Saturday, May 24, 2014

“Self-defense” and the Past that Prime Ministers Repeat Anyway

I received a “quick” question about “[t]he stories about a new ministerial portfolio specifically to deal with the use of force issue.” I’m putting my response (lightly edited) in the public domain in the hopes that others will find it useful too.

The question may be quick, but the answer is not. Where to start and, more important, where to stop?

Every reform-minded prime minister (and even those that aren’t) tries to transcend interagency rivalries by setting up HQs, offices and what have you for his pet policy initiatives around the prime minister’s office and putting political appointees—often cabinet ministers or, quite often, himself—in charge. But when a new prime minister arrives, he is likely to have his own priorities (or may share his predecessor’s but wants to put his personal stamp on it), usually resulting in yet more what-have-yous around the prime minister’s office. Over time, they accumulate until yet another reform-minded prime minister assumes power and decides to scrape away the barnacles of initiatives past, so that he can start anew and this time get it right… 

Prime ministers do this not necessarily out of mistrust of the bureaucracy or the ministers that lead them. In this case, MOFA as an institution has always favored a strong defense posture—do not think for a moment that Ambassador Yachi is one of those ex-MOFA outliers who are startlingly and openly critical of MOFA and more generally Japan’s foreign policy—and the MOD civilians and the JSDF leadership largely lean in the same direction, although they do not like to see their budget stretched because of the expanded demands. (Which reminds me of MOF, who is the major force on the sidelines. The Ministry of Justice is irrelevant.) But someone has to set the agenda and there are so many devils in the details, so it does make sense to put someone in charge—on paper. In practice, that person, even a cabinet minister, must rely on a bureaucracy consisting mostly of career bureaucrats, mostly seconded from those very ministries until their typical two-year assignments are up, after which they go back where they came from. In the meantime, that minister cannot issue orders directly to the ministries and other agencies to comply.

The more interesting question, if Mr. Abe does decide to assign a specific portfolio, is whom he assigns it to. If he puts himself or the chief cabinet secretary in charge, it won’t mean much beyond the initial agenda-setting phase, since each has too many other things to tend to on a day-to-day basis to give proper attention to the actual implementation phase. And do not imagine that even that limited role will survive past Mr. Abe’s tenure except in name. If he assigns it to a cabinet minister without ministerial portfolio, there will be a little more action, particularly if that minister is on good terms with the MOFA and MOD ministers and he/she has true expertise, neither of which is not a given. (Thought experiment: There’s huge competence gap even between the most ardent NASCAR fan and the most incompetent NASCAR driver.) However, the guarantee of whatever effectiveness this arrangement has lasts only as long as Abe’s tenure. The most interesting twist will come if Abe decides to anoint the head of MOFA or (less likely) MOD as the minister in charge of national security. For that minister will have been set up as the senior-most of the ministers with ministerial portfolio and can bring to bear the full force of a ministerial bureaucracy that will have an institutional interest in maintaining and reinforcing its newfound institutional superiority. That is, until a new prime minister comes in—Mr. Abe will not stay on forever, even with the new miracle drugn that has restored his health—and decides to do it, you know, his/her(?) way.

PS: Actually, only two current cabinet ministers really matter on this question: Prime Minister Abe, and Akihiro Ota, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

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