Argument

Japan's Own Worst Enemy?

Shinzo Abe is at the height of his popularity. But is he too much of a right-wing nut to save the country's economy?

Unceremoniously forced to resign as Japan's prime minister in 2007 after only a year in office, Shinzo Abe spent five years in the political wilderness. Few expected that he would return to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), one of Japan's two major political parties, let alone the country. But in September 2012, the party reinstated him as its leader, and three months later, so did Japan's voters. "Japan is back," Abe declared in a February speech in Washington; he could have been talking about himself as well.

His government enjoys public approval numbers as high as 72 percent, a level not seen this far into a Japanese prime minister's term for more than a decade. His economic program -- dubbed "Abenomics" -- is winning plaudits at home and abroad as a bold attempt to tackle Japan's "lost two decades" of sluggish growth, stagnant wages, and persistent deflation, while voters are tolerating his attempts to deliver on cherished conservative goals like revising the constitution and strengthening Japan's military. As Japan's benchmark index the Nikkei reached a five-year high, and the Japanese economy grew at an annualized 3.5 percent rate in the first quarter, it's tempting to call Abe a success. The Economist did -- in their May 18 issue, the editors put Abe on the cover, dressed as Superman.

Although the Nikkei's 7.3 percent drop on Thursday may remove some of the shine, the fact remains that Abe is perhaps in the strongest position of any Japanese prime minister since  the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. With opposition parties in disarray and a comfortable LDP majority in the Diet, Japan's parliament, Abe could institute the economic reforms that Japan needs -- if he doesn't get distracted by right-wing obsessions.

That's what happened in 2006, when he took power as the anointed heir of his immensely popular predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. During his five years in office, Koizumi focused on economic reform, cleaning up the balance sheets of Japan's banks, privatizing inefficient public corporations, and limiting the growth of government deficits. Many hoped Abe would continue fixing the economy, but he instead expended his political capital on changing the country's education law to emphasize patriotic education, elevating the defense agency to a full ministry, and laying the groundwork for revising Japan's pacifist constitution. Instead of practicing multilateral diplomacy with unstable North Korea, Abe's government obsessed over resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

In his Dec. 2012 campaign, Abe promised to overcome deflation and restore economic growth. Since entering office, he has proposed a "three arrows" economic policy: raising the Bank of Japan's inflation target and instituting a $1.4 trillion bond-buying program; unveiling a $116 billion fiscal stimulus package; and developing an economic growth strategy emphasizing, among other things, more resources for medical technology and opportunities for women in the workforce.

Reforms are indeed necessary -- Japan's economy is in bad shape. Despite faster-than-expected GDP growth, business investment continued to fall in the first quarter. Moreover, Japanese salaries and bonuses have stagnated for more than a decade, while employers have become increasingly dependent on low-wage temporary workers, who now make up more than a third of the workforce. Indeed, some economists wonder whether Japan's aging population, nearly a quarter of which is over 65, will ever be able to make up the demand shortfall that has produced prolonged deflation, or whether the Japanese economy will be able to achieve increases in productivity sufficient to offset the shrinking workforce.

It is hard to say how much credit Abe deserves even for the positive figures. The government's stimulus package is still making its way into the hands of households and businesses, the Bank of Japan's asset purchases are still too small, and the third arrow growth strategies are at the moment still aspirational. The danger remains that Abe will redirect his attention to the right-wing issues close to his heart. "Many people know that the real interest of Prime Minister Abe is not in economics," Taro Aso, Abe's finance minister, told the Wall Street Journal in April. "When he is equipped with full power and authority, he would rather work harder for his pet interests such as education and constitutional amendments."

In advance of this summer's elections for the upper house of the Diet, Abe had indicated that his government's plan to revise Article 96 of the Japanese constitution, which dictates amendment procedures, would be the centerpiece of his party's campaign. If this succeeds, it would make it easier to pass more substantive revisions, like changing Article 9, which prohibits Japan from waging war.

Abe has drawn criticism from across Asia for remarks he made in the Diet in late April questioning whether it is proper to say that Japan "invaded" its neighbors -- not unlike during his first term when he questioned whether sex slaves used by the Japanese military during the war had been coerced. And in early May, he sent an envoy to Pyongyang to explore the possibility of resolving the abductions issue, even though it could undermine U.S. and South Korean efforts to contain the North Korean regime.

But his victory in December and still-lofty approval numbers do not signify that the Japanese public is also moving to the right. A mid-May poll by the major daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun suggests that the basis for the cabinet's support is the government's economic policies, and not support for Abe or his party. Multiple polls show that the public is deeply divided over whether and how to revise Japan's constitution. While discussing constitution revision is no longer the taboo it once was, it is by no means a priority for most Japanese.

If there is one enduring fact about Japanese politics over the past decade, it is the public's willingness to support any leader who promises to improve the economy, and then follows through on his promises. Abe's approval numbers should not be viewed as an endorsement of anything other than his economic program -- and the belief that he is actually capable of following through on them.

Fixing Japan's economy won't be easy, as Thursday's sharp decline in the Nikkei shows. Ensuring that the three arrows hit their marks will require unremitting focus on the part of the archer, something that Abe may not be able to provide.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Freedom Begins at Home

How can the Obama administration credibly promote freedom of speech abroad while restricting it in the United States?

The investigation and potential indictment of investigative journalists for the crime of doing their jobs well enough to make the government squirm is nothing new. It happens all over the world, and is part of what the Obama administration has fought against in championing press and Internet freedom globally. By allowing its own campaign against national security leaks to become grounds for trampling free expression, the administration has put a significant piece of its very own foreign policy and human rights legacy at risk.

The United States has always seen and styled itself as a global standard-bearer on free expression, and never more so than during the last four years. The U.S. Constitution and First Amendment offer the most protective standard for free speech in the world. In June 1992, the United States even lodged a "reservation" or exception to a key provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, governing what categories of expression can be banned, on grounds that the global treaty doesn't go far enough in safeguarding speech. U.S. diplomats tout the reservation with pride, noting that virtually every other country in the world is more tolerant of limits on expression.

The Obama administration has made the promotion of free speech a signature of its own foreign policy. Upon joining the United Nations's Human Rights Council in Geneva for the first time in 2009, the United States's maiden initiative in September 2009 was a resolution on free expression. The administration waged a successful two-year campaign to put an end to U.N. resolutions that sought to ban the so-called "defamation of religion," arguing that the prohibitions conflicted with international norms on free speech.

The administration was quick to identify the risks to free expression online, and to position itself as a primary defender of digital freedom. In 2011, for the first time ever, Washington hosted the U.N. World Press Freedom Day commemoration. It put digital freedom at center stage, inviting bloggers and journalists from all over the world to discuss the challenges they face. To mark the occasion, the State Department press release voiced concern "about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put both personal political capital and financial resources behind an effort to promote free expression online. In a December 2011 speech in The Hague, Clinton decried governments for wanting to "keep what they like and which doesn't threaten them and suppress what they don't" and called for stepped-up efforts to defend and protect journalists and bloggers. In 2012, she stated, "when a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere." The State Department documented these attacks in its own annual human rights country reports, calling out Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa for verbal attacks on specific journalists and the government of Ethiopia for using counterterrorism laws as an excuse for persecuting writers. Late last year, in one of her final speeches in office at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Clinton called out Belarus and several Central Asian countries for intimidating journalists and restricting online expression while admitting "every participating state, including the United States, has room for improvement."

The commitment did not stop at Foggy Bottom. In a message of his own last spring, the president "call[ed] on all governments to protect the ability of journalists, bloggers, and dissidents to write and speak freely without retribution and... recogniz[e] the vital role of a free press and tak[e] the necessary steps to create societies in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear." In the last few years the United States has spent tens of millions annually to train and support journalists, human rights groups, and cyberactivists on Internet freedom and methods to secure online communications.

Living up to such lofty rhetoric and ambition has not been easy. The Obama administration's response to the WikiLeaks episode and its determination to pursue capital offense charges against Private Bradley Manning after his guilty plea have led to cries of hypocrisy. The administration's support for legislation and policies that would afford federal agencies broad power to carry out surveillance, circumvent privacy and security systems, and intercept online communications without a warrant from a court have met with staunch criticism from open Internet advocates, sometimes prompting the White House to reverse course. While the president has said that civil liberties must not be traded away in the name of security, his aggressive approach to prosecuting national security leaks within the administration's own ranks has put the rights of those targeted in jeopardy, and risks chilling the free flow of expression and government criticism far more broadly.

Revelations during the last week of government investigations of the Associated Press and of Fox News journalists only deepen the contradictions. Disclosure that the FBI officials viewed Fox reporter James Rosen as a candidate for potential prosecution as a co-conspirator in unlawful leaks over North Korean nukes, that they searched his emails and even began asking questions about phone lines connected to his parents have made international news. In his 2012 World Press Freedom Day release, President Obama spotlighted jailed Vietnamese blogger Dieu Cay and Eritrean journalist Dawit Issak by name, putting a human face on the victims of government overreach and helping make their plight visible worldwide. The naming and photographs of Rosen and his targeted colleagues William La Jeunesse and producer Mike Levine have likewise struck home with the media and the public.

It will take many months to fully expose the actions of the FBI and the Justice Department in targeting journalists, and to determine how the damage can be mitigated and prevented in the future. What has been revealed thus far, though, is already enough to tarnish America's global credibility in pressing for media freedom. The next time U.S. diplomats try to push for greater protection for journalists in Turkey or Russia, the AP and Fox scandals will be thrown back in their faces. When they decry government surveillance of the media in China or Iran, those governments will point a finger back to Washington. While U.S. officials can and will point out that outrage and national debate over these scandals itself attests to the degree of press freedom enjoyed in the United States, that won't be enough to defeat the charge of hypocrisy and eroded U.S. credibility.

And the issue goes beyond free speech. The U.S. government remains leery of having the lens of global scrutiny over human rights practices trained on its own conduct. While the State Department's report on country performance in addressing trafficking in persons includes a chapter on America's own practices, the Department's human rights report still leaves out the United States. And while U.N. human rights rapporteurs covering many topics are welcomed to U.S. shores, those requesting to visit Guantánamo and meet privately with the detainees there have never been allowed. When foreign governments use diplomatic meetings to raise issues like Guantánamo or over-incarceration in the United States, American officials tend to bristle or simply to throw up their hands at the improbable notion that the views of the State Department, much less those of a foreign government, would influence the conduct of the FBI, the Prisons Bureau, or -- still more outlandish -- the Pentagon or intelligence officials responsible for detainees.

Part of the reason for this disconnect is structural. Because the United States is not used to viewing its own behavior through the filter of international human rights obligations, relatively little thought is given to the implications of a loudly proclaimed administration commitment to advancing press and Internet freedom on the conduct of U.S. domestic agencies. The idea that the United States better make sure the nose of its own far-flung bureaucracy is clean before -- or at least while -- it sniffs out the abuses of others is a mostly unfamiliar one. The Justice Department and FBI officials responsible for targeting the Fox and AP journalists probably didn't get a memo saying that the president and secretary of state had called out other countries for spying on and seizing the records of journalists. It will be interesting to learn whether the instructions they received on investigating the national security leaks stressed the importance of respecting the bounds of the First Amendment. There are representatives of the Justice Department that take part in representing and defending the U.S. human rights record globally, working alongside colleagues from the White House, State Department, and other agencies. But their role has focused more on asserting the strengths of America's record than on addressing its weaknesses. Until they are empowered to drive forward human rights compliance within the Justice Department and the rest of the executive branch, their role is more accurately described as packaging rather than promoting human rights performance.

No government will ever meet the standard of 100 percent principled consistency in its behavior. But until the United States accepts that it is bound not only by U.S. law but also by international human rights obligations in areas including freedom of speech, the Obama administration -- and its successors -- are likely to continue to fall short in fulfilling at home the obligations it demands of others abroad.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images