The coalition of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a majority of seats in the Diet’s Upper House on July 21, consolidating Abe’s unlikely political comeback and ending the procession of weak, unstable governments in Tokyo inaugurated during his own first term in office six years ago.
Abe’s victory means that U.S. policymakers finally have a pro-American partner in Japan who is capable of making tough decisions at home and abroad, backed by a parliamentary majority that can keep him in power for several years.
Rather than welcoming this development, however, the Obama administration is widely perceived in Japan as being ambivalent about it. The problem appears to be Abe himself; specifically, his reputation as a right-wing nationalist with revisionist views about Japan’s wartime history.
The administration’s fear is not only that Abe will at some point pursue provocative policies, such as revisiting Japan’s past apologies for its wartime conduct. It’s also that, even in the absence of such actions, tensions between Japan and its neighbors risk festering under Abe — most troublingly with the other key U.S. partner in the region, South Korea.
These are legitimate concerns. What’s unclear, however, is whether the Obama administration has a strategy to defuse them.
This is not the first time U.S. President Barack Obama has had to deal with the elected leader of an important ally, in a critical part of the world, whose cooperation on major national security challenges is essential but whose instincts and worldview he distrusts.
When Benjamin Netanyahu returned as Israel’s prime minister in March 2009, the Obama administration — recalling battles with him over the peace process during his first term in office in the 1990s — did little to disguise its doubts and misgivings about him. What followed was a protracted, unnecessary and counterproductive melodrama that convinced many Israelis that Obama lacked affection or sympathy for their country.
Eventually, the Obama administration recognized that its approach wasn’t working and that it needed to build a better personal relationship between the two leaders, as well as a broader rapport with Israeli society.
Of course, Abe isn’t Netanyahu and Japan isn’t Israel. But some lessons from the White House’s mishandling of its relationship with Jerusalem are applicable toward Tokyo now. The first is that, rather than keeping Abe at arm’s length and telegraphing passive-aggressive disdain for him, the wiser approach would be for Obama to draw the Japanese prime minister close. The more robust, extensive and personalized interactions are between the two administrations and their top leaders, the greater Washington’s ability will be to pre-empt crises and influence Tokyo’s behavior for the better.
Abe’s performance over the past six months suggests that this shouldn’t be a diplomatic mission impossible. To his credit, the prime minister has governed as a forward-looking pragmatist, focused on resuscitating Japan’s economy rather than on relitigating its past. After the Upper House election, the odds are good that his agenda will remain mostly positive and pragmatic, with the bulk of his political capital needed to push the structural reforms necessary for Japan’s revitalization, including U.S. priorities such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
Moreover, Abe clearly desires a close working relationship with the United States and with Obama personally. This is also something that the overwhelming majority of the Japanese people consider important. It nonetheless falls to the White House to take advantage of this dynamic by making clear, both publicly and privately, that it is ready and eager to take our alliance to the next level — and to frame warnings about historical revisionism and the need for Tokyo to try to improve relations with Seoul in this context.
Unfortunately — and ironically, given the Obama administration’s much-trumpeted rebalance toward Asia — there appears to be no Cabinet-level official personally invested in the vital work of managing the Japan alliance, a role that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton performed very effectively during Obama’s first term.
Obama notably passed up the chance for a stand-alone meeting with Abe at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland last month, and Secretary of State John Kerry did the same this month with his Japanese counterpart at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Brunei. Perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with Abe in Singapore this week will mark the beginning of a course correction.
Ultimately, working with Abe will inevitably involve its share of frictions and frustrations. But that is also part and parcel of making an alliance work. Whatever the challenges, it’s worth recognizing that a strong and confident Japan with which we occasionally disagree is vastly preferable to a weak and dysfunctional Japan. The former is a manageable challenge. The latter is a potentially catastrophic threat to the U.S.’ strategic position in Asia.
Vance Serchuk is a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi international affairs fellow, based in Tokyo at the Canon Institute for Global Studies. He writes a monthly column for The Washington Post.