, India and Australia, because this enormous job cannot be done solely by the countries of the Atlantic community in the geographical sense of the term.

Yet, another inconvenient truth regarding the maintenance and strengthening of the rules-based international order, sadly, seems to be coming also from the very center of the Atlantic community: The United States under the Donald Trump administration. Its apparent unwillingness to lead the international community and contempt for values in international relations are causing considerable concerns in Europe and Japan, while at the same time pleasing those who want to challenge the rules-based international order like Russia and China.

While the level of anti-Trump sentiment runs extremely high particularly in Western Europe among mainstream elites, it remains obvious that the policy and value gaps between Trump’s America and Europe are much smaller, if not altogether nonexistent, than those between Europe and China or Europe and Russia. It is almost a bad joke to talk of China as a guardian of free trade, while US trade practices – even with Trump’s restrictive tariff measures on steel and aluminum — remain more open than China.

Transatlantic divides, be they in politics or economy, always make headlines. There are a large number of books and articles in this regard: One of the most seminal works remains Robert Kagan’s article, “Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus,” published during the Iraq crisis in 2003. It was still a period when the world was characterized by US unipolarity. In hindsight, the United States and Europe still had the luxury to blame each other and highlight the differences between them. That happy period is long gone, and both sides now need to deal with increasing challenges from far less like-minded countries. Transatlantic tensions can never be in Tokyo’s interests either, after all.

In terms of managing global governance, the G20 was expected to replace the G7 as a premier venue for discussion on global issues when it was launched in the wake of the international financial crisis in 2008. The G20 has developed quite rapidly over the past decade. Yet the G7 did not die – inadvertently helped by the fact that Russia was kicked out following its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine. The cohesiveness between the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – has increased as a result.

While expecting US leadership in international relations to return (hopefully after Donald Trump’s tenure in office, though not promised), Europe and Japan have faced increased responsibility. They have tried hard to meet such responsibility in upholding the rules-based international order by strengthening cooperation. Tokyo and Brussels have recently concluded negotiations on an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) and are set to officially sign those agreements soon. The EPA has arrived with perfect timing, demonstrating to the world that the idea of free trade is still alive despite protectionist rhetoric and actions by the Trump administration. The question now is to what extent Europe and Japan are prepared and able to fill the international leadership gap created by Trump’s retrenchment. Given the inward-looking tendency both in Japan and Europe, the extent to which both can assume international leadership cannot be seen as increasing.

In the meantime, how to deal with Russia and China remains a serious challenge to the Atlantic community and other like-minded countries including Japan. Different countries have different views and interests, and no country has a complete domestic consensus on how to deal with Russia and China. The “Russia gaps” and “China gaps,” in other words, could disrupt cooperation among the otherwise like-minded countries, which indicates the need for those countries to strengthen a genuine and frank strategic dialogue. Since both Russia and China pose challenges on a global scale, the question of which is more urgent is not constructive. Russia and China need to be addressed simultaneously as a package, not separately.

For the Atlantic community and Japan to safeguard the rules-based international order or expect to exert any influence on Russia or China, they must act together. Otherwise, those of us at the very foundation of the rules-based international order will lose.

Michito Tsuruoka is Associate Professor at Keio University, Japan.

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