Shinzo Abe might look like another of the world’s modern nationalist leaders at times, alongside Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China and Donald Trump in the United States.
Abe comes from a family of Japanese nationalist politicians, including a grandfather whom the United States accused of war crimes during World War II. Abe himself downplayed Japan’s wartime atrocities and spoke of the importance of patriotism and “traditional values”. Above all, he pushed his country to get rid of its post-1945 pacifism and to become more militaristic.
Yet for all his nationalism, Abe – Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who remained a power broker until his assassination last week – was fundamentally different from Putin, Xi and most other new nationalists. They set out to undermine democracy in the world and expand autocracy. Abe, on the other hand, tried to use Japanese nationalism primarily in the service of strengthening a global alliance of democracies.
“Abe is often described as a nationalist,” wrote David Frum in The Atlantic. “He rather deserves to be remembered as one of the great internationalists of his time, the main architect of collective security in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Today’s newsletter considers Abe’s full legacy. It’s a legacy whose relevance goes well beyond Japan, including to the war in Ukraine and the broader struggle between autocracies like Russia and China and democracies like the United States, the European Union and Japan.
“We must change”
The clearest way to understand Abe’s approach to international affairs is through his most important goal: to make Japan comfortable with the use of military force.
He fought for years to change the pacifist constitution that the United States imposed on Japan after World War II. He failed, but nonetheless made progress toward the larger goal. During his tenure, the country increased military spending, created a national security council, and changed the law so that Japanese troops could fight alongside their allies overseas.
None of these measures had seemed necessary at the end of the 20th century. The United States managed security on behalf of Japan and much of Western Europe as those countries recovered from the devastation of war. As the cliché said, the United States was the policeman of the world.
But many American voters and politicians have grown weary of that role lately. It’s expensive, and the US economy isn’t as dominant as it once was. Americans — in both political parties — have also wondered why their fellow citizens often seem to be the ones risking their lives in faraway lands. These reasons help explain why Trump and President Biden favored the withdrawal from Afghanistan and why Biden vowed not to send Americans to fight in Ukraine.
A less assertive United States means that one of two scenarios is likely to replace the so-called Pax Americana of the late 20th century. Either authoritarian leaders will feel encouraged to become more aggressive, as Putin has done in Ukraine and Xi has signaled he might do in Taiwan. Or other parts of the democratic alliance – the EU, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Canada, among others – will have to fill some of the void.
Abe wanted to make the second scenario a reality, in part because of his concern about China’s growing power and audacity. “Since the Obama administration, the US military no longer acts as the policeman of the world,” Abe told The Economist this spring. “I still believe that America has to take the lead,” he added. But, he said, “we have to change our attitude of leaving all military matters to America. Japan must take responsibility for peace and stability and do its utmost in working with America to achieve it.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped him make this case. As Motoko Rich, the Times Tokyo bureau chief, explained to me, Abe recently gave an interview to a Japanese publication noting that Germany was increasing its military spending, and he called on Japan to do the same. “No country fights alongside a nation that does not defend itself,” he said.
His alliance-building efforts extended to economic policy. He popularized the phrase “a free and open Indo-Pacific” and he forged ahead with a Trans-Pacific Trade Pact – largely intended to counter China’s rise – even after Trump pulled out of it. United States.
“Abe’s legacy is a world better prepared to face China,” wrote Josh Rogin in the Washington Post. In The Times, Tobias Harris, a biographer of Abe, wrote: “He viewed his country as engaged in fierce competition among nations and believed that a politician’s duty, above all else, was to provide security and the prosperity of his people.
His Complete Legacy
To be sure, the uglier aspects of Abe’s nationalism have hurt his efforts to build alliances. His attempts to whitewash history — by changing school textbooks, for example, and downplaying Japan’s wartime brutality — created friction with allies like South Korea, whose citizens were among the casualties.
“His personal vision of rewriting Japanese history, of a glorious past, has created a real problem in East Asia that will persist,” Alexis Dudden, a historian at the University of Connecticut, told The New Yorker. . “It also further divided Japanese society on how to approach its own responsibility for war actions carried out in the Emperor’s name.”
Overall, however, Abe was a force for democratic internationalism. He recognized that 20th century American military dominance was unsustainable. A big question of the early 21st century is which other countries will assert themselves enough to shape the world order. Abe believed the world would be better off if Japan – democratic and prosperous – was a big part of the answer.
The alternative is probably a world with more authoritarianism and less respect for individual rights. “Japan alone cannot balance China’s military power, so Japan and America must cooperate to achieve a balance,” Abe said. “The US-Japan alliance is also vital for America.”
Abe’s party and its allies won a qualified majority in parliamentary elections last weekend. This victory gives them “a chance to pursue Mr. Abe’s long-standing ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution”, says Motoko Rich.
A funeral was held for Abe today and crowds filled the streets of Tokyo as his hearse passed.
Japanese media speculated that the suspect in Abe’s death had a grudge against the Unification Church, which has ties to conservative politics around the world.
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