The Strategist Six: Brad Glosserman
30 Mar 2017|

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, analysts, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

1. What are your impressions of what we’ve seen from the new administration in Asia, and how might their approach differ from Obama’s rebalance?

This administration doesn’t really have a strategy for Asia, nor a larger strategy for the world. There isn’t an overarching vision, there isn’t a considered reflection of America’s global role and interests. What they have is the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan and some predilections on the part of the President about the two pillars of America’s post-war foreign policy—he appears to maintain a suspicion of alliances, and rejects the multilateralism and enlightened internationalism that has guided American policy since World War II. With that said, what we see so far from the national security and foreign policy bureaucracy is status quo: the messages that Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson delivered during their trips to Asia were ones that any of their recent Defense and State Department predecessors would’ve also delivered.

2. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently claimed that decades of diplomacy had failed to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. What might Tokyo want Washington to do?

Japan wants the US to maintain a deep and abiding concern about the nature of the threat North Korea poses to Japan. The Japanese believe that they’re in the crosshairs of a North Korean nuclear weapon, so they want the US to be acutely sensitive to the consequences of nuclear use and to the consequences of Japan’s decision to back the US in a future Korean contingency. I’ve often been struck how the Japanese I’ve spoken with evince no doubts about the credibility of America’s commitment to their defence. So the problem is no longer reassurance, but rather deterrence: the Japanese and South Koreans believe that somehow the North Koreans think that their possession of a nuclear device is a deterrent and therefore will miscalculate.

3. What is your assessment of Prime Minister Abe’s courtship of Donald Trump?

Genius! Prime Minister Abe has done an extraordinary job of establishing the “best way” to pursue relations with the United States under President Trump. His quick trip to Trump Tower in December demonstrated his readiness to be a partner, which he backed up with a trip to DC and his time at Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s rhetoric about allies stepping up to the plate actually corresponds with what Abe wants to see from Japan, and the creation of a larger economic framework is something the Japanese have wanted with the US for years. So, Abe’s been brilliant.

4. After Japan’s bruising experience in its bid to sell submarines to Australia, do you think Tokyo still considers Canberra to be a serious security partner, and if so, what might Japan want us to do together?

First of all, I think Japan was a little more divided about the utility, value and the wisdom of the potential submarine deal than was the Abe administration. Subsequently you heard lots of reporting from the defence industry about being somewhat uncomfortable with the prospect, so let’s be careful when we talk about how great a disappointment it was. But I think as Abe surveys the region he absolutely sees Australia as one of his best partners. You share values, interests, security architectures and security structures.

What Japan wants from Australia is continued support for Japan’s new role and outward orientation, and diplomatic support for the rule of law, norm setting, economic engagement, multilateralism, capacity building—all of which Australia already does. The difference now is that Tokyo will look to Canberra (just as Canberra should look to Tokyo and others) to entangle the US, to keep it engaged in the region in ways that might counter some of the more isolationist tendencies of the new administration.

5. This time last year, ASPI published your Special Report,Peak Japan and its Implications for Regional Security. One of your arguments was that Japan’s demographic realities and economic challenges would naturally lead it to look inwards. How is that thesis holding up 12 months on?

Well, the economy is still stumbling along; I haven’t seen the structural reforms that would suggest otherwise. And on the demographic front we’re not seeing much happening either, so I’m still happy to cling to the conclusions I came to a year ago. I recently wrote about what I see as Japan’s ‘five futures’, which builds on the Peak Japan paper by laying out the other pathways Japan could head down. But I’m not seeing anything at this moment that suggests a change in trajectory.

6. To what extent has Prime Minister Abe’s activist international policy agenda penetrated the traditional anti-militarist mindset held by many Japanese?

Actually, the most important change didn’t come from Abe; instead, it was the triple catastrophe on 11 March 2011, when SDF were out on the front lines. The US was there as well, and you saw approval ratings for both the SDF and the US–Japan alliance skyrocket. So I think that’s been the most important development in changing minds. Prime Minister Abe has done a lot but I don’t think that he’s brought about a qualitative or paradigmatic shift. Japanese thinking is impacted when they are applauded for what they contribute and when the world can look to them and say ‘thank you’. I think that has the most profound influence on reshaping the anti-militarist mindset many Japanese have.