Most Americans are familiar with Vice President Joseph Biden's tendency to stumble in public with gaffes and misstatements that induce either embarrassment or hilarity, depending upon one's attitude towards the man and his party. Whether he is insulting Indian-Americans with awkward 7-Eleven jokes, inviting wheelchair-bound people to stand for a bow, blurting obscenities into an open microphone (. . . this is a big f****** deal"), or losing track of what state he is speaking in, Biden continues to provide proof that even a loopy third-rate political hack can reach the heights of power in this confused and ill-informed country.
Fortunately, much of Biden's verbal buffoonery is relatively harmless, so that the joke is generally on him rather than on the appalled or amused public. But one recent example of Biden's verbal and mental ineptitude was far from an innocuous gaffe. On the contrary, it was a reckless insult of one of America's most important allies and its people. Moreover, it did not arise from mere geriatric forgetfulness or confusion, but rather from profound historical and legal ignorance, exacerbated by political malice.
The pernicious remarks arose from Biden's attempt to mock Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump's observations regarding aspects of U.S. policy towards Japan. A bit of background is necessary to appreciate the episode in question.
Ever since the U.S. occupation of Japan following World War II, the U.S. has effectively guaranteed Japan's national security with the presence of American military forces and bases and with the so-called "nuclear umbrella" that serves as a formidable deterrent against aggression by truculent neighbors like China and North Korea. At the same time, the pacifist provisions of Article 9 of Japan's constitution -- which the U.S. Occupation authorities largely drafted -- prevented the country from establishing a conventional national military force.
With half a century having passed since the end of the Occupation, Japan has gradually developed a so-called Self Defense Force (JSDF) that actually compares quite favorably with the regular armed forces of most world powers. Even so, because the JSDF is constitutionally confined to only defensive capabilities, and because even now extensive U.S. forces remain stationed in and around Japan (mostly on the southern island of Okinawa), it is fair to say that Japan enjoys what approximates a "free ride" from the U.S. in terms of its national and nuclear security. In short, the U.S. continues to bear a disproportionate share of Japan's defense burden.
Japan's Prime Minister Abe's (here with F-35) Views on Art. 9 Differ from Biden's
In light of Japan's enormous financial and technological capacities, Donald Trump has joined many national security experts in suggesting that the time has come for Japan to relieve the U.S. of at least part of this inordinate strain on its limited and overtaxed capacities. Indeed, Trump has argued that both Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) could both expand their military strength and expenditures, allowing the U.S. to reduce both its financial and military burdens and contract the sphere of its vastly over-extended global responsibilities.
It was in this context that Mr. Trump has observed that both Japan and Korea at some point may need to consider obtaining nuclear weapons. Trump has further noted that Pakistan, China, and most ominously North Korea all possess nuclear weapons in the East Asian theater. Consequently, the prospect that Japan and South Korea may feel compelled to develop their own nuclear programs for self-defense and deterrence hardly seems ridiculous. Japan may well consider that perpetual reliance upon nuclear protection from a country led by the likes of Obama or Hillary Clinton is a bad bet, especially in an environment that is bristling with hostile and unpredictable nuclear powers. Indeed, irrational North Korea's looming potential to hit Japan with nuclear-warhead missiles is being reported in the Japanese press even as we write.
In short, Mr. Trump has merely suggested the obvious. Since the U.S. cannot and should not disproportionately bear Japan's national security burdens indefinitely, Japan must either underwrite a much greater portion of U.S. costs for its defense, or get ready to assume its own defense by expanding its own military power and capacities. And in today's world, that would include nuclear capability.
It was in response to these entirely plausible suggestions that Mr. Biden felt compelled to blunder into the discussion with his usual boorish ineptitude.
With the galling arrogance of the ill-informed, Biden waxed indignant at Mr. Trump's reasonable consideration of the prospects for Japanese military expansion. Biden sputtered that “he [Trump] talks cavalierly about encouraging other nations … to develop nuclear weapons.” Then the man who famously lied in a failed presidential campaign to conceal his ineptitude as a law student (he graduated near the bottom of his law school class at Syracuse, a woeful No. 76 out of 85) had the audacity to lash out at Mr. Trump of the elite Wharton School as follows:
“Where was he when in school? . . . . Someone who lacks this judgment cannot be trusted . . . . He’s not qualified to know the [nuclear] codes. . . . Does he not understand we wrote Japan’s constitution to say they couldn’t be a nuclear power?” [emphasis added]
Biden's remarks were ignorant, inept, and diplomatically offensive on many levels.
First, there is the sneering contempt for the Japanese in the statement "we wrote Japan's constitution to say they couldn't be a nuclear power." Biden's implication is that, because the U.S. played a dominant role in drafting Japan's constitution -- of which Trump is well aware -- the provisions of that constitution are somehow forever binding on the Japanese people.
His offensively blunt statement ignores the fact that, while Occupation lawyers were the primary drafters, Japanese lawyers and politicians contributed to the drafting as well. Moreover, the draft document ultimately had to be approved and adopted by the Japanese Diet, which amended it in some respects before final adoption.
But more importantly, Art. 96 of Japan's constitution provides that amendments can be made if approved by a vote of two-thirds of both houses of the Japanese Diet, and then by simple majority of the Japanese people in a referendum. Biden's claim that the U.S. role in the creation of the Japanese constitution entails some form of permanent restraint on Japan's sovereignty is not only a gross violation of diplomatic protocol, but is insulting to the Japanese people and their leaders.
Thus, it was Biden, not Trump, who demonstrated historical, political, and legal ignorance in this public discussion of the Japanese rearmament issue.
To borrow Biden's own rhetoric, "Does he not understand" that Japan's leaders and voters are currently in the process of considering whether, and to what extent, modifications of Art. 9's restrictions on Japanese military capabilities and missions may be needed in today's world? Does he not know that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly supports reinterpretation, revision or repeal of Art. 9 and that his Party's (the LDP) success in recent Upper House elections significantly enhances the prospects for some form of Art. 9 reform? Or that the vastly expanding strength and mission of the JSDF (now with a defense budget of about $41.6 billion annually) shows that Art. 9 can be circumvented without repeal in any event? See http://dailycaller.com/2016/07/16/will-japan-become-the-next-big-military-superpower/. Apparently not.
Biden's intemperate statements reveal his archaic and jingoistic view that the U.S. role in drafting Art. 9 forecloses consideration, let alone action, that would allow Japan to develop nuclear capacity under any future circumstances. Although Japanese political sentiment remains deeply reluctant to take the "game-changing" move towards developing nuclear weapons (which Japan's technology could likely accomplish in a New York minute), that is a matter for the Japanese people and their leaders to decide; it is not foreclosed, as Biden seems to think, by constitutional restrictions that the U.S. helped draft sixty years ago.
Biden's crass and patronizing assertion that the U.S. had effectively dictated perpetual non-nuclear status for Japan triggered an understandably appalled response in the Japanese press (the LDP government was too diplomatic to respond in kind to Biden's undiplomatic blunder). For example, the Asahi Shimbun declared that Biden's statement on this issue "was unprecedented in its insensitivity."
Indeed, the Asahi Shimbun was too kind and diplomatic in its comment. Biden's remarks went beyond insensitivity, and reflected not only ignorance and misunderstanding of the constitutional restraints on Japan's ability to expand its military missions and capacities, but a chauvinistic disdain for the Japanese nation's sovereign right to provide for its survival in an increasingly dangerous region and world.