All-out effort needed to learn successful virus response by FUNABASHI Yoichi and HOSOYA Yuichi

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on September 7, 2020:

API Geoeconomic Briefing

September 7, 2020

All-out effort needed to learn successful virus response


Chairman, Asia Pacific Initiative (API)


HOSOYA Yuichi,
Research Director, Asia Pacific Initiative (API);
Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University



This is the final installment of a four-part series of conversations between FUNABASHI Yoichi and HOSOYA Yuichi about how the world may look in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.


Funabashi: In the postwar international society, the prevailing view has been that a “good” society is a democracy that achieves economic growth, using gross domestic product as the standard metric.

Not only capitalist countries in the West, but also socialist ones in the East, have regarded higher living standards and full employment as ideal. These goals are incorporated into the Charter of the United Nations and the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

That member states with vastly different political systems could accept what could be considered a civilized concept may support the progressive view of history — the idea that history is a constant march onward and upward.

But a question must surely be asked as to whether the coronavirus crisis has thrown our perspective on civilization and this way of viewing history into question.


Humans vs. virus

Hosoya: There are two ways of looking at history: Progressivism and conservatism. Both approaches are significant.

Conservatism shares the belief that the essence of history, society and humans will stay the same and always go through the same changes. Based on this recognition, it represents a cyclical view of history.

Given this perspective, I think the concept of balance now holds the key. Now that mutual cooperation and collaboration in the international community has receded so much, order may only be created on balance. The most pressing issue is to establish the new balance of power between the United States and China.

Balance is not an issue specific to the international order. The balance between a state’s power and its citizens’ rights, a topic we raised in the other parts of this series, pertains to the quality of democracy. We are also facing a much bigger challenge — the balance between humans and nature.

I am painfully aware through the experience with the current health crisis that I had previously overlooked the idea of the balance between people and a virus.

William H. McNeill, the late renowned historian who taught at the University of Chicago, contends in his book “Plagues and Peoples” that, through the development of an inorganic energy using modern science and technology, humans’ ability to change the natural balance between competing living creatures has been amplified extremely.

Today, the biological revolution is progressing at a rapid speed due mainly to human interventions in natural ecosystems, McNeill argues, and a new infectious disease can emerge and spread as part of the adjustments or re-adjustments of ecological relations.

Since the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, we must have grown overconfident that humans can overcome infectious diseases. But even after that declaration, we have been threatened with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the Ebola outbreak and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), among others.

The coronavirus crisis unfolded as the globalization of supply chains accelerated. In line with McNeill’s arguments, it is fair to assume that the crisis occurred to adjust ecological relations.


Controlling globalization

Hosoya: If adapting to a lifestyle that avoids the so-called “three Cs” — closed spaces, crowded places and close contact with people — becomes part of a “new normal,” restricting global supply chains and the cross-border movement of people could become so, too.

Countries and people who have monopolized wealth will try to dominate the area of health. Immigrants from lower-income countries with weak public health management will increasingly move to richer and healthier countries.

Curbs on immigration inflows could be the new normal. If that happens, the unconditional globalization that we know may be transformed into “managed globalization,” as dubbed by Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organization.

But what would this mean for Japan?

Japan has historically maintained a sophisticated public health system. It has been natural for Japanese people to limit cross-border movement and keep a balance with nature and live together with it.

Because Japan is an island nation, it has been considered a closed society. At the same time, Japan has been fortunate in that waters surrounding the archipelago have somewhat helped it keep free of infections and terrorism.

But, indeed, I believe that we should continue to push for internationalization. By taking advantage of these preconditions and understanding the merits and demerits unique to Japan, it would be important for the country to demonstrate a “new lifestyle” in Japan’s new normal to the world.

Japan could possibly find itself in a relatively good position in the post-pandemic world, if the country can keep from indulging in self-praise and redress the grave problems that it has.

Funabashi: The coronavirus may be one of a series of threats that will continue. The frequency and intensity of droughts, floods and hurricanes caused by climate change has only increased. I wonder whether virus outbreaks will become more frequent and virulent.

Thinking in this way makes me suspect that the virus may not ever be stamped out completely.

We may have no choice but to count on the combination of mitigating and adapting as well as the power of resiliency. Perhaps we should deem this way of thinking as the best scenario, though for the progressive historical perspective, doing so would be tantamount to admitting our loss to the virus. But to me, this way of thinking is better and more humane than the cyclical view of history.

The cyclical view boils down to resignation. It gives little importance to people’s will and initiative as an agency and easily swings to determinism, a doctrine that all events are completely determined by previously existing causes.

But I disagree that history is predetermined. I think it is built on individuals’ ingenuity, social innovation and leadership.


Peace framework

Funabashi: The long peace that began after World War II has lasted for more than 70 years. Before that, Europe had experienced a 100-year period of peace after the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15, which reorganized the region after the Napoleonic Wars. The peaceful times were enabled by the concept of balance that Mr. Hosoya discussed in a broader context. It still holds in this period, too.

I think that the international order and global governance cannot be created without the sustainable balance of power between major players.

The long peace in 19th century Europe was lost as World War I broke out. American historian and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed that “in the long interval of peace, the sense of the tragic was lost; it was forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable.”

The post-World War II period of peace may be nearing an end because of the coronavirus. But it is not over yet.

The starting point after the coronavirus may be for us to rebuild that postwar peace and order once again. It will become all the more important to work with countries which share the same values as well as with those that have different values but also an enormous influence in the international community. Pursuing world peace and stability based on pragmatism will take on greater importance.

At the same time, we should not forget the idea of balance — the balance of power in international politics.

We should fully recognize the terror of geopolitics and geoeconomics and avoid becoming obsessed with them. Countries must continue to work toward creating a multilateral cooperative international order in line with rules. Japan should aim to serve as a proactive stabilizer and rule-shaper.

I would like to discuss the challenges facing Japan in the last part of this dialogue. The coronavirus crisis is still an ongoing issue and an exit strategy is still nowhere in sight. It is difficult to predict the end point and how Japan should approach the post-coronavirus era.

Hosoya: Humans are hardwired to resist change, even if they want it. Unless we confront a real crisis, I reckon that a radical reform will be extremely difficult.

Looking back on modern history, Japan underwent two separate crises — the pressure from Western powers to open to the world toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and World War II.

Japan managed to come out of a crisis that began at the end of the Edo Period thanks to the Meiji Restoration, a chain of revolutionary events that ended the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate and established a government centered on the emperor, and the modernization policy of the Meiji government.

At around that time, Japan and its people changed dramatically. Men removed their mage topknot hairstyles and wore shirts instead of kimonos, while samurais laid down their swords.

Although Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, the country survived through the ensuing hardships by making flexible changes. Japanese people’s values rapidly transformed after the war. The country’s sovereign power transitioned from the emperor to the people, and the nation renounced war and strove to transform into a society that respected democracy and human rights.

In other words, I believe that the prosperity and peace we enjoy today in Japan was made possible by the Meiji Restoration and other reforms that took place after World War II.


United fight

Hosoya: Countries and people are now in the thick of very difficult and trying times. This makes it all the more important for Japan to change. The country’s fate over the next 100 years probably rests on how it will overcome this crisis and how it will adapt.

Failing in this could lead Japan to lose its status and let its presence in the international community sink.

Japan should seize this opportunity to make changes that would otherwise have been difficult to make and ride out the crisis. If the nation can do this, it may come out of the crisis in a better position than before. One such possibility is that it could hold a more honorable position in international society to become wealthier and keep peace.

For this purpose, as said earlier, we should collect together people’s wisdom with a sense of unity. The role of think tanks is ever-growing, as they are responsible for presenting post-coronavirus visions from a long-term perspective to society.

Funabashi: I agree that changes are required. There is no friend or foe in case of crises like a pandemic. Our enemy is the virus, not other countries or opposing political parties.

So we should shed differences in ideologies and values, among other elements, and have a strong sense that all the people of the world are facing the same threat. It is imperative that we act together with other countries and people as one, while maintaining transparency and visualizing everything needed to protect lives and health.

To weather this crisis, it is vital to have the mindset that we should learn everything we can. It had been Japan’s strength to learn and use lessons learned for improvement and development of the country. Japan is nearing 30 years of its “lost decades” period of economic stagnation, and I think that, over those decades, the country has gotten bad at learning.

I felt this strongly while I was probing into the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March, 2011.

Japan had surprisingly learned nothing from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Before the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Japan’s nuclear policy was based on the assumption that what happened at Chernobyl “will not happen in Japan.”

At that time, policymakers guessed that “our political system is different from the Soviet Union’s” and “Japan is a democratic country with a high level of transparency and science does not come under political control,” and therefore, “There is nothing Japan can learn from the Soviet Union.”

That arrogance and the thinking that Japan has special qualities contributed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We are all vulnerable to radiation. We should have been desperate to learn anything we can.


Narrow victory

Funabashi: The same applies to the current crisis. We are equally weak against the threat of the virus. We should absorb anything we can from South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, which have succeeded in stopping the further spread of infections. It is not a matter of whether we like or dislike these countries or whether we agree with their ideologies.

What we need right now is to win this virus battle. But we cannot expect an easy victory or even a complete victory. We cannot expect to become a high achiever in this fight, either.

We should simply aim to win the fight, even if we are an underachiever. We should hold on to the end.

A narrow victory is acceptable. But it could just as easily be a disastrous victory. We should even be ready to consider this as the best scenario. A miracle will not happen in the viral pandemic. We must break from the notion that Japan is special and learn from the world and fight with it.

As previously mentioned, if Japan cannot overcome this crisis, it could slip from its status as an advanced nation.

Although Japan has experienced setbacks in its more than 100 years of history since the Meiji Restoration, it risks losing the status that it has pursued and attained.

Cultural critic Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) had envisioned what emerged as the Group of Seven nations after World War II as shichi fukujin (seven deities of good fortune).

We are now at a turning point as to whether or not we can retain and develop this status and identity.

Gen. John R. Allen, who is president of the Brookings Institution, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that “history will be written by the ‘victors’ of the COVID-19 crisis.”

It is my hope that Japan will be a member of the international community that writes this history.


Disclaimer:The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.