ASIA MEDIA INTERNATIONAL FOUNDER TOM PLATE WRITES – So what’s in a phrase? Sometimes, it seems, a great deal, but not always what the glib phrase maker intended. History, we learn, often gets the last laugh.
Our story begins years ago, you see, with a highly esteemed lady of the Washington establishment (in fact, back then, she was our secretary of state – and no, not the former First Lady now running for the presidency and, no, not the one from the Republican side of the aisle, but a lady who shall go nonetheless nameless). She once described the U.S., via national TV no less, as the “indispensible nation.”
It was a phrase that made you catch your breath in the extraordinary foolish width of its hubris – especially as it came out of the mouth of someone then America’s First Diplomat. I was on a reporting trip to Washington at the time, and when Singapore’s then ambassador – the charismatic and popular Chan Heng Chee – bluntly asked me my opinion of the remark, I was so embarrassed by our country and the undiplomatic hubris its secretary of state that I hardly knew what to say. (And I’m sure that whatever I did manage to blurt out must have been totally lame).
It’s embarrassing to be an American when your country acts like a spoiled brat, which sometimes happens, though (I would propose) generally more out of immaturity than anything more sinister. Now another example of a juvenile hubris high comes our way: the embarrassing revelation that our national security apparatus has been eavesdropping on Japanese officials as if they were Asian versions of KGB operatives.
You know, we’re talking about Japan – our closest alley in Asia. Right, that Japan. Pacifist Japan … lost the war … rebuilt almost everything from the ground up – now one of the greatest economies and still one of its most refined cultures.
The disclosure of U.S. bugging of Japanese officials and industry figures comes discourtesy of Wiki Leaks (can’t those guys ever keep a secret?!). It seems that the invasive clandestine program dates back years. The targets were apparently the usual VIP suspects (the prime minister, etc), with the U.S. learning this and that about Japanese diplomacy.
What did this shady effort reveal? It gave U.S. trade negotiators advance content – what the Japanese bottom lines would be in talks; and it revealed that sometimes our prime Asian ally would tell us everything we needed to know but sometimes it would not. Shocked? Don’t be, folks: – such is more or less the behavior of all governments, friends as well as foes. Nations will make decisions based on their own national interests – not on ours. (The political theory of the ally is that in this respect the overlap of core interests is very significant.)
This latest disclosure about Japan comes on the heels of a slew of prior wicked revelations, perhaps most notably the 2013 bombshell from the Edward Snowden camp of the bugging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Germany, by the way, is another (allegedly) very close ally of the U.S.
It may be predicted that subtle and skillful Japanese diplomacy will wrap a huge Asian quietude around the hurt, for as long as possible, and not fire off verbal rockets of mass destruction at the Obama administration, as did the Germans.
(By the way, I thought Angela Merkel had every right to blow her top – good for her.)
Why does the U.S. do the things it does? In part, particularly with regard to electronic eavesdropping, we do it because we can do it. Technology does empower us, but sometimes in ways where we would be better off powerless. Best example: the technology of nuclear warfare. Second-best perhaps: drone warfare in foreign lands.
“Target Tokyo,” is what we Americans termed our snarky snooping. I do feel for the Japanese. Between all the push and pull from Beijing these days, and all the perfidy from Washington, one might even develop a measure of sympathy for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the man caught in the middle of this tight geopolitical squeeze.
Speaking of Beijing: China’s leader Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit with Barack Obama next month. I wonder whether the U.S. president will whine much about Chinese computer hacking now that the world knows what we do to even our allies!
America as the ‘indispensible nation’? It looks like our hubris has notched up to an even more unseemly level: Now we appear to have designated ourselves as the world’s ‘indispensible eavesdropper’.
This is not a compliment.
Columnist Tom Plate, the author of the “Fine Art of the Political Interview,” his new book due out this month, is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University.