MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – One of the notable features of the Trump presidency’s first 100 days has been the difficulty that many democratic leaders have found establishing a good personal relationship with the former reality TV star. For a man purported to be charming, the meetings and conversations between key allies have often been fraught. British Prime Minister Theresa May had that awkward moment on the White House stairs, the meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was famously frosty, while the first phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was spectacularly bad.
Part of the reason for this seems to be the uneasy political position democratic leaders feel in close proximity to Trump. He is spectacularly unpopular outside the United States and getting close to him unsettles many leaders whose first instinct is for the optics back home. Many seem not especially well-briefed about just how to handle Trump. As a political outsider who few expected to win, in-country diplomats who normally provide advice to the leaders about exactly how to approach a new president seemed to have little on offer. Equally, many see Trump as primarily a risk that has to be managed and whose “America First” agenda seems to offer partners with few opportunities.
But there is one leader of a democratic American ally who has handled Trump with remarkable acuity — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He made a detour on the way to the 2016 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit in Peru to visit President-elect Trump. And not only did he deliver the perfect present, a golden golf club, he was well-briefed on how to handle the meeting: avoid policy, talk family and above all build a good personal relationship with Trump.
And a formal visit was held within weeks of the inauguration. Not only did he receive a warm welcome, he was the first world leader to have the personal touch of a meeting at Mar-a-Lago. Abe handled the 19-second handshake with aplomb, presented a joint face to a North Korean missile test held at the time, established a joint policy agenda built on the platform of promised Japanese investment in the U.S. and played golf. Plainly the two get along.
Why is Abe so keen on Trump? Critics of the prime minister point out that Abe seems to have a flair for building good personal links with authoritarian leaders. His ability to build good relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, by implication, Trump, somehow reflects his own authoritarian instincts.
There are more significant and obvious reasons why a Japanese prime minister would want to build effective links with a new American president — they have deep but often complex economic ties, and they are allies at a time Japan faces an increasingly uncertain security setting. But beyond this, and in contrast to almost all other partners of the U.S., Abe sees in Trump a golden opportunity.
Central to Abe’s long-term political vision is for Japan to play a security role commensurate with its economic and demographic scale. He sees the postwar settlement, in which Japan was a civilian great power, renouncing the use of force and depending on the U.S. alliance for all but the most acute security challenges, as both anachronistic and dangerous. But Abe’s vision of a Japan that plays a normal role in regional and indeed global security is constrained by the limitations of the postwar Constitution and scant public appetite for change.
Trump’s presidency provides Abe with the perfect opportunity to advance this aim. His gambit has two dimensions. At home Abe is able to use Trump’s election to underscore the need to develop a greater capacity for self- defense. Nationalists in Japan have long been concerned that the country’s dependence left it vulnerable if Washington were to shift its attitude toward the country or its international obligations more generally. Trump and the uncertainty that he brings, both in the specifics of his policies and in the broader fact of his election will make pushing the case for the need for greater independence to a broader audience that much easier.
Many in Washington have long wanted Japan to carry a greater security burden. On the election trail Trump advocated very strongly for this. By developing a close bond with Trump, Abe is able to better manage U.S. expectations for developing a growing security role. Even though the LDP leader would like to accelerate security policy reform, he knows it will be a slow process and managing the Washington side of the equation is crucial to its success. Building a close and effective working relationship with the world’s most famous but unpredictable political leader is vital to that effort.
Abe has proven that he is among the world’s most opportunistic political leaders. In contrast to most allies, like Australia’s Turnbull or Germany’s Merkel, who see in Trump risk and uncertainty, Abe sees a chance to advance a controversial and unpopular agenda.
Nick Bisley is executive director of La Trobe Asia and a professor of international relations at La Trobe University, Australia.
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