Japan and the Next US President: Thinking the Unthinkable


With the US presidential primaries winding down, people around the world are struggling to come to grips with the all-but-certain outcome, particularly that on the Republican side. Nakayama Toshihiro, an expert in US politics and Japan-US relations, reflects on the foreign-policy implications for both countries.

The two winners of the US presidential primaries are no longer in question, but questions abound as to how and why things turned out as they did. In Japan as elsewhere, people are still struggling to come to grips with the outcome.

On the one hand, real estate mogul Donald Trump has all but sewn up the nomination following a bruising and chaotic battle within the Republican Party. In the process, the brash billionaire has thrown out the political rulebook and broken one taboo after another. The end result may be a GOP altered beyond recognition.

In the Democratic Party, by contrast, the race is heading toward the outcome widely anticipated, the nomination of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That said, the challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been unexpectedly tough, and in the process of beating it back, Clinton has been forced to the left. With her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton helped steer the Democratic Party toward the center with a program of “third way” reforms that constitute the core of the Clinton legacy. Now it looks like a grassroots shift back to the left has placed Hillary farther from the mainstream of her party.

Even Bill Clinton, the personification of crowd-pleasing election-campaign savvy, is looking lackluster on the stump. While Sanders supporters are “feeling the Bern,” the Clintons are struggling to drum up enthusiasm in a party that has changed fundamentally since the heyday of centrism in the 1990s.

Witnessing a Train Wreck

Once the two parties officially designate their candidates at their national nominating conventions this summer, the general election campaign will begin in earnest, and many are anticipating the ugliest US presidential race in recent history. Both candidates are viewed negatively by more than half the electorate, and both seem intent on exploiting the other’s unpopularity, making it likely that the election will be more about personality than policy.

Yet underlying this spectacle are shifts in voter sentiment that could have major implications for America’s relationship with the rest of the world and with East Asia in particular.

Whenever a US presidential election approaches, Japan’s America watchers seem to crawl out of the woodwork—myself among them. Suddenly we are everywhere, carefully following election developments and relaying them to Japan, where they enter into the general conversation. America’s political pundits are not the only ones to get really busy once every four years. Members of the international press corps covering the US presidential election frequently remark on the conspicuous presence (numerically, that is) of Japanese journalists. But the level of interest in this year’s election is far beyond anything I have ever seen.

Mind you, the Japanese followed the 2008 election with tremendous interest. They seemed to look on the rise of Barack Obama (ultimately elected as the country’s first African American president) as a symbol of the great things of which the United States was still capable. Their attitude toward the 2016 election, featuring the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism, is more akin to the fascination of witnessing a train wreck: an America preparing to burn its bridges and sever ties with the rest of the world.

Clinton’s Dilemma

From a Japanese standpoint, there is no real comparison between Clinton and Trump. Whereas Clinton presided over the policy of rebalancing toward Asia as secretary of state during Obama’s first term, Trump has zero foreign policy experience and evinces almost no interest in world affairs. But even with Clinton, there are grounds for concern over the direction of US foreign policy. The Democratic Party as a whole has grown extremely circumspect about American involvement abroad and increasingly hostile toward free trade agreements, and this shift is already making itself felt in Clinton’s campaign.

The free-trade centrism for which the Clintons are known was the product of an era in which conservative ideas were in the ascendant and the Democratic Party responded by staking out a position closer to the Republican platform. A comparable (though opposite) phenomenon occurred under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who steered his party closer to the Democrats in deference to the popularity of New Deal programs. But just as the Republican Party swung back to the right in reaction to these concessions, the Democratic base is now rejecting Clintonian centrism and swinging to the left. How will the Clinton camp cope with these headwinds?

The Japanese are comfortable with Clinton because they know her and her elite team of foreign-policy advisors. But one wonders how long she can resist the grassroots rebellion taking place in her party. Clinton is often said to be “more hawkish” by instinct than Obama, but what that means in concrete terms is hard to say.

One thing that is clear about Clinton, however, is her basic position on the vital importance of the Japan-US alliance to American interests. With her widely-touted grasp of policy in all its details and her foreign-policy experience—both as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and as US secretary of state—she understands full well the utility of the bilateral alliance. On China as well, she seems unlikely to diverge substantially from the policy pursued under Obama’s second term, barring any major course shift on the Chinese side.

The big question is to what extent the changing climate within the Democratic Party could influence Clinton’s basic orientation toward Japan and East Asia. As secretary of state, Clinton supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but during the primaries she came out against the deal as it stands now. While some Japanese observers took this shift with a grain of salt, anticipating another reversal if Clinton becomes president, such a “pivot back” is by no means guaranteed. Clinton’s evolving position on the TPP during the general election and beyond should be followed closely as a barometer of policy orientation under a Clinton administration.

The Trump Doctrine

The real wildcard, though, is Trump. While Trump has gained notoriety for his rantings on domestic policy matters, he has also made his share of outrageous comments on US relations with other countries, and Japan has been a relatively conspicuous target. Trump has suggested that Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons, hinted at an end to the Japan-US alliance, and proposed sky-high tariffs on Japanese cars sold in the United States (despite the fact that most of them are manufactured domestically by American workers). Not long ago, Japanese pundits were wondering bleakly if the topic of Japan would come up at all in the US presidential election campaign. One is reminded of the saying “Be careful what you wish for.”

US commentators have dubbed Trump the “post-policy candidate” in reference to his almost total lack of coherent policy ideas. If there are any consistent threads running through his statements concerning foreign policy, they would have to be a simplistic, bottom-line, businessman's approach to international relations and a deep discomfort with anything unfamiliar. Big-picture issues, such as the need to defend the international order and uphold international norms, interest him not at all. But can we simply dismiss all this as the babbling of someone out of touch with reality?

Washington’s foreign-policy elite treat Trump’s statements as unworthy of serious discussion. But his ideas clearly resonate with a certain sector of society: middle-aged white men, who live in the American heartland, and who found themselves jobless when the factories that employed them moved to Mexico. To such Americans, talk of “free trade” and “international norms” is meaningless cant, and America’s commitment to its allies is nothing but a financial burden.

Alarmed by Trump’s reckless ideas, more than 100 American foreign policy experts have signed an open letter saying they would not serve in a Trump administration. This may seem like a lot, or not enough, depending on your viewpoint. In any case, the absence of familiar faces among Trump’s foreign policy advisors is one of the most obvious differences between his team and Clinton’s.

Food for Thought

The truth is that no one is quite sure what to think of Trump even now. Is he a kind of populist joke born of the confused, chaotic area where politics and entertainment overlap? Or is he a truly dangerous demagogue who embodies a genuine crisis in American politics? I am inclined toward the latter assessment, and perhaps for that very reason, I tend to think that a Trump victory in the general election is unlikely. At the same time, the fact that such a candidate has made it this far forces us to acknowledge that the political situation in America is beyond our ability to comprehend or predict. Trump’s defeat is by no means a certainty.

I worry about the reaction in Japan should the unthinkable occur. Feelings of distrust and antagonism toward Washington are likely to reach new levels. In terms of realistic foreign-policy options, Japan has little choice but to uphold the bilateral alliance, but that argument will quickly lose its potency if Trump continues in his current vein. Such rhetoric will give ammunition to anti-alliance forces on both ends of the political spectrum—the right, which wants Japan to develop an independent defense capability, and the left, which has always maintained that Washington cannot be relied on. At that point, will we still be able to assert with conviction that the United States is our best option?

If nothing else, the candidacy of Donald Trump has given the Japanese ample food for thought.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 23, 2016. Banner photos: Democrat Hillary Clinton [© AP/Aflo] and Republican Donald Trump [© Reuters/Aflo] stumping during the US presidential primaries.)

diplomacy United States Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Japan-US ties