NEW YORK – In recent years both the United States and Japan have seen leadership changes at the highest levels of government. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, followed in 2009 by the ascendance of the Democrat Party of Japan, ending the nearly unbroken postwar dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party.
After both changes of power, relationship managers on both sides of the Pacific scrambled to find out as much as they could about these new ruling parties and their new national leaders.
While a change of power is by no means assured, the 2012 U.S. presidential election holds the potential to bring a Republican back to the White House.
Although it is an open secret that the Japanese political elite have always been more comfortable with the pro-military, pro-free trade Republicans, a look at the current field of candidates leaves no guarantee that a Republican administration would strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Three of the candidates seem particularly negative. Michele Bachmann, a House member from Minnesota, called the Japanese health care system an example of “gangster government” in 2009 when she claimed that the threat of not receiving health care silenced open criticism of the system.
Ron Paul, a House member from Texas, is strongly in favor of free trade but he is strongly opposed to overseas U.S. military bases.
Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, voted for a bill in the Senate in 1995 that tried to limit sales of Japanese automobiles in the U.S. on purely protectionist grounds.
For Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and former Ambassador to China, China seems to be a more important focus for America’s attention.
According to sources close to the campaign, Huntsman’s pro-China stance and cultural affinity for China (he was a Mormon missionary there and speaks fluent Mandarin) might translate to a negative perception of Japan, in general, and the U.S. military’s presence there in particular.
Three of the candidates do seem quite positive. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, has been in favor of a strong Japan-U.S. alliance, and traveled to Japan on a speaking tour in 2009.
Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, traveled to Japan for a trade mission in 2010.
Finally, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, sent a congratulatory letter in 2010 to the consul-general of Japan in Houston on the Emperor’s birthday.
Unfortunately, though, most of the candidates have simply been silent. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee; Herman Cain, businessman and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City; and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, have all said very little about Japan, focusing instead on the domestic economy.
It is Huntsman in particular who stands out for the impact he could have on the field. The “Huntsman Effect” may be felt regardless of whether he reaches the White House. Huntsman possesses far and away the most substantial foreign policy resume among the current field, making him a strong candidate for secretary of state should another Republican be elected president. Even outside the White House or the State Department, Huntsman might have an effect on the Asia experts appointed within a Republican administration’s foreign policy team.
Prominent Japan hands on the Republican side, like Richard Armitage or Michael Green, may be looked over in favor of more China-focused foreign policy professionals for appointed positions on the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department.
At this early stage it looks like the 2012 presidential campaign will be won or lost on economics, as the condition of the U.S. economy is the most important issue to voters right now.
As the economic recovery continues, any Republican president can be expected to put first priority on that, and reduce the number of overseas trips, meetings with foreign leaders and foreign policy-focused speeches compared with President Obama’s first term.
What this could mean for Japan is that the Japanese prime minister may not be the first foreign leader to meet the president or be able to meet him soon after his inauguration.
In this and other ways it may seem as though the new president lacks an appreciation of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Domestic priorities taking the fore should not automatically be mistaken for a lack of commitment, but there is also no guarantee that a Republican administration would show warmer support than the present American leadership.
Humza Ahmad is a nonresident fellow at the Washington D.C.-based research center Asia Policy Point. C.D. Alexander Evans is an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the City University of New York Baruch College.