Why GZERO world needs Japan more than ever

When I first began writing about the "GZERO" era of global politics nearly a decade ago (the G-8 and G-20 were constantly in headlines back then, hence the name), not many countries took the phenomenon seriously. Japan was the exception, and quick to realise the dangers of living in a world without true geopolitical leadership.

That foresight, paired with its unique geopolitical situation today, means Japan has both an opportunity and a responsibility to play a leading role in our current GZERO world.

It is not hyperbolic to say that Japan is the world's healthiest major democracy this year. Some of that can be attributed to the wave of populism that has gripped the Western democracies that used to contend for that title, but much more of it has to do with the nature of Japan's democracy itself.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is about to become the country's longest-serving leader, a sign that where other countries' people have given in to polarised politics, Japan's people have avoided that impulse.

Yet the strength of Japan's democracy goes beyond who leads the country. Among major industrialised markets, Japan can lay claim to being the most equal society in terms of income distribution, bolstered by institutions that have more legitimacy among their respective populace than anywhere else in the world.

Japan's private sector is among the world's most pioneering, which I've seen with my own eyes after years of regular travel there. And Japan takes that cutting-edge private sector and pairs it with social safety nets that actually work. If the rest of the West had such well-functioning social services, they'd be experiencing a lot less populism today. The world can learn plenty from today's Japan.

This is not to say that Japan is without problems - public debt and the battle to keep it under control continue to challenge the country's political leaders and technocrats.

Japan is also in the midst of a demographic decline, which must be proactively addressed - like most modern and complex economies in today's world, Japan stands to gain from being more welcoming to both migrants and women into its workforce.

But neither of these issues overshadows the advantages Japan's stable democracy provides. And the world needs a country with those advantages now more than ever.

 
 
 
 

Mr Abe's recent outreach to private-and public-sector leaders in countries such as Germany, India, Iran and a variety of African countries was a step in the right direction, but Japan must go even further. That's particularly true given its proven ability to maintain stable relations with the Trump administration, making Japan a useful bridge between the US and other countries that have had less success on that front.

While many of the current advantages Japan's democracy enjoys this year are unique to the country itself, it's also true that it did not get to this point without help.

Following World War II, the global community came together to rebuild itself and created an international system that enabled countries to flourish. Japan was one of the largest beneficiaries of that post-war system - which means it has an obligation and a right to help the world figure out what system should replace it.

And let's be clear - no matter who wins US elections next year, the old Pax Americana, the US-led world order, is not returning.

To Japan's credit, it has begun taking a more proactive approach. While the US and the United Kingdom - two of the critical pillars of the old world order - have spent the last few years mired in their own domestic political dramas, Japan has stepped into the void to help ensure major international crises and initiatives don't spin out of control (think Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and so on) while the world, Japan included, figures out what comes next.

Japan has also started making more strategic decisions for its own benefit in areas where it has direct interests at stake, working towards an Indo-Pacific security framework, a data governance structure post-Osaka, and a US-Japan bilateral trade deal, among others.

The direction the world is moving in today will provide Japan with more opportunities for leadership going forward. Increasingly, we are seeing geopolitical competition in the field of technology (often referred to as "geotechnology"), where Japan's strong track record of innovation and willingness to deploy world-changing technologies early give it significant advantages.

And as the US-China tech cold war intensifies, Japan is in position to help spearhead tech leadership in the West.

Japan today has a decision to make. While it has serious domestic issues of its own to look after, it is also faced with the choice of whether to shoulder new global responsibilities. It should.

Japan no longer has the luxury of letting others lead, or to ignore the many trends reshaping the rest of the world - while populism might not be a problem in Japan, it does remain a problem for Japan, given the international system it is currently upending.

Japan's destiny will be more globally - and technologically - driven than ever before in its history. The Japanese people will be forced to look beyond their islands as they commit to helping uphold and then reshape a new global order - not just on the open seas for the free flow of goods and services, but also across the cyber and data domains.

This is why we are holding our GZERO summit in Tokyo, and we are committed to holding this forum every year to bring the world to Japan and to analyse the latest trends in geopolitics, geo-economics and geotechnology.

Japan's leading role in the GZERO world has never been more clear than it is today, and it is an opportunity it should seize, both for its own sake and for everyone else's.

• Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also co-chairman of Eurasia Group's GZERO Summit, to be held in Tokyo on Nov 18.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2019, with the headline 'Why GZERO world needs Japan more than ever'. Print Edition | Subscribe