WASHINGTON – The U.S. presidential election season was in full swing with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
The Republican side so far has seen predictable results with President Donald Trump winning by a landslide in the Iowa caucuses as well as in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 10. Following his acquittal in the impeachment trial, Trump is expected to accelerate his campaign. He is capitalizing on his acquittal by demonizing the Democrats and energizing his Republic supporters.
In stark contrast, the Democratic primary has dramatically recalibrated the landscape for the presidential race. With the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary behind us, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have emerged as the two front-runners, with a possibility of the openly gay 38-year-old Buttigieg emerging as the Democratic presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was initially the presumed front-runner, has fallen far behind and is fighting just to keep his campaign alive beyond the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.
During the U.S. presidential election season, pundits in Japan spend lots of time speculating on questions such as “who is advising which candidate” and “which candidate is better for Japan.” But these questions are usually neither helpful nor productive. Japan rarely emerges as a campaign issue that affects votes.
This year’s presidential campaign is no exception in the sense that Japan or bilateral issues between the United States and Japan are highly unlikely to emerge as a major campaign issue. Although there is a possibility that upcoming host-nation support renewal negotiations may be discussed in the context of a reciprocal alliance and bigger burdens that must be shared by U.S. allies, the chances that it will become a subject of policy debate are relatively slim, especially given that the official negotiations are unlikely to start until after the election is over.
But this year’s U.S. presidential election may be unique in the sense that it could have an impact on the conversation in Japan about the post-Abe political leadership. Abe’s tenure is set to end in 2021 and political maneuvering to succeed him has already begun inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Some of the viable candidates include former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi.
Should Trump be re-elected, the policy trajectory we have seen in the last four years is likely to continue. Namely, the unpredictability of presidential decisions, Trump’s fundamental suspicion of multilateralism and his quest for reciprocity — three features that characterized many of the major foreign and national security policy decisions over the last four years — will likely stay.
Whether Abe was able to generate concrete policy results by investing so much of his time and energy in building/maintaining a positive relationship with Trump is questionable. However, his effort has definitely paid off in shielding Japan (and himself) from some of Trump’s harshest criticism. Therefore, in the event of Trump’s re-election in November, the post-Abe leader will be examined from the perspective of who can best manage the relationship with Trump.
On the other hand, the election of a Democratic president would likely shift the conversation for post-Abe political leadership in a very different direction.
Should Buttigieg ultimately end up as the Democratic candidate for president, he could tap a moderate Democrat with more experience in Washington, such as Amy Klobuchar, as his vice president. Should they win the White House, their administration would look very different from the current one.
While a Democratic administration would likely send the message of “repairing the U.S. relationship with allies and friends around the world” in the post-Trump era, it is far from certain what other principles would guide their foreign policy.
In fact, while it is often overlooked and has certainly been aggravated under Trump presidency, the beginning of the end to the U.S. willingness to serve as the world’s policeman began under the administration of President Barack Obama.
It was in Obama’s graduation address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point where he articulated the principles of U.S. limited engagement overseas and it was under his administration that the world saw the plateauing of U.S. defense spending, allowing China to catch up in many emerging technologies and their applications to military use.
Finally, it was the mismatch of words and deeds during the Obama administration that cost the U.S. credibility. In other words, even if the current overemphasis on reciprocity disappears, the post-Trump U.S. will likely continue to urge its allies to play a bigger role in defending their own national security interests, making it important for Japan to continue its effort to anchor the U.S. and its security commitment in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, a post-Abe leader who can build a personal relationship with a Democratic administration would look very different from either Abe or those LDP members who are said to be in the running to succeed Abe. In fact, it may open the door to those whose names have come up in the polls but have been considered too young and/or “not his/her time yet” to emerge as a viable candidate for post-Abe leadership, including Defense Minister Taro Kono and Environmental Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, among others.
In other words, this year’s U.S. presidential election could also serve as an existential shock that Japanese politics may desperately need to revitalize itself, forcing a generational change in political leadership that is long overdue.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.