After more than two years, Japan could soon be getting a new American ambassador.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday formally nominated ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as chief of staff under President Barack Obama, as the country’s ambassador to Japan, the White House said.
“The alliance between the United States and Japan is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific, and I would proudly represent our nation with one of our most critical global allies in one of the most critical geopolitical regions,” Emanuel said in a statement.
The decision to nominate Emanuel, known for his sharp tongue — and for having the ear of Biden — signals the importance the administration places on the U.S. alliance with Japan as Washington continues to lay the groundwork for a strategy to deal with challenges presented by China.
Tokyo has not had a Senate-approved ambassador from the U.S. since William Hagerty left the post in July 2019. Hagerty was replaced by the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission at the time, Joseph Young, who served as the interim charge d’affaires until June. Raymond Greene, a former deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy in Taipei, has since held down the fort as interim ambassador to Japan.
But while Japan may be hoping for a quick confirmation, Emanuel could face a tough battle for approval in the Senate.
Emanuel, who served two terms as Chicago mayor from 2011 to 2019 after his time as White House chief of staff from 2009 to 2010, has faced searing criticism and charges of a cover-up over the handling of a deadly shooting of a Black teenager by a white police officer in 2014.
News that Biden would tap Emanuel for the post first emerged in May and it’s unclear why it took the administration more than three months to formally announce his nomination.
The Biden team has used a spate of meetings with high-level Japanese officials, including an April summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — the president’s first summit with a foreign leader — to highlight the significance of the two allies’ relationship.
Emanuel “brings an experience and policy chops to the job that he can hit the ground running,” the Chicago Tribune quoted an unidentified White House official as saying Friday.
“There’s not a meeting in the Situation Room he wasn’t a part of when he worked as chief of staff,” the official said. “He has a deep understanding of how to get things done in the Capitol and long working relationships with Democrats and Republicans in Congress.”
Tom Corben, a research associate in the foreign policy and defense program at the United States Studies Center in Sydney, called it “significant” that, although the Biden administration has been slow in appointing ambassadors in Asia compared with other regions, Japan was among the first regional allies with a clear nominee.
This is “consistent with the renewed importance placed on the U.S.-Japan alliance,” he said.
Emanuel has revealed little about his foreign policy positions, though he was a fervent supporter of the Obama administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was later quashed by Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, and revived by Japan as the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In a February 2014 interview, Emanuel cited a rationale for joining the TPP deal that may still be palatable to some: national security.
“Everybody in the Joint Chiefs supports it. Why do they support it? Because it’s either tanks or cars,” he told CBS News. “And I’d rather be exporting cars than trying to figure out how we’re gonna move tanks over there or send five (aircraft) carriers there.”
Japan has said it hopes for the return of the U.S. to the agreement, though the Biden administration has shown little interest in spending the political capital needed for a return to the deal at this juncture.
Corben, however, cautioned against reading too much into any correlation between Emanuel’s nomination and a potential return to the trade deal, noting “major hurdles” to such a move.
“It remains to be seen how the administration will resolve its ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ and ‘worker-centric trade policy’ platforms with any kind of multilateral trade push,” he said. “Indeed, there’s clear disagreement within the administration — between USTR and the ‘Asia hands’ — over the desirability of joining any kind of multilateral trade agreement in Asia, let alone ‘the big one.’”
A Chicago native known for his bare-knuckle political confrontations, Emanuel — who once reportedly emulated a scene from “The Godfather” by sending his enemy a dead fish — will be an unusual fit in the more reserved and polite Tokyo.
Still, Japan is expected to be pleased with the appointment, since Emanuel is known to have developed a close relationship with the vice president under Obama, providing Tokyo with what could amount to a direct line to the White House.
“Whether or not an ambassador has good rapport with the president is generally of great concern to U.S. allies in Asia, so the choice of Emmanuel should please Tokyo overall,” Corben said.
Although he could face a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate, where Democrats maintain a majority only through the votes of two independents and the vice president, several key Democratic and Republican figures welcomed the nomination.
“In nominating Rahm Emanuel to serve as U.S. Ambassador, President Biden has chosen a leader of immense experience and effectiveness to represent our nation in Tokyo,” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “His great experience, from the U.S. House to the White House, will serve our nation well, as he works to deepen one of our nation’s most important alliances, champion American interests abroad and advance regional security and prosperity.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin echoed the sentiment, emphasizing that he would work to help shepherd the nomination through the Senate.
“Rahm Emanuel has a lifetime of public service preparing him to speak for America. Japan is an important strategic partner in Asia, particularly in light of our continued challenges from China. I will do all I can to help Rahm become America’s voice in Japan,” Durbin said in a statement.
Across the aisle, Republican Sen. Susan Collins called Emanuel’s nomination, as well as the same-day announcement of former diplomat Nicholas Burns as nominee for ambassador to China, “two excellent choices for critical Asian ambassadorships.”
“Both have the skills, intellect, and experience to represent American interests well,” she wrote on Twitter.
Hagerty, now a U.S. senator, welcomed the pick, saying the alliance with Japan remains “critical to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific” and calling “the Chinese Communist Party’s drive for domination” one of the allies’ top challenges.
But Emanuel has drawn flak from his party’s progressive wing, coming under fire in March when more than two dozen left-leaning organizations announced their strong opposition to any ambassadorial nomination for him.
“Such top diplomatic posts should only go to individuals with ethics, integrity and diplomatic skills. Emanuel possesses none of those qualifications,” the groups said in a statement.
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