This week, on Monday, October 24, the international community celebrated United Nations Day, commemorating the 66th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations. Premier among the world’s international organizations as a symbol of peace and a forum for multilateral discussion and cooperation, both the United States and Japan are major supporters of it and its related international organizations. When the leaders of both nations speak of their shared values, references to their mutual participation in and contribution to the UN and other multilateral institutions are not far behind.
Among the 193 member states of the United Nations, the US and Japan are the top two donors to the regular budget of the UN, in 2011 providing 22% and 12.5% respectively. Together they also are responsible for nearly two-fifths of the budget for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the largest and most expensive of the UN’s activities. Beyond these “assessed contributions,” which are based on the size of member states’ economies, Japan and the US also make substantial voluntary contributions to support other UN agencies and programs. Through these gifts the US has provided a large share of the funding for many of the UN’s relief and development agencies, while Japan regularly makes sizable additional contributions to UN peace operations worldwide, and has even paid the difference when America did not fully pay its dues.
The US and Japan are also the top two financial contributors to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In these Breton Woods institutions, unlike in the UN, there is a direct relationship between the size of a member’s monetary contribution and the weight of its voice in decision making. In the World Bank the US enjoys 15.9% of the total votes, with Japan 2nd at 6.9%, with similar weight allotted to the two in the IMF. This sort of weight allows the US and Japan to serve as agenda setters in the international economic community.
As much as the US and Japan have contributed significantly to the support of UN and global economic institutions, these international organizations, in turn, have played a role in strengthening the US-Japan relationship. This year on December 16th, Japan will celebrate its 55th anniversary of joining the United Nations. Despite wanting to join all major international organizations of the post-war world order as soon as possible, Japan’s entrance into the UN faced several obstacles throughout the 1950s, including the Security Council veto by the Soviet Union on three separate occasions. The US supported Japan’s admission to the World Bank and IMF in 1952, and put considerable effort to bring Japan into the UN as a key component of America’s Japan policy.
US Ambassador to Japan in 1955, John Allison, recommended to his Washington counterparts to “intensify efforts to bring Japan into the UN,” even if “such steps involve adjustment [of] US policies toward other countries considered less vital to US long-term interests.” He saw this as a crucial element of a policy to draw Japan more closely in line with US interests. The embassy in Tokyo reported that the failure of the US to secure Japan’s membership that year shook the local confidence in the US-Japan partnership. Echoing this recommendation the following year, the National Security Council advised the US government to continue efforts to promote Japan’s UN membership as the best way assist the still-recovering Japanese economy, and the nation’s ability “ to assume an increasing role in strengthening and stabilizing Asia.”
The 1950s and 60s were a time for great enthusiasm for the fledgling UN system, and shortly after joining, Japan took an UN-centric approach to its foreign policy. The Cold War intensified, however, freezing much of the organization’s activity as nations solidified into geo-political factions and causing US foreign policy to increasingly give it the cold shoulder. Japan’s UN mission often found it hard to balance its multilateral ideals for the UN order, and the bilateral considerations of the US-Japan alliance.
Through 55 years of mutual participation, the United States and Japan have not always voted entirely in harmony. Despite this, as the role of the UN has expanded in the post-Cold War era, the United States and Japan have a growing record of voting in concert; a sign of their mutual commitment to a number of issues ranging from human rights to arms control. According to the US Department of State, in 2010 Japan voted in agreement with the US mission on 89% of what the government designated as “important votes,” and 90% overall on all votes and consensus agreements. This tops a positive trend over the past decade.
It is not just the Japanese government that is supporting US efforts at the UN. The US backs Japan’s primary goal of its long-standing campaign for UN reform: a permanent seat for Japan on the Security Council. Japan’s stance is that representation on the key decision-making body of the UN fails to reflect the increased number of players since its inception in 1945 and should be expanded. Japan’s dedication and substantial contribution to the UN and its agencies has demonstrated a capacity and willingness to take on greater responsibility as a new member to reformed Security Council. The United States supports Japan in this aspiration. Last year in a speech at the Japan-hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Barack Obama referred to Japan as “a model of the kind of country that belongs as a member of the Security Council.” Time will tell whether Japan will join its partner in that prominent position, but until then, all that remains certain is the importance of the two nations to UN system.