The experience of Japan's Yukio Hatoyama shows just how much the U.S. dislikes allies questioning the terms of the relationship.
For a glimpse of the fate that might await Britain's Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg in Washington were he to become U.K. Prime Minister, one need only look at the trials and tribulations of Yukio Hatoyama, Japan's inexperienced leader who took office last year.
Like Mr. Clegg, Mr. Hatoyama proposed a more equal, less subservient bilateral relationship. He wanted to explore alternative alliances, including closer ties with China. He even suggested closing a U.S. military base. Now he is paying the price of his effrontery.
Attending last month's nuclear summit in Washington, Mr. Hatoyama's officials lobbied hard for a one-on-one meeting between their man and President Barack Obama. The request was brusquely rebuffed. Instead, the Japanese Prime Minister had to settle for a rushed 10 minutes sitting next to Mr, Obama at dinner, making his points while his host consulted the menu. In Tokyo, his treatment was described as humiliating.
More extraordinary still, according to U.S. press accounts, Mr. Obama bluntly informed Mr. Hatoyama that he was “running out of time” to settle the dispute over relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenma, on Okinawa, and asked him to his face whether he could be trusted. Visiting Okinawa on Tuesday, Mr. Hatoyama seemed to be preparing the ground for a climbdown, suggesting some base facilities would remain.
Japanese officials were reportedly so affronted by Mr. Obama's rudeness that they did not distribute the usual written record of the exchanges. It got worse.
Mr. Hatoyama's presumption in appearing to challenge U.S. security interests, and Mr. Obama's rough handling of him, led Washington Post gossip columnist Al Kamen to label him the summit's “biggest loser”. Mr. Kamen said Mr. Obama administration officials had ridiculed the Japanese leader as “increasingly loopy”. This in turn provoked media frenzy in Japan, as translators tried to establish exactly how insulting “loopy” really was.
A top aide to Mr. Hatoyama criticised the term as “somewhat impolite”. But then, to everyone's amazement, Mr. Hatoyama went to the Diet (parliament) and suggested, self-deprecatingly, that the description might be accurate. “As the Washington Post says, I may certainly be a foolish Prime Minister,” he said, before going on to admit that he could have handled the Futenma base issue sooner and better.
Mr. Hatoyama's Democratic party won in a landslide last August, ending 50 years of almost unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democrats who by and large submitted unquestioningly to Washington's will. His ideas about giving Japan a more independent voice in the world, of loosening the American harness, were actually quite modest and mostly unlikely to be implemented. But far from respecting the voters' verdict, the U.S. responded with bullying, name-calling, and exaggerated warnings about the consequences for Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, culminating in the banquet snub. Now Mr. Hatoyama's self-criticism suggests he may not last much longer.
Given his relatively more provocative views on nuclear disarmament, closer British ties with a united Europe, and the importance of upholding human rights, even in “war on terror” conflict zones, “prime minister” Clegg could be assured of a yet rougher reception in Washington — though even brasher Americans might hesitate to suggest the elected leader of their closest military ally was off his nut.
Mr. Clegg might also wonder, in such circumstances, how long he might be able to hold on to power. Mr. Hatoyama must certainly be wondering himself. The growing perception among Japanese voters that he is weakly bowing to U.S. demands on Futenma has greatly undermined him. A majority believes he should resign if he loses the Futenma fight or misses his self-imposed deadline of the end of May for settling it.
In the latest poll his approval rating is down to 21 per cent. As President, Mr. Obama has gained a reputation, fairly or unfairly, for appeasing upstart dictators while dissin' old allies. Mr. Hatoyama's crusade against Japan's “old politics” looks like being one casualty.
If he were to take office Mr. Clegg would also encounter formidable U.S. hostility to some of his ideas. He might do well to consult Tokyo's thwarted change-maker before venturing across the Atlantic.