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Two Lessons for the Next US President

NAGASAKI – Looking out of my window across the harbor of the remarkable city of Nagasaki, Japan, two thoughts of considerable relevance to the next American president come to mind.

Nagasaki has endured the worst of humanity. In August 1945, a plutonium bomb decimated the city, causing massive physical damage and untold human suffering. Since then, however, the city has exemplified the best of human achievement, rising from the rubble thanks to the spirit and enterprise of Japanese men and women, who trade the things that they build – for example, at the Mitsubishi shipyards – with the rest of the world.

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But Nagasaki – and Japan, more broadly – has not always been open to the world, reaching across the ocean to connect with other countries, from near neighbors like China to faraway allies like the United States. For centuries, Japanese minds, and Japanese borders, were distinctly closed.

On a hillside in Nagasaki, there is a stark reminder of this radical closed-mindedness. A monument commemorates the martyrdom of 26 Roman Catholics, who were crucified at the end of the sixteenth century as part of the effort to stamp out the growth of Christianity in Japan. The American film director Martin Scorsese is now completing an adaptation of these events, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence.

Japan’s embrace of modernity came centuries later, with the decades-long Meiji restoration that began in the late 1860s. Rather than losing touch with its own culture and traditions, however, Japan merged the two, moving forward without losing sight of the past. This balance is reflected in Japanese architecture, which is thoroughly modern, yet steeped in tradition.

So what does all this have to do with the US election? For one thing, the US, like some parts of Europe, is now at risk of entering its own period of closed minds and closed borders. While the more moderate Hillary Clinton is likely to defeat the recklessly isolationist Donald Trump, the backlash against openness that has fueled Trump’s rise will not dissipate on its own.

Of course, a President Clinton, along with other policymakers, would do well to underscore the leading role that diversity has played in driving America’s success. Providing a haven for people from all over the world, where all people are subject to the same rules and laws, has been a key strength of the US for most of its history. This idea is reflected in the words on the country’s seal: E Pluribus Unum (from many, one).

But Clinton will also have to address some of the real grievances that spurred the backlash against economic openness. An infrastructure program, by creating huge numbers of productive jobs and distributed wealth, would be a good start – one that would be far easier to achieve if her Democratic Party also won the Senate. With such an approach, the US could revive its reputation as the “land of opportunity,” which has been so critical to US soft power in the past.

As she works to overcome rifts at home, Clinton will also have plenty of work to do abroad. Herein lies the second lesson of Nagasaki’s history: the overwhelming threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Today, it is North Korea that embodies that threat most acutely. That country’s volatile regime, led by the world’s most powerful juvenile delinquent, Kim Jong-un, not only possesses nuclear weapons, but is also working to develop long-range delivery capacity. Recent tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles – including the country’s most powerful nuclear test ever, carried out last month – show just how close the Hermit Kingdom is to achieving its goals.

Even if Clinton takes a restrained approach to the use of force in international disputes, as President Barack Obama has over the last eight years, she would not be able to stand by idly if North Korea had the capacity to launch a long-range nuclear strike. America would have to protect its Asian allies (not to mention its own citizens, were the North able to strike the US mainland).

But unilateral action would certainly not be the best option. It would be far better to persuade China to intervene to bring Kim’s regime to heel. That would demand some deft diplomacy.

Chinese officials still insist that they cannot control North Korea. That may be true, up to a point. Yet it is clear that no one has as much clout in Pyongyang as China’s Communist Party bosses. And it is very possible that, behind closed doors, Chinese officials are already testing their ability to manipulate some of the shadowy figures surrounding Kim, who appears increasingly paranoid about the possibility of a coup.

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But China would be unlikely to agree to more direct intervention in North Korea without some quid pro quo. Perhaps America, with its Asian allies, could make some modest shift in their approach to China’s illegal pursuit of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. This would, to be sure, be unpopular, particularly among China’s neighbors. But it might also be necessary to quell the North Korean nuclear threat. Defusing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions would be worth the sacrifice.

When viewing the world from the perspective of Nagasaki, the need to preserve plurality and openness, while advancing America’s strategic pivot to Asia, becomes starkly clear. It is a perspective that the next US president should embrace.