Shinzo Abe could at times look like yet another of the world’s modern breed of nationalist leaders, alongside Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China and Donald Trump in the US.
Abe came from a family of Japanese nationalist politicians, including a grandfather accused by the US 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 urged his country to shed post-1945 pacifism and become more militaristic.
But 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 have set themselves the goal of undermining democracy around the world and expanding autocracy. Abe, on the other hand, sought 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 deserves instead to be remembered as one of the great internationalists of his time, the leading architect of collective security in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Today’s newsletter takes a look at Abe’s full legacy. It is a legacy with relevance far beyond Japan, including to the war in Ukraine and the wider struggle between autocracies such as Russia and China and democracies such as the US, the European Union and Japan.
‘We have to change’
The clearest way to understand Abe’s approach to international affairs is through his most prominent goal: to make Japan comfortable using military force.
He fought for years to change the pacifist constitution that the US imposed on Japan after World War II. He failed, but still made strides toward the greater 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 allies abroad.
None of these measures seemed necessary in the late 20th century. The US provided security on behalf of Japan and much of Western Europe as those countries recovered from the wartime ravages. As the cliché put it, the US was the policeman of the world.
But many American voters and politicians have grown tired of this 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 distant lands. These reasons help explain why both Trump and President Biden have been in favor of withdrawing from Afghanistan and why Biden has vowed not to send Americans to fight in Ukraine.
A less assertive US means that one of the 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 did in Ukraine and Xi has indicated he could in Taiwan. Or other parts of the democratic alliance – including the EU, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Canada – will have to fill some of the vacuum.
Abe wanted to realize the second scenario, partly because of his concerns about China’s emerging power and audacity. “Since the Obama administration, the US military has stopped serving as the policeman of the world,” Abe told The Economist this spring. “I still believe America should lead the way,” he added. But, he said, “we must change our attitude to leave all military matters to America. Japan must take responsibility for peace and stability and do our utmost by working with America to achieve this.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped him make this case. As explained to me by Motoko Rich, The Times’ Tokyo bureau chief, Abe recently gave an interview to a Japanese publication noting that Germany was increasing its military spending, and urging Japan to do the same. “No country fights alongside a nation that does not defend itself,” he said.
His efforts to build alliances extended to economic policy. He popularized the phrase “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” and he went ahead with a trans-Pacific trade pact — largely intended to counter China’s rise — even after Trump pulled the US out of it.
“Abe’s legacy is a world better prepared to confront China,” Josh Rogin wrote in The Washington Post. In The Times, Tobias Harris, a biographer of Abe, wrote: “He saw his country as embroiled in fierce competition among nations and believed that it was primarily a politician’s duty to ensure the security and prosperity of his people. “
His full legacy
Sure, the uglier parts of Abe’s nationalism have hurt his alliance-building efforts. His attempts to whitewash history—for example, by changing school textbooks and trivializing Japan’s war violence—created friction with allies like South Korea, whose civilians were among the victims.
“His personal vision of rewriting Japanese history, from a glorious past, created a real problem in East Asia that will linger,” University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden told The New Yorker. “It also further divided Japanese society on how to approach its own responsibility for wartime actions carried out in the name of the Emperor.”
But all in all, Abe was a force for democratic internationalism. He recognized that the US military dominance of the 20th century 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—were 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 might, so Japan and America must work together to strike a balance,” Abe said. “The US-Japan alliance is also vital for America.”
Abe’s party and its allies won a super majority in the parliamentary election last weekend. The win gives them “an opportunity to pursue Mr Abe’s long-held ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution,” explained Motoko Rich.
A funeral was held for Abe today and crowds lined the streets of Tokyo when his hearse passed.
Japanese media has speculated that the suspect in Abe’s death held a grudge against the Unification Church, which has ties to conservative politics around the world.
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