CSIS says appoint Al Gore as Japan ambassador — um, what?

I haven’t posted my reaction to Obama’s election, but suffice to say I voted for him and I am delighted to see a damn fine human being leading my country. That out of the way, I have an opinion I would like to share.

A CSIS Asia policy hand has this suggestion for Obama with regard to Japan policy:

President-elect Obama also needs to send some early signals of reassurance to Japan. For reasons not entirely clear or logical, there is a widespread perception in Japan that Republicans like Japan more than Democrats do and growing concern that an Obama administration will continue the U.S. “tilt” toward China that many in Japan perceive (in my view wrongly) as already underway. Making sure a few well-known Japan-hands are in senior positions at the State Department and National Security Council will help in this regard, as will naming a prominent, well-respected former official as ambassador to Tokyo – names like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye or even former (Republican) Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage come immediately to mind. Former Vice President (and Nobel Laureate) Al Gore would be a particularly inspired (but probably unrealistic) choice.

I appreciate the attention paid to these issues by Mr. Cossa, and obviously Obama needs good advisers in the Asia policy realm.

And I’ll accept that there is much hand-wringing in Japan and at the Japanese embassy on Mass Ave on how well the US will value the US-Japan relationship, the tilt toward China, and all that. But why do unclear and illogical concerns justify throwing them a bone like Al Gore? That assumes consequences for not making conciliatory gestures by giving an auto-pilot ambassadorship to one of the US’ most active and valued elder statesmen. But what would Japan do if a relative lightweight is appointed? Japan is inextricably linked to the US for the conceivable future, and unless Obama makes a series of truly humiliating and harmful decisions, nothing about that will change. The wish for high-profile appointees in the Asia policy realm is justified only by the self-interest of the policy wonks themselves, and how worthless is that from a class of people whose job it is to make objective assessments of US national interest? To venture a conjecture, Cossa may be throwing out the most obvious choices and one ridiculous choice as a way of offering an indirect recommendation for someone within his organization, Michael Green, the CSIS Japan Chair and a former Bush adviser on Asia-related national security policy.

And even if Obama did put in Armitage or Green or another figure beloved by the Japan policy circles, would that do anything to alleviate the impact of the potential friction points, such as divergence on the NK issue, favoring China, or trade problems? I doubt it.

I also don’t see much reason for putting people with very strong opinions like Armitage, Green, or Nye into the position of ambassador, which is really more about being inconspicuous and conciliatory than the leading thinker on the state of the US-Japan alliance. Japan policy circles might swoon, but there’s little reason to bend over backwards to please them.

17 thoughts on “CSIS says appoint Al Gore as Japan ambassador — um, what?

  1. If there is a “problem” in the US Japan alliance at present, I think that it is a problem of perception.

    No matter what the US government does (within reason), a strong majority of Japanese will continue to have “good” feelings toward Americans.

    No matter what the US government does, Japan is unlikely to become a beefy military partner in the foreseeable future.

    No matter what the Japanese government does (within reason), Americans that like Japan will like it and those that don’t, won’t.

    No matter what the Japanese government does (like say, not significantly increasing its commitment to the US-Japanese security alliance for 4 decades) America will more than likely continue to want Japanese support in international dealings and continue to value the paid for base situation that it enjoys in Japan, allowing it to project big power power in Asia. For all of the grumbling about a “free ride”, Americans in power know that they are getting enough out of the deal to make it worth while.

    So would dropping (wasting) Al Gore on Japan really make a difference? I agree with Adamu that these name brand guys would certainly not. Anyone will be better than the current “greatest force of freedom in the Pacific” (did anyone else see this hayseed speech when the George Washington pulled in?) gimp.

    If American wants some feel good images among the Japanese public, Obama should go over here, dip in his namesake onsen, eat sushi, say he likes manga, laugh it up, and all of a sudden everybody loves Democrats. That would also make Japanese elites feel plenty valued. The Japanese media is already setting the stage with LOTS of positive Obama images.

    In dealing with the LDP, they should acknowledge that the party is on the ropes and not make any obnoxious demands until things have settled down. If the Minshuto gets in, that is the time to talk turkey – there is lots of common ground there as well.

    Shelving the idea that a “problem” exists and going for a feel good presidential tour would be plenty at present.

  2. Personally, I would not reward Obama City for their behavior—they are overdoing it in the most tacky way imaginable— but otherwise sure.

  3. “they are overdoing it in the most tacky way imaginable”

    So is Obama Onsen in Nagasaki-ken… But… I’ll take “Obamania” over whatever passes for class these days.

    BTW, I think that you are also 100% right about the report that you quoted being a sort of “pay attention to us!” appeal by CSIS. It is really frustrating how think tanks are always finding mysterious “tension” in what otherwise look like solid bilaterial relations. “Tension” means “give us $2,000,000 for a study”. The “study” will likely find more “tension” and the next “study” will cost $2,500,000.

  4. The whole premise of the article is retarded.

    For reasons not entirely clear or logical, there is a widespread perception in Japan that Republicans like Japan more than Democrats

    Not entirely logical? On what planet has Mr. Cossa been living for the past two decades? Republican administrations expressly emphasize the Japan relationship for security reasons to balance China’s continental dominance, resulting partially from typical conservative foreign policy fondness carrying over from its role during the Cold War. Yes, it was Republicans Nixon and Bush who pushed to normalize relations with China, but never at the expense of the relationship with Japan, unlike Clinton, whose calousness in handling the relationship at the expense of warming relations with Japan was breathtaking.

    Making sure a few well-known Japan-hands are in senior positions at the State Department and National Security Council will help in this regard, as will naming a prominent, well-respected former official as ambassador to Tokyo – names like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye or even former (Republican) Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage come immediately to mind. Former Vice President (and Nobel Laureate) Al Gore would be a particularly inspired (but probably unrealistic) choice.

    Wrong and wrong—Daschle, Nye and Gore don’t qualify as “Japan hands,” and even if they did, that’s not what Japan ever looks for. Japan looks for ambassadors who are close to the center of power and who have influence in the White House. Daschle would qualify on those grounds, but Nye? A has-been wanabe! And Gore? Maybe—but what woudl Gore want with a job like that.

    And I can’t believe you didn’t link to my four year old, definitive post on this topic!
    http://cominganarchy.com/2004/11/08/americas-ambassadors-to-japan/

  5. The Ambassador to Japan is usualy a post where you place someone important but that you want to disappear, like Walter Mondale.

  6. A guy I know from college is doing JET or something in Obama city. I can imagine a lot of people were forcing drinks on him last week.

  7. I think it unlikely he will appoint someone like Green. Word on the street here in DC is that he really drank the Bush Kool-Aid while serving under that Administration. That, and the fact that I think he was involved in McCain’s campaign, might make him toxic to a Democratic Administration. Plus, based on a recent White House announcement, it looks like he might already have earned the lifetime appellation of Ambassador:

    The President intends to nominate Michael J. Green, of Maryland, to be the United States Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma with the Rank of Ambassador.

    Full press release here:
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/11/20081110-8.html

    I am a little puzzled by the inclusion of Joe Nye in this list and think Cossa might have included him for personal reasons. My (somewhat dated) observation is that Nye seems to have gained some traction within the Japan community—of which Cossa is an active part—in recent years. To venture a conjecture myself, this might be because the Japanese like being held up as a shining example of “soft power,” and Nye is the perfect advocate.

    Finally, while I see the argument that Cossa tried to make about Japan’s “irrational” fear of Democrats, I agree with Curzon that there are justifiable reasons for that fear. I heard something interesting from a former Japanese government official in an off-the-record meeting once that touched upon this fear and which I may as well throw out there in paraphrase for discussion. He said that one reason many Japanese mistrust the Democrats is because their “idealism” makes them unpredictable. That is, they often say one (terribly idealistic) thing and then do another, and the Japanese seem to have a difficult time sorting out the honne from the tatemae, as it were. (Ironic, I know.) He added that with Republicans, the Japanese feel that they know where these guys stand, and they know what to expect from them. They know that the Republicans are going to be with them 100% of the time and that they will always have their backs.

  8. Could that appointment be Green’s best chance of surviving? I mean, I wonder if Obama even has any clue about what his Burma agenda will be.

  9. “They know that the Republicans are going to be with them 100% of the time and that they will always have their backs.”

    But could this be a matter of perception mixed with the fact that the Republicans tend to have staff that whistle the right tune in Japan’s direction more often than the Democrats? Japanese policymakers have had ample opportunity during Republican administrations to feel that Republicans “do not have their back” or that the U.S. had acted without notifying Japan first, most recently removing NK from the terror list despite the widely-held supposition in Japan that participation in Iraq would yield U.S. cooperation on North Korea issues. Given that Republican moves have created plenty of consternation in Japan over the years, I would suggest that the difference between the two parties’ approaches lies in the recognition by Republicans that there should be people to “manage” Japan sympathetically when problems arise.

  10. Or alternately, perhaps Japan simply has small-nation syndrome. That is, any attention from a large power is interpreted as enhancing its status. Republicans may not have Japan’s back all the time, but they certainly do pay more attention to the relationship.

  11. “My (somewhat dated) observation is that Nye seems to have gained some traction within the Japan community—of which Cossa is an active part—in recent years.”

    I’ve noticed.Especially after reading his political fiction titled “Dirty Handsダーティハンズ”on Monthly Gaiko-Forum magazine,a few years back.
    Nye insisted the editors that the fiction will be published only in Japan,I think same kind of arrangement was made when Chuo-Koron had published “ワシントンの仕事師世界をゆく”for a year.

    I always feel very dissapointed with all these Japan-only publishing.FujiTV had paid huge bucks to let Frederick Forsyth to write “The Hiding Places”,a fiction based in Japan with Japanese characters.Brian Freemantle and Jeffrey Archer had also wrote something along these lines.

    Anybody saw the recent NHK Special featuring J-embassy trying to sell Japan to power circle in DC? There was a scene with four J-diplomats paying pilgrimage to Mike Green and asking advices.I’d imagine everyone wants Green to be in Washington and stay as the transmitter of US-Japan relations.

  12. “Chuo-Koron had published “ワシントンの仕事師世界をゆく”for a year.”

    That was by Armitage,not Nye.

  13. “Well put.”

    Thanks. Really, a few years back, people were talking about Canada-US relations being in the toilet (after Canada gave a great big “No” on Iraq). A new Canadian government came in, some platitudes followed, nothing really important happened, and all of a sudden, things are peachy. Another problem of perception. These relationships are generally so solid that they can run on auto-pilot. So barring something from a sci-fi movie (Japan unilaterally scrapping the defense alliance or Canada allowing Russian missiles to be deployed on its soil, chuckle) they can be taken for granted.

    In my opinion, the most serious consequence of the Bush years may not be Iraq, it may not even be the economy, it may be the overall damage to American credibility and 発言力 everywhere from South America, to Africa, to Europe, etc. Resources need to be pushed in this direction – not toward fixing “problems” with Japan.

  14. “Anybody saw the recent NHK Special featuring J-embassy trying to sell Japan to power circle in DC? ”

    Yes, I saw that. Earl H Kinmouth, the perennial contrarian over at NBR put it online, but it has since been removed. It did seem to suggest that Japan would be worse off under a Democratic Administration and even played cheap horror music when the spectre of Chinese influence in Washington was raised.

  15. “In my opinion, the most serious consequence of the Bush years may not be Iraq, it may not even be the economy, it may be the overall damage to American credibility and 発言力 everywhere from South America, to Africa, to Europe, etc. Resources need to be pushed in this direction – not toward fixing “problems” with Japan.”

    Yeah,but perception is the basis of any relation and it is undeniable fact that many in Tokyo think the “problem” over alliances need to be fixed.I know few could care less about abduction issues and all those North Korean venture by the guy name Hill,but still there’s the feeling of being betrayed by Washington in the air in Nagatacho/Kasumigaseki.
    What if Obama try to change things so dramatically and shift Asian policy toward more multilateral based instead of alliances,like making siz-party talks turning into regional security organization? or expanding G8 and allowing China to enter while Japan not being the permanent member of the security council?
    I think there willl be more need of playing the cheap horror music in the next four years.

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