Civilizational Divides and Regional Confrontations – 2

Unlike previous Topics of the Month, this one will have multiple authors as well as rejoinders. The idea for it arose from Francois Godement’s observations that the European powers are not much interested in becoming involved in the maritime struggles between China and its neighbors or in the North Korean nuclear crisis. Unlike the era of the Cold War, when developments tied to the global Soviet-US confrontation had ramifications in every region, Europeans have narrowed their sights. Not long thereafter came news of Togo Kazuhiko’s observation that Japanese and Russian national interests do not overlap in Ukraine, while he posited that the civilizational quest in both countries to cast off excessive westernization creates an opportunity for finding common cause. France and Japan both face the challenge of deciding to what extent they share a regional civilization with the longstanding objects of their respective civilizational debates—Russian and China—and the main object of recent civilizational differentiation—the United States. As they respond to an ally’s pressure to broaden their horizons in support of international security and “universal values,” and as they weigh how to balance the challenges from China and Russia to the world order, much can be learned about the nature of the civilizational divide ahead—in East and West—and its growing impact on international relations.

The framework for renewed analysis of civilizational divides is that: Russians regard their neighborhood to the west not as a “common European house,” but as a region historically split into two alien forces—in ethnicity, religion, values, and, following the Soviet precedent, geopolitical interests—; and Chinese consider East Asia as a region once united but later irreconcilably separated by Japan’s deviation from the Chinese civilizational order, leaving it fundamentally divided into two alien forces.
Russia considers Ukraine to be a part of its civilization, but others recognize a divide between East and West Ukraine as the line between those who identify as part of the broader European community and those who prefer to stick close to Russia and fear the spread of Western civilization. Similarly, China deems the Korean Peninsula to be an inherent part of its civilizational sphere, treating North Korea’s deviations as not meriting concern as a challenge to this sphere even if they warrant some reproof but South Korea’s embrace of the West as an enduring challenge. The Japanese are now responding to China’s effort to make their country a pariah in Asia. The French face no comparable threat, but are, likewise, confronted with a trio of civilizational forces amidst realignment: Russia, China, and the United States in Europe and Asia.

Togo Kazuhiko in the June issue of Sekai presents a civilizational analysis for why Japan and Russia can find common ground even as each is feeling under pressure in the region with which it is preoccupied. The case for Russia includes the fact that it is pivoting to Asia—even more so since the crisis over Ukraine has severely strained relations in the West—and prefers to have multiple partners, not just China. Putin is determined to shift Russian national identity further from the West, which makes him amenable to a partner engaged in a similar quest, i.e., Japan, Togo argues. In the way he explains the struggle over Ukraine and Japan’s own struggle over its identity, Togo opens a window on a civilizational search that is splitting the United States and its allies in unexpected ways rather than uniting them behind a common security identity and shared belief in an international community based on universal values.

The impression conveyed by Togo is that the United States and EU are a separate civilization without universal validity, China has been resuscitated as an alternative civilization without broad regional appeal, and countries such as Japan and Russia (India presumably) are in the midst of defining themselves in opposition to the West and China. Some states are on the front lines of a civilizational tug-of-war, especially Ukraine—split between its west and east. (Some in Japan would put South Korea and North Korea in this category too). Given this divide in Ukraine, Japan should not be harsh on Russia for supporting those who see themselves as part of the Russian civilization. The real danger is not what happens to Ukraine, but Russia turning to China as the only alternative to the West, perhaps leading to (on the basis of shared communist legacies) a civilizational alliance. At the same time, having failed in its quest for Asianism as an expression of its civilization, Japan narrowly defined its postwar goals from 1945 to 1989, succeeding in realizing them without resolving how to reassert its civilizational identity. The Heisei era from that time has been a period of searching, much as Russia has been searching for the “Russian idea.” The leader who best articulated this quest was Obuchi Keizo in the late 1990s with his call for “fukoku, yudoku” (a rich and ethical country). Abe is carrying forward the effort to put the postwar regime behind and, as a strong leader, reassert Japanese identity. This quest has a domestic component, but also an international one. With Putin and Abe both struggling against negativism about national identity and past overdependence on the West with negative consequences for national identity, the opportunity exists for reimagining each other as partners in this identity quest as in the assertion of national interests versus one power—the United States for Russia and China for Japan—without falling into the arms of another, which is beckoning.

A June article by Shimotomai Nobuo in Shinbun kenkyu takes the civilizational case to an extreme, insisting that not only is the divide between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy behind the crisis, mass media in the West are looking through the wrong prism by seeing this as the revival of the Soviet Union, and Japanese media are also one-sided in following this distortion. This argument avoids the term “international community,” which would need to be defended, by accentuating the longstanding struggle between religions that resulted in an enduring civilizational divide.1

For Japan, the prospect of sustaining Abe’s search for a breakthrough with Putin in conditions of military conflict in Ukraine, for which Putin is blamed in the West, puts relations with the United States at some risk. It divides the world into Europe and Asia, as two autonomous arenas for national security and civilizational struggles. If Japan has agreed, along with others in the G7, to some sanctions on Russia, where it is the only state not part of the West, it has conveyed the message that these are the minimum possible, intended to inflict no harm on the Russian economy and not to stop momentum in the Abe-Putin relationship. Yet, this strategy is at a crossroads. As explained in the Review Article posted simultaneous to this posting, Russia has pressed Japan by the first part of September to send Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro to Moscow as planned and recommit to the bilateral relationship. Meanwhile, Putin’s arming of separatists in eastern Ukraine and military build-up along the border are hardening the US resolve to intensify sanctions with support in the EU. Straddling the two appears less possible for Japan, as some say that it is time to declare openly that Abe has in mind a civilizational partnership—the deal on the disputed islands is not the main objective—and others argue that Abe has alienated the United States enough over the past year, and open defiance over Russia now raises troublesome parallels with how countries should respond if China similarly uses military force.

The flip side of the coin is European reluctance to get involved in restraining recent Chinese military assertiveness in East Asia. While France’s security community is attuned to the interdependence of Europe and Asia, as seen in a defense white paper of 2013 (La France et la Securite en Asie-Pacifique), the French Foreign Ministry and the business community appear less concerned about such interdependence. The following reasons were noted when I interviewed officials and specialists in Paris: 1) economic dependence on China and the sense that it has not crossed any red line; 2) a lack of French muscle in the region; 3) bureaucratic fragmentation in Paris; 4) a view that France is already heavily committed in North Africa and the Middle East; 5) the absence of European coordination and any other European power ready to lead the way; and 6) doubt about the Obama “pivot” and a tendency to wait for the United States to assert leadership in this region, which is not now strongly felt. In some responses, I heard that Japan’s revisionist historical narrative may also pose a problem. A general atmosphere of passivity in facing the challenges of great power confrontations is evident, extending to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but while the response to Russia has toughened over the summer of 2014, Asia now seems even more peripheral to European security. Unlike Japan, there is no identity quest left from the Cold War era or search for a partner to boost identity as part of the West.

The purpose of Topics of the Month is to promote a lively exchange of opinions; so I do not hesitate to give my view that narrow thinking about civilizations and regions is self-defeating for Japan and France, as for other allies and close security partners of the United States. First, US leadership is recognized by them as indispensable, but undercutting that by insisting that it only requires support in one’s own immediate region has wider ramifications. If Washington is weakened by the absence of a large “coalition of the willing” in one case, that will reverberate in other cases, particularly when states in one region wonder why they should back states elsewhere that failed to come to their aid. Second, economic globalization, e.g. the rising percentage of the trade of France with Asia, makes it more imperative to develop a global approach to defense and security rather than accustoming China to expect that it can use its new clout to oblige states to refrain from challenging its aggressive moves and Russia to expect that its supply of energy exempts it from pressure in response to aggression. Third, it is not enough to pay lip service to the international community; reaffirming its principles—standing behind freedom of navigation and universal values—serves shared objectives throughout the world. Fourth, it is time to recognize shared space in the gap between East and West, such as the Indian Ocean and India as a linkage, which Japan is actively pursuing and France is cultivating as well with an eye both to the next wave of economic opportunities and security ties. Fifth, another shared element is the link-up in developing WMD capabilities between North Korea and Iran. Finally, it is important to recognize that the world is reentering a period of bipolarity of greater complexity than in the Cold War with China and the United States as the principal adversaries and Russia drawing ever closer to China. If the French version of wishful thinking is to doubt China’s role in this confrontation and the Japanese version is to doubt Russia’s role, as many idealistically deny parallels to the earlier Cold War, then the case is greatly weakened to join across regional and civilizational lines to strengthen deterrence, develop the intellectual framework for the emerging era, and increase solidarity for conditional engagement that promises the best chance of steering relations between great powers onto a peaceful track.

The United States is expected to provide leadership and has been faulted in both Japan and France for falling short on critical, recent challenges. Yet, in the summer of 2014 on Russia and China, US leadership has not been in doubt. Blaming a lack of US leadership for thinking and policies that actually undermine that leadership is not convincing. The time has come for a more coherent and global approach that places emphasis on the international community with limited room for civilizational differences. Overemphasis on the separation of East and West and the civilizational arguments of China and Russia is a recipe for splitting the international community.


1. Shimotomai Nobuo, “Kiki no haikei niaru Tozai no nijusei: rekishi to shukyo no shiten kara,” Shinbun kenkyu, November 6, 2014, 38-42.