Unpacking Japan Society’s 2024 Global Risk Forum

On February 7, 2024, Japan Society presented its sold-out second annual Global Risk Forum, addressing the geopolitical, economic, and business risks defining the global landscape in the year ahead. I was privileged to interview our two featured speakers, General David Petraeus, Partner & Chairman, KKR Global Institute; Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency and Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University and Recipient of 2001 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. We also heard from Chairman Mike Gallagher, representing the 8th District of Wisconsin, who serves as the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party and Ranking Member Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of the Eighth District of Illinois on their views of the global risks ahead in 2024 where unsurprisingly there was a bipartisan consensus on China. I also moderated an expert panel with Angela Barranco, Executive Director for North America, Climate Group; Koichiro Kimura, Chairman and Senior Partner, PwC Japan Group and Vice Chairman, PwC Asia Pacific; and Gillian Tett, Provost, King’s College, Cambridge and Columnist and Editorial Board Member, Financial Times.

Challenges and opportunities
I invite you to check out our video highlights for yourself. I also wanted to call out a few program highlights.

In Japan, 2024 started out with an earthquake and a miraculous airplane crash where all the passengers of one plane were saved. But there’s a lot more ahead, for Japan, for the United States, and for the world. Many of our speakers highlighted that this year might be one of the most challenging because of politics. We tested that at the Global Risk Forum, bringing together people from every walk of life, in addition to video messages with contrasting viewpoints from two American Congressmen.

As we face the uncertainties before us, and what we might weight differently in terms of where the macro risks are, the clear throughline is that this is really about us—all of us. It’s not just about the president and the prime minister, or about the United States or Japan, it’s about the American and Japanese people, culture, and societies. That’s both the challenge and the opportunity of democracies. We can’t leave things to one leader, especially considering the elections that are upcoming. It’s not just in America—it’s also in South Korea and Japan. If we look at the scope of almost 80 years of U.S.-Japan history post World War II, it is clear that we continue to learn from each other and make each other better. Sometimes individual island nations are great at coming up with specific products or resiliency, and sometimes frontier lands are good at thinking big and being innovative. But when you combine the two in the world in which we are living, therein lies the opportunity. And what better place to start the discussion than at Japan Society? 

Our interviewees and panelists addressed major macro risks, especially climate change, which came up over and over again, along with the intertwined nature of economic and political concerns, from their often differing viewpoints. One important underlying thread was this—that if we are overwhelmed by these macro challenges, we cannot come up with solutions. We need to focus on our own internal environment at the local level through public/private partnerships, and think about what the U.S-Japan relationship is able to do at the private business to business level and the people to people level. That puts Japan front and center—witness PwC Chairman Kimura’s comment that the most important factor in Japan are its people.

General Petraeus, who has written a book on Ukraine and security threats going into 2024, opened by stating that we face the great numbers of threats and challenges since at least the end of the Cold War, or even the end of World War II. He spoke about keeping plates spinning the air for the U.S., with the most important being China. In all of General Petraeus’ points, when talking about North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Ukraine, Japan has a role, and its role has only gotten bigger as the most critical American ally.

Professor Stiglitz spoke about short-term economic risks, in particular a misdiagnosis of the source of inflation by the central banks, leading to a sharp rise in interest rates that still remains “a threat to growth in 2024,” as noted in coverage by the Capital Spectator. He also talked directly about the dire consequences to democracy should Donald Trump be elected for a second term.

Japan may not naturally be the first place to think of in terms of a world in chaos, but it is Japan that will emerge as an island of stability in the midst of a chaotic world. No other country will be better positioned whichever way the American election goes. There’s no country better positioned with ongoing conflict in Europe and the Middle East to take advantage of the Asian Century that is coming even as the U.S. and China continue to manage a difficult relationship. Climate change is a risk that the U.S. is not going to play a leading role on. But Japan is—because it’s got a different system. It doesn’t have natural resources, and there’s not a debate about fracking and all the other things holding back the U.S. from taking action. 

Stand up and speak out, Japan!
I echo what Gillian Tett so aptly stated: “If I had one wish, I wish that Japan would stand up and speak more loudly on the world stage now. In the last few decades, Japan has often been very quiet. And, as someone who lived in Japan for many years, I’ve been keenly aware that there are many things that Japan has to teach the rest of the world. There are many things that don’t work well in Japan. But right now with Japan in such a critical geopolitical position, having such an important role in many supply chains, starting with robotics, and actually having a vision of companies and the social contract between business and society that’s different from the West… I do hope that Japan over the next year will speak out loudly on issues ranging from ESG, to climate change and the measures that have been taken there, to questions around geopolitics, and simply make its presence and voice heard more loudly on the world stage.” 

This, in many ways and for the reasons we have just talked about at the Global Risk Forum, is becoming newly relevant. It was dramatically underscored with our first recorded protest at Japan Society where six ticket-paying activists scattered throughout our auditorium to disrupt and protest General Petraeus on the main stage. While differing views were expressed, the event came to a smooth and satisfactory conclusion despite the disruptions which underscored the relevance and timeliness of the conversations taking place on our stage.

The world needs Japan in 2024 like never before. My thanks to all of our speakers and to those of you who joined us in person on February 7. 

Joshua Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) is President and CEO of Japan Society. Follow @japansociety. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.