The Japanese Business Theory Shaping Obama’s Foreign Policy

Before the summer throngs descend on downtown Washington, D.C., I decided to play the tourist and head to the National Archives Museum. The permanent home of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution are certainly must-see attractions when visiting the District, but a new exhibit titled, “Amending America” certainly pulls back the curtain on the process of such foundational documents. Although obvious, these documents are the compilation and culmination of numerous edits, alterations, and individual inputs. They are instruments of democracy reached through incremental change. 

Having lived and worked in Japan for two years, the Amending America exhibit instantly brought me back to organizational theory of kaizen, or incremental improvement. Masaki Imai introduced many Americans to the concept in 1986 with his book, “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success,” and is credited with sparking an organizational process revolution in the U.S. Imai theorized that incremental change could be achieved through of cycle of 1) Planning, 2) Doing, 3) Checking, and 4) Acting. Kaizen, in short, is a means of production by way of culture and daily process that doesn’t bite off more than can be chewed and digested. 

The weekend I visited the National Archives also happened to coincide with one of President Obama’s final trips to Europe. While in the U.K., Obama had this to say about his foreign policy legacy:

“I consider myself a runner. I run my leg of the race but then I have got a baton and I am passing it on to the next person; hopefully they are running in the right direction as opposed to the wrong direction and hopefully they don’t drop the baton.” 

In a political cycle of grandstanding and bellicosity, I would welcome an extension of measured, incremental approaches to foreign policy. 

While urging Britain’s youth to “reject isolationism and xenophobia” as it relates to the so called, Brexit, Obama struck a tone that reflected his previously stated foreign policy objective of “don’t do stupid shit.” On a trip to Asia in 2014, the President used a baseball analogy to explain his foreign policy as one that is more focused on “singles and doubles” than homeruns (read kaizen foreign policy). The now oft-cited Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg, outlining the “Obama Doctrine,” lends much insight to the President’s approach to foreign policy. Goldberg explains that Obama is much more of a realist than Americans realize and that his concern for small wins often triumphs the splashier rhetoric. This is evident, Goldberg says, in the way that Obama sees rhetoric as something that “should be weaponized sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena.”

Wielding splashy rhetoric has not been Obama’s forte once in office when dealing with complex international issues. Aside from the President’s generic foreign policy objective of “not doing stupid shit”, there have been other awkward moments when he has let the public in on the process of foreign policy in his administration. In 2015, at the G-7 in Germany, Obama said, “We don’t yet have a complete strategy against ISIS.” This painfully honest statement had less to do with the existence or non-existence of strategy itself and more to do with the President taking another calculated step. It may be natural to think such approaches to foreign policy are simply a reaction to the previous Bush administration that has been characterized as impulsive and reckless on the international stage. But the tone and tactics used by the Obama administration have looked a lot more like the kaizen approach of planning, doing, checking and acting than blind idealism for which it is often associated with. 

In a political cycle of grandstanding and bellicosity, I would welcome an extension of measured, incremental approaches to foreign policy. The problem with incrementalism in foreign policy is that, well, it is incremental and often slow to show results. I am reminded of International Justice Mission’s founder and CEO, Gary Haugen’s wisdom on the work of IJM: “The work of justice is long, hard, laborious, and boring.” Although America’s role in the world remains indispensable, the internal context and characters have become ever more complex than ever. The documents we collectively hold dear as a nation are products of repeated edits, small improvements, and amendments. The final products produced by our America’s founders were certainly the result of long, hard, laborious, and boring work: shouldn’t our foreign policy be viewed through the same lens? 

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.