No doubt readers can relate to hearing news or reading in a paper a story that disheartens them.
That is what I felt when I heard the United States Senate voted to confirm Rahm Emanuel as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan this past weekend. While it is good that the critical position is being filled after a two-year, five-month vacancy, the choice of Emanuel was frankly disappointing to some.
I have been reading everything I can about him since his name first surfaced this spring as a possible candidate for the U.S. ambassador to Japan or the People’s Republic of China. There are many articles and books about him, books that he has authored, as well as one on his family history that was written by his older brother, a well-known medical doctor.
And some of those who know him refer to him by various monikers, including the “Rahminator” (as one of his nicknames goes from his days at the White House as President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser and President Barack Obama’s chief of staff) and “Mayor 1%,” another nickname from when he was mayor of Chicago (2011-2019). Thus, questions over his qualifications and temperament have amply been answered and confirmed as a result.
Problems emerged immediately after the hearing with Emanuel, and intra-Senate dynamics as well prevented a vote on many of the Biden administration’s nominations. However, a late-night deal permitted his vote to go forward.
Whether it was the timing of the vote, or problems with the candidate himself, of 100 senators, only 48 voted “yea.” A one-half majority is necessary for confirmation; but because 31 senators abstained or did not attend and only 69 participated in the vote, Emanuel was confirmed. Interestingly, there were many powerful figures voting “nay.” Many of these — but not all of them — were from the opposition Republican Party.
In other words, the next ambassador to Japan, who has the lead for coordinating much of U.S. policy for Japan, does not enjoy bipartisan support. U.S. policy for Japan is generally bipartisan in nature. However, this time, the embodiment of the United States in Japan — the ambassador — will not have the full, heartfelt support of the opposition.
Some would argue that these abstentions during the vote don’t matter as he was still confirmed, but it certainly sends an unprecedented negative message. For example, by contrast, even the candidate for the ambassadorship to Japan during the divisive Donald Trump presidency, Bill Hagerty, received 86 votes in support and just 12 against, with two abstentions. Hagerty is now a U.S. senator representing Tennessee and strongly supported Emanuel’s nomination.
Others might argue that it was a clearly partisan vote against Emanuel. They would be wrong.
It was not just members of the Republican Party (of which six voted in favor of confirming Emanuel); three members of the Democratic Party, to which Emanuel belongs, voted against him. Furthermore, six Democratic senators, including former vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine chose not to vote.
In contrast, of the 12 who voted against Hagerty in the previous example, all were Democrats. And they were in the minority as most of his Democratic Party colleagues voted to support him, in part because of his extensive experience in Japan, which Emanuel does not have.
This should be worrisome for the government of Japan, which desires the ambassadors sent to Tokyo to have influence and support in their home governments. Again, Emanuel does not seem to enjoy this.
What Emanuel does have, however, is a reputation for negotiating and hard bargaining. His viciousness makes it easy for him to get what he wants. He has made many enemies along the way of his 40-year career in politics. He has also made a lot of money, not necessarily well deserved.
Nevertheless, that his confirmation was a given was clear from the many tells Emanuel gave off during the generally benign interaction during the confirmation hearings. Despite the change of tone of his voice and the unusual nonuse of profanities, it still felt as if he were lecturing the veteran senators on the Indo-Pacific region in which he himself has barely stepped foot.
While the Japanese government immediately welcomed the news of his confirmation, it should probably be careful what it wishes for.
If it was paying attention, the Japanese government would have seen that he was handed his marching orders during those hearings. Specifically, he was told to consult or put pressure on Japan in the following ways: defense spending, international contributions, cooperation on trade and supply chains, legal and judicial matters involving U.S. citizens and improving relations between Japan and South Korea (which one high-ranking senator seemed to think was Japan’s fault).
I would add three more. First, Japan is focusing heavily on science, technology and innovation, and Emanuel, according to his well-written 2020 book, “The Nation City,” also gave these areas much attention when trying to make Chicago a business and research hub. I hope he works closely with the Japanese government, especially the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Science and the Council on Science, Technology and Innovation, to help them further expand academic and applied research and disseminate the results.
Second, as an ambassador of Jewish faith with strong connections to Israel, Emanuel should help promote the relationship between Japan and the place where he spent much of his youth. The two countries are allies in all but name and will increasingly need one another, particularly in the area of supply chains and economic security, cyber, space and other security challenges.
The third is not directed at Japan. It has to do with the U.S. getting its own house in order — cleaning up some of the mess that exists on American bases, particularly Camp Zama, with regard to Japanese workers, some of whom have raised serious allegations about poor treatment and wrongful terminations as reported in the local press. Disappointingly, neither U.S. Forces Japan nor the Department of the Army seems willing or able to do anything about it.
This latter is one of the many roles of the American ambassador, as the senior U.S. representative in Japan. If there is anybody good at banging heads together, it is Emanuel. Let’s hope “Rahmbo,” one of his other famous nicknames, can do this to improve bilateral relations.
Robert D. Eldridge was an associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University from 2001 to 2009 and the former political and public diplomacy adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan. He is the author of “Okinawa’s Media and the Media’s Okinawa” (Reed, 2019) and other works.
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