New York – The 2020 presidential election in the United States will likely be one of the most consequential in our lifetime — and Japan, as a key ally of the U.S., is paying very close attention.
U.S. presidential races are always of significant international interest, but given the current polarization and global unrest, the stakes have never felt higher for Tokyo. Given the rise of domestic political uncertainty in Japan, previous arguments positing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the only Japanese leader capable of managing U.S. President Donald Trump, or Republicans as traditionally being “better” for Japan, have become moot.
Now the question of what the impact of the November election will be on U.S.-Japan relations have taken center stage. In a global environment in which the Trump administration has alienated many of Washington’s traditional allies, Japan has remained firmly on America’s side. This is summed up best by a great truism popularized by former Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki: Japan responds to a new American president like one does to a Christmas present. “You don’t say anything until you open it, then say, ‘It’s just what I wanted.’” Thankfully, the relationship between the two countries transcends personalities.
This week’s Democratic National Convention shows just how much has changed in America and the world since the last U.S. presidential election. Speakers on each night of the remotely held event highlighted the danger of a Trump re-election and the need for Joe Biden’s leadership. This narrative will now be juxtaposed with the Republican National Convention, which will make the case that Trump alone can “Keep America Great.”
What remains the same is that, no matter who wins the election, the U.S.-Japan relationship will stay strong, thanks to our people and societies being able to transcend politics. This remains true even as the U.S. does not presently have an ambassador in Japan; as Japan has policy differences that are domestically difficult for the U.S.; and as it continues to pursue its own agenda on climate change, regional architecture and economic empowerment through trade like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
From a policy point of view, it is really not about the policies per se — in fact, on actions alone, the Obama and Trump administrations’ approaches toward Japan are more similar than their approaches to almost any other country in the world — rather, it is about the rhetoric, and the way America is perceived globally, that has created a divide between the Japanese establishment personified in the now infamous anonymous American Interest article and the general Japanese public.
This author, reflecting candid Japanese establishment thinking, makes the case that Trump is actually a “lesser of two evils” for Japan because he is a known quantity. Regardless of his alleged health concerns, Abe and his loyalists remain the best team to manage a Trump second term.
One might argue, then, that if Biden wins, a new prime minister would be optimal to have a reset in relations, given the unusually close relationship that Abe and Trump have enjoyed. The fact that Biden is an archetypal Washington establishment figure should be good news for Japan, but there is ambivalence about how far left he will have to go with his new Democratic Party.
The Democratic primary race ended up boiling down to Bernie Sanders, representing the new populist wing of the Democratic Party that Japan’s ruling class doesn’t fully appreciate, and Biden. And with Sanders’ support and with his selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden has sought to capture the energy behind the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the unifying anger and frustration over Trump’s response to COVID-19 — mobilizing under the rubric of a competent, empathetic and responsible leader.
Former President Barack Obama said in his DNC speech, “Joe knows the world and the world knows Joe,” and many in Japan might agree, assuming a Biden victory would in effect mean a third term of the Obama administration. However, the truth is more nuanced, given what has changed over the last four years and Biden’s own evolution.
Biden has had a long political career and is especially well-versed in foreign policy, experience which is of particular importance to U.S. allies like Japan. He was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee for many years before he became vice president, and he has clear views on foreign policy.
Looking at the staff running Biden’s foreign policy team now — Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state; Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser; Julie Smith, a strong trans-Atlanticist voice; and others who deal more specifically with Asia, such as Ely Ratner — there is a clear connection between the Obama administration and the Biden team, but a lot of potential differences given the moment each country and the world finds itself in. In addition to Biden’s selection of Harris as his vice president, the proof will ultimately lie in the direction that Biden charts if elected and as he selects his Cabinet secretaries along with their senior advisers. Ultimately, the president’s people implement and make foreign policies.
Regardless of whether we have a second term of Trump, or a new Biden administration, whomever gets elected in November will be dealing with the consequences of a deep public health crisis, an economic recession and a world that has changed dramatically in a short period of time. In many ways, America’s response to COVID-19 will far outlive this administration and set up a post-American superpower world. The U.S. president must not only unite the country but also will need Japan’s help in combating the growing impression that the future is with China, even as we become more polarized.
As much as things change, many things stay the same. What remains the same is the importance and the resiliency of the U.S.-Japan relationship. As we celebrate 75 years since the end of World War II, and our friendship that began 160 years ago with the first Japanese mission to the U.S., we also appreciate what this relationship has withstood — a civil war in the U.S. and fighting on opposite sides in a world war.
U.S.-Japan relations have never been more relevant, not just because of the close personal relationships between our political leaders, but because this friendship imbues our businesses, people and societies themselves. No matter who wins on Nov. 3, the U.S.-Japan alliance maintains its strong foundation, which will need to be shored up to continue to be a driving force for the future.
Joshua W. Walker is president and CEO of the Japan Society.