From the Desk of Peter Eicher: Negotiating in the Far East – we’ve done this before

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Peter Eicher is the author Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Foreign Lands (June 2018). He is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific. He currently lives in Washington, DC. 

As the U.S. approaches talks with North Korea, it’s useful to remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve faced difficult negotiations with closed societies in the Far East.

In February of 1854, Matthew Perry steamed into Yedo Bay with a squadron of eight ships, a substantial portion of the U.S. Navy, in an effort to force a treaty of commerce on Japan. According to Perry’s official account, the decks were “cleared for action, the guns placed in position and shotted…preparations made, usual before meeting an enemy.” Perry assured his unwilling hosts that his intentions were friendly, but it could hardly have seemed that way to the Japanese, who had no interest in a treaty. Nonetheless, faced with superior naval power and punctuated by repeated threats and bluster from Perry, the Japanese reluctantly allowed him ashore for talks.

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Commodore Matthew Perry, depicted in a Japanese woodcut, about 1854.
            Library of Congress LC-USZC4-1307

The Perry expedition has been hailed as an important turning point in history, marking the opening of Japan to the outside world. Perry’s treaty itself, however, was a sharp disappointment to most Americans. Its provisions fell far short of the earlier American treaty with China, which Perry had hoped to replicate. The Japanese did agree to allow access for American ships to two isolated ports, but only to purchase supplies from official Japanese government agents. Americans would not be allowed to live in Japan, and any American visitors would be severely restricted within the two open ports. Worst of all, the treaty contained no provisions at all for trade, which was the primary American goal. Critics called it a “shipwreck convention,” saying it accomplished little more than winning a pledge for the protection of stranded American seamen. The official U.S. account of Perry’s visit noted that Japanese opposition to free trade “put an end to all prospect of negotiating a ‘commercial treaty.’” The account concluded that Perry’s treaty did not provide “much ground for congratulation.” Despite the unequal balance of power, it seems that the Japanese negotiators managed to get the better of the deal.

In hindsight, the most important concession Perry won was Japanese agreement to accept the appointment of a U.S. consul at Shimoda, one of the remote ports opened for U.S. ships to resupply. The individual named to this position was Townsend Harris, a native New Yorker engaged in the Far East trade. Harris spent the next two years in lonely isolation, largely cut off from communication with the outside world. Slowly and laboriously, he built a relationship of trust with his Japanese hosts. Through long months of patience and persistence, Harris slowly developed an understanding of Japanese points of view, internal circumstances, and political constraints. His low-key, methodical, and respectful approach gradually won him his hosts’ high regard. His thoughtful exposition of the mutual benefits to be gained from trade and a diplomatic relationship eventually persuaded the Japanese.

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A Japanese depiction of one of Perry’s ships.
Naval History and Heritage Command, photography collection, cat. No. USN 900929.

After more than a year of painstaking discussions, Harris forged his first major breakthrough: he was invited to meet the shogun, the first foreigner so honored in more than two centuries. After many more months of talks, the Japanese agreed to a treaty that achieved everything the United States had sought, and more. Most important, it established both formal diplomatic relations and free trade. Six ports would be open for commerce, without government interference. Americans would be able to reside permanently in Japan and enjoy extraterritorial rights. And, an American diplomat would be able to reside permanently in the capital—Harris was appointed as the first American minister to Japan. The Harris treaty would guide U.S.-Japanese relations for half a century to come.

Today’s circumstances of course differ from those in the 1850s. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from the Perry and Harris missions about negotiating with closed societies and enigmatic cultures. Perry’s threats, bombast, and naval power took the United States only so far. His show of power set the stage for negotiations but could not produce an acceptable outcome. Ultimately, it was careful, patient diplomacy that achieved the desired end.

Townsend Harris’s story is one of many in Raising the Flag, America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands. The book chronicles the achievements and, in some instances, the failures of the first official U.S. representatives in a dozen countries during the early years of the American republic. Together, the stories show how diplomacy contributed to the growth of American influence and helped transform the U.S. into a world power. The stories hold important lessons for today’s America, where many leaders and citizens tend to forget the value of diplomacy in preventing conflict, ending wars, building alliances, expanding trade, promoting democracy, and generally making the United States a stronger, safer, more prosperous, and better respected country.

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