Commentary / Japan

How much damage was done?

by Kuni Miyake

Last week was a hit parade of topics for my column. Bob Woodward’s bombshell book on the Trump administration, Naomi Osaka’s victory over Serena Williams at the U.S. Open Women’s Singles, a modest North Korean military parade without ICBMs or other ballistic missiles, huge, quake-driven blackouts in Hokkaido, just to name a few.

The legendary journalist’s revelations are hardly new. As Fareed Zakaria stated, we all know that “Behind Trump’s ranting, impulsive, incoherent, narcissistic facade lies a ranting, impulsive, incoherent, narcissistic man.” Though U.S. President Donald Trump’s reactions indicated that what is written in the book must be true, it is nothing more than that.

Osaka, the first Japanese winner of a Grand Slam tennis title, prevailed during the match against Williams. Japan is very proud of her, although we know she speaks primitive Japanese with a heavy American accent and that Williams was primarily fighting against Osaka and not for “women’s rights and equality” as she later claimed.

Sunday’s military parade in Pyongyang didn’t provide any encouragement. North Koreans can celebrate the 70th anniversary of their country’s founding with or without ballistic missiles. It is no use wondering whether leader Kim Jong Un has changed his mind or softened his position on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

After deep thought, I impulsively selected the Sept. 5 anonymous New York Times op-ed for this week’s column. The U.S. mainstream media reported that it was “highly unusual” for a “senior administration official” to claim that he or she was part of the “resistance inside the Trump administration.” This, however, is nothing unusual in Tokyo.

It took place between 2009 and 2011 when we had two consecutive prime ministers from the Democratic Party of Japan. For their glory and honor, I will not name them. Although they were not as ranting, impulsive, incoherent and narcissistic as Trump is, they were incompetent even by Japanese standards.

As the anonymous senior Trump administration official put it, “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” The first of the two DPJ prime ministers flip-flopped over the relocation of the U.S. Marine’s Air Station Futenma in Okinawa and the latter caused further confustion in the already chaotic operations at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The senior Trump administration official also stated, “Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” Hundreds of senior bureaucrats and experts in Japan at that time also tried to ignore the prime ministers’ poor judgment and wrong decisions.

The anonymous senior official concluded that “The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” For the rest of the world, however, the biggest concern is how much damage has been and will be done to the alliance relations with the United States.

Some in the U.S. media compare the “anonymous senior administration official” with the Watergate scandal’s “Deep Throat” — who turned out to be a former FBI deputy director who broke his 30-year silence in June 2005. For Tokyo, of course, the issue is not the length of time but the degree of damage caused to the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Yes, the Nixon administration damaged the bilateral alliance. Tokyo still remembers the two “Nixon Shocks” of 1971: the July announcement of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s upcoming visit to China; and the unilateral cancelation of the dollar’s direct convertibility to gold in August.

Damage was done but the Japan-U.S. alliance was eventually restored. Looking back, the 1970s were an era of historic changes. Wars ended and negotiations started in East Asia and the Middle East. The power of the U.S. was in considerable decline. Ordinary Americans felt those moves and lost their confidence in their nation.

Although Nixon had to resign from the presidency for covering up the Watergate break-in by a gang of five, he was fully aware that the strategic environment surrounding the U.S. was rapidly changing and he was wise enough to intentionally redirect U.S. foreign policies.

The Nixon Shocks, in retrospect, sacrificed Taiwan, damaged the U.S. alliance with Japan, surprised nations in Southeast Asia and, most importantly, helped China rebuild itself to the extent that it could challenge U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific 40 years later. I am not criticizing Nixon. It must have been his mission in history.

The real question for Tokyo now is where the Trump administration will go from here. The 2010s are once again an era of historic changes, whether Trump recognizes it or not. The power of the U.S. is considered to be declining once again. Ordinary Americans are seemingly losing their confidence in their nation’s global leadership role.

Is this another example of “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes?” Or, is the Trump administration just a first symptom of a more serious disease that will prevail in America for decades to come? If the answer is the latter, Japan and other U.S. allies in East Asia may eventually have to reconsider their national security policies.

The current situation is no better than it was in the 1970s. Nixon was an attorney, keenly interested in foreign policy and considered to be a great reader of books and briefing papers, while Trump is a realty businessman and notorious for being unwilling to read detailed materials or to listen to painful advice from his own advisers.

Damage has already been done. The Middle East is in chaos following the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. These days nationalistic populism prevails across Europe, including even Sweden — something the Russians must be really happy about.

East Asia is slightly better off, although North Korea is becoming a nuclear power and Trump seems to be becoming indifferent to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The mid-term elections are only two months away and Tokyo and the other capitals of U.S. allies in the region are now holding their breath and waiting for the November U.S. midterm election results.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.