By William Brooks, APP Senior Fellow, Adjunct Professor, SAIS Johns Hopkins
This essay first appeared in the Monday, September 30th edition of the Asia Policy Calendar.
Forget any brickbats in the media: Caroline Kennedy is a wonderful choice to be the new U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Japan, like Britain, has become a key ally and friend of the United States; and Tokyo has become like London a leading cosmopolitan city. It is a logical place for a U.S. President to award a distinguished ambassadorial post to a close supporter and confidante. Unlike her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador in London during The Blitz (1940), she will enjoy the trust of the President.
Ambassador Caroline Kennedy can be expected to bring traditional diplomacy to Japan. Until now, this highly social and elegant form of statesmanship seemed more appropriate for European capitals than for Asian ones. The famous Kennedy name and the new ambassador’s personal credentials will be a tremendous boost for this kind of American-style public diplomacy. Moreover, the new ambassador will have the ear of the President, as well as the Secretary of State – extremely important for a Japan that often has seemed off the radar for Washington policymakers.
The new ambassador’s priorities will obviously include developing close personal relations with Japan’s movers and shakers in the political, government, educational and cultural sectors, as well as nurturing the already friendly ties between the two peoples. She can build on the good work that her predecessor Ambassador John Roos began under the Operation Tomodachi initiative.
In recent years, the Japanese and American societies seem to be growing somewhat distant from each other, not surprising perhaps in an environment in which pressing global issues crowd out the diplomatic and security agendas for East Asia, and given the already short attention span of the media. Indeed, the growing lack of American media interest in Japan can be charted by the scarcity of news articles and journalism, the dwindling number of Japanese students in the U.S. and vice versa, and even the waning presence of Japanese business representatives in the U.S.
The new Ambassador must not only find suitable sparring partners with important opinion leaders, but also expand efforts of the previous ambassador, also initially seen as an “amateur” to diplomacy and things Japanese, to deepen and broaden ties from the grass-roots level up. Despite being a fast read, the new ambassador will most likely need some time to learn the essentials about dealing with Japan and its bilateral issues, but she will have on hand an expert staff of diplomats and advisers who can guide her through her first months in office.
She will need to reach out quickly to the Japanese public through speeches, op-eds, and the usual array of meetings, receptions, and soirees with Tokyo’s elite. She should also get out and see the country, meeting average Japanese at every opportunity and taking advantage of Japan’s great natural beauty and the many cultural heritages sites. A climb up Mt. Fuji, just declared a World Heritage site, would be a golden opportunity.
Just about every American ambassador who has come to Tokyo sooner or later seems to encounter their own version of baptism by fire: a crisis that tests their management abilities to the core. How an ambassador resolves each crisis can shape the relationship. The famous photo of Ambassador Mike Mansfield bowing deeply in apology to Japanese leaders after a U.S. submarine had fatally collided with a Japanese fishing boat in Tokyo Bay earned the respect of many Japanese.
Ambassador Walter Mondale worked hard to bring to closure a period of great national outrage in Japan over the gang rape of a schoolgirl in Okinawa by setting in motion a mechanism to reduce the U.S. military footprint in that prefecture. Ambassador Tom Foley masterfully dealt with the tragic collision near Hawaii of a U.S. submarine and a Japanese training ship filled with students. Ambassador Howard Baker faced the horror of 9-11 and then the war on terror just after arriving at his new post in Tokyo. Ambassador Jon Roos played a critical role in U.S. efforts to console Japan and mobilize assistance after the triple earthquake disaster struck northern Japan on March 11, 2011.
Not that Ambassador Kennedy will encounter a crisis of like proportions on her watch, but the region is a dangerous place. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a direct threat to Japan and American security interests. China’s risky game of military brinksmanship in the waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands make that area a potential flashpoint should an incident or accident occur.
Ambassador Kennedy will be well served by a team of experts and advisers already in place in the U.S. Embassy, and she will be kept well informed of moods and trends in Japan by media watchers in the press section. Some key issues seem now well underway toward resolution, such as Japan as part of a TPP agreement. Others, such as the resolution of U.S. basing in Okinawa, remain open and contentious. These will demand concerted efforts in Washington and Tokyo, and some imagination.
Most important, the Ambassador will have to ensure that democracy flourishes in Japan as the security environment worsens. Unlike her grandfather in embattled Britain, she cannot dismiss democracy as impractical or capitulation as inevitable. She promises to be an ardent defender of human rights, individual liberties, tolerance, and women’s empowerment. A fresh look by the new ambassador and her team at the current state of U.S.-Japan relations that goes beyond the usual defense and security perimeters may be just what is needed.
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