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A vital role for Caroline Kennedy

by Yuriko Koike

Fifty years have passed since the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, with official ceremonies held in Washington, and Dallas to commemorate the anniversary. But JFK’s eldest daughter, Caroline Kennedy, was not present at either event; she had just taken up her post in Tokyo as the 29th U.S. ambassador to Japan.

On Nov. 19, thousands of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Kennedy as she made her way from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace, around a kilometer away, by horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to the emperor. Waving to the onlookers, she looked like Snow White.

November 22, 1963, was also the day satellite broadcasting from the United States to Japan began, and many Japanese got up early to watch a speech by JFK in Dallas that began at 5:30 a.m. But, rather than airing the speech, the broadcast brought the shocking news of the assassination.

The image of young Caroline — the inspiration for Neil Diamond’s famous song — solemnly standing beside her 3-year-old brother as he saluted his father’s coffin is deeply ingrained in the hearts of Japan’s people. So there probably is not a single Japanese who would not welcome her as U.S. ambassador.

U.S. ambassadors to Japan have come in three types: There have been academic experts on Japan, like the acclaimed scholar Edwin Reischauer. There have also been political heavyweights, such as Michael Mansfield, a long-time Democratic majority leader of the U.S. Senate, former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas Foley, and Sen. Howard Baker, who also served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. The third type consists of presidential political appointees such as Thomas Schieffer, a former business partner of President George W. Bush, and John Roos, a noted Silicon Valley lawyer.

Clearly Caroline Kennedy, an important early supporter of President Barack Obama, is in the third category. Her backing for Obama in the Democratic Party primaries in 2008, when he was still a relatively unknown senator from Illinois, gave his campaign credibility among party insiders who remain loyal to her family’s legacy.

Kennedy’s address to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing elicited bipartisan support — a rare occurrence nowadays, given America’s highly polarized national politics — and she received unanimous approval. Although she lacks formal political or diplomatic experience, her personal connections, particularly to Obama, will have great significance for U.S.-Japan relations.

And there are pressing issues that need the new ambassador’s attention. For example, there are security questions related to strengthening the alliance between Japan and the U.S., including the relocation of the Futenma Air Station, the base of operations for the U.S. Marine Corps on Okinawa. There are also issues related to economic cooperation, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the proposed mega-regional free-trade treaty covering Pacific Rim economies.

Although powerful domestic interest groups, particularly those representing the agricultural sector, have objected to Japanese participation in the TPP negotiations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government chose to join the talks late in the day. Instead of banking the political capital that his high approval ratings had given him, he chose to spend some of it on an initiative that his predecessors had rejected, but that will help to transform myriad aspects of Japan’s economy.

Of course, given today’s hyper-partisan environment in the U.S., there is a danger that fast-track negotiating authority — under which Congress binds itself to an up-or-down vote on trade agreements (thereby precluding amendments and filibusters) — will not be given to the president. If this roadblock cannot be overcome and the agreement stalls, the Abe government’s approval ratings will suffer, despite progress in the negotiations. Given the unanimity with which Kennedy was confirmed, she may be able to use her own political capital to help sell fast-track authority in Congress.

The Abe government is banking on its high approval rating not only to participate in the TPP, but also to address the need to escape from 15 years of deflation and strengthen Japan’s national-security posture, which has been hamstrung for decades.

Given the nexus of issues that tie vital U.S. interests to Japan’s reform process, Kennedy, with her character and skills, could well prove to be an essential link between the countries at a crucial point in their relationship.

Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of the Liberal Democrat Party’s General Council and currently is a member of the Diet’s Lower House. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)