No concept is free from any misunderstanding. The term “strategic autonomy” is not an exception. Placed at the core of the European Union’s foreign policy, the frequency at which the students of international relations come across the term has significantly increased. It is now embedded in the mainstream narrative in Europe, though the perception of it differs among member states.

In fact, India already used this mantra before Europe to find a balanced foreign policy and security cooperation in the post-Cold War period as an extension of its long-standing “non-alignment” principle. However, after spreading its roots in the European discourse, it now seems that the very echo of it is also arriving on the other side of the continent: in Japan. 

At the end of 2020, the Strategic Headquarters on the Creation of a New International Order of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) issued a short policy recommendation paper called Toward Developing Japan’s Economic Security Strategy. In this ambitious paper, the term “strategic autonomy” suddenly appeared and was repeatedly used. In April 2021, Keizai Doyukai, an influential executive association in Japan, followed, issuing a relevant report called “Toward the Establishment of Robust Economic Security: What course should Japan take in the age of geoeconomics?” The report starts with a sensational opening sentence: “The times have changed!” Referring to the LDP’s paper, it demonstrated how the changes in high-level international politics would affect the managerial decisions of corporate directors of leading Japanese companies. 

Where is this craving for strategic autonomy and sovereignty coming from? Should we see this as a magical buzzword at a mere rhetorical level or as a substantive concept guiding influential actors in international relations, reflecting some deep-rooted changes in the international landscape?

Coming back to the European strategic autonomy discourse, it was indeed a noteworthy moment when Emmanuel Macron called for the creation of a European Army in 2018. He described NATO as “brain-dead” and addressed the necessity to protect Europe from China, Russia, and even the U.S. Yet the EU is not a monolithic block. While Angela Merkel was generally supportive of the idea of strategic autonomy itself, she called Macron’s vision a “sweeping blow” to the transatlantic security alliance. Although it is principally hard to form a common foreign policy in Europe, the term is gaining more currency regardless of the potentially conflicting perceptions of it.

Having its origins in the 1990s, when Europe failed to take decisive action in the Balkan wars, the term is used in the European security discourse to stress the need for the EU to bolster its capacity for independent and flexible acts (without relying too much on the U.S.) to protect its values. Recently, it has also been used to underline the necessity to reduce supply chain reliance strategically. With China’s ambitious use of economic statecraft and the outbreak of COVID-19, this second aspect came more into focus. When the consensus on the liberal international order looked unwavering, these concerns may have seemed an obsolete anxiety of realists. But it seems the times have really changed.

Europe and Japan have played crucial roles in building the liberal international order under the leadership of the U.S. The “end of history” was something worth counting on in the 1990s after the Cold War. However, what we have been observing in the last few decades is instead “the end of the end of history.” Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 evoked a sense of “the revival of geopolitics.” The growing inequality and populism across western countries has shaken the liberal international order from within. The economic and technological development of authoritarian capitalism demonstrated that liberal democracy may not be the only path to economic prosperity, providing authoritative leaders with a good narrative to cooperate against the liberal camp.

Temporarily or not, the pandemic has shifted attention away from these deep-rooted concerns, and the inauguration of Joe Biden has indeed provided some hope. However, the essence of concerns has remained unchanged. This point is becoming even more evident amid the growing confrontation between the U.S. and China and the emerging tripolar international order which includes Russia. The world seems to gravitate toward more polarization, and Europe and Japan are struggling to find their new roles in this setting –– the term “strategic autonomy” reflects these fundamental challenges in international relations.

From the ashes of one of the most reckless wars in history, Japan forged a new foreign policy principle called the Yoshida doctrine, according to which Japan should concentrate its resources exclusively on economic development while relying on the U.S. for security matters and avoiding active involvement in the “high politics” of the world. With the U.S.’s unwavering support, Japan was able to revitalize and join the world’s rich club in a miraculously short time. Arguably, Japan’s postwar success arose from the skillful execution of strategic dependence –– not that of autonomy. 

However, this strategy was not free from any repercussions. A mythical success in an exceptional period of time and an over-adaption to that successful model may have long blindfolded Japan’s political and economic leaders, and obscured the pressing need for fundamental changes. Though it may seem paradoxical, pacifism should be based on realism.  Without realistic ground, it may turn into mere irresponsibility and selfishness. To protect its own people’s wellbeing, Japan should be more proactively involved in those high politics. Otherwise, it should undertake a more significant amount of burden-sharing in its security alliance. The postwar public allergy to national security discourse has long led to these narratives being condemned as nationalistic. The popping up of the term “strategic autonomy” may provide public debate with more objective discussion tools, which can circumvent these emotional reactions.

One of the key achievements of the Abe administration was its reform of Japan’s security foundations, starting from establishing the National Security Council in 2013. The succeeding Suga administration has further developed the Free and Open Indo Pacific initiative, showing more proactive involvement. The LDP may face a decline in seats after the elections to the House of Representatives scheduled for October, following the public anger about the seeming mishandling of the COVID-19 situation. However, it will regain its power base shortly, as there is no functioning alternative. In a sense, Japan’s political leaders now have a once-in-alifetime chance to steer Japan away from the strategic dependence line it has long followed.

As it has compelling narrative power, the mantra of strategic autonomy should be treated with caution. The word “autonomy” should not be interpreted as the promotion of economic nationalism or isolationism. It is not equivalent to simply increasing national power, though it can be easily used as an instrument for the “make-great-again” narrative. Instead, the term indicates a brave reconsideration of the strategic environment and a commitment to adjusting to the new world setting. Japan’s political leaders should reflect deeply on what the word strategic autonomy does and does not mean for Japan.

In any case, the international environment will push Japan to grasp for more strategic autonomy in the coming decades. How the country’s political leaders will leverage this changing period will determine its position in the emerging international order.

Edited by James Butler; Photo Credits to Ryutaro Tsukata