Can the Japan-US Alliance Survive the Trump Presidency?


US President Donald Trump managed to assuage Japanese security anxieties during Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s visit last February. But political scientist Nakayama Toshihiro cautions that Trump’s America-first approach could undermine the foundations on which Japan and the United States have built their bilateral security partnership.

Some 10 weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, the pitch of general anxiety has fallen somewhat, but uncertainties still abound. For the Japanese, the highlight of these early months was doubtless Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s mid-February visit to Washington DC and Palm Beach, Florida. During the course of formal talks and informal face time at the White House and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Abe managed to alleviate Japan’s most urgent concerns regarding the future of the bilateral relationship, particularly with respect to security.

There was ample need for reassurance. While Trump's victory set off alarms all over the globe, few countries can have regarded the new administration with greater apprehension than Japan, given the tenor of Trump’s comments during the election campaign and the importance of the United States to Japan. Suddenly, the Japan-US alliance—the very cornerstone of Japanese security—seemed to stand on shaky ground.

The Japanese public has been assailed by similar doubts. Everywhere I speak, people ask me whether Japan can continue to rely on the United States. Distrust of Donald Trump has become a prime rationale for an “independent defense policy,” on the right as well as the left. Of course, what one means by an independent defense policy depends very much on where one falls along the political spectrum. The point to note is that the left and right are more united than ever in their distrust of Washington.

Rally cries aside, however, alliance with the United States remains Japan’s only realistic security option, and this knowledge has engendered a feeling of helpless frustration. The current situation has driven home the fact that Japan is a nation bereft of security options.

Obama, Abe, and the “Alliance of Hope”

Of course, this is not the first time that Japanese faith in the Japan-US alliance has been shaken. A certain malaise has always lurked beneath the surface. In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union—a common threat to both countries—some experts were suggesting that the Japan-US Security Treaty had lost its whole raison d’être.

By the second half of the 1990s, however, the alliance had begun to take on new meaning, not simply as insurance against a possible security threat but as a joint undertaking by two partners to build and maintain an East Asian order based on the progressive democratic values they shared.

Viewed objectively, the Japan-US alliance is a lopsided one, in which Japan is disproportionately dependent on the United States. The inequality built into the security relationship has always rankled with the Japanese. But when we define the alliance more broadly as a commitment between partners with shared values to uphold a regional and global order, it becomes possible for Japan to view itself as America’s equal with respect to the strength of this commitment, even if the capabilities it can devote to the task are substantially different.

In this sense, Tokyo’s use of such expressions as “alliance of values” and “alliance of hope” to describe Japan-US ties in recent years was more than empty rhetoric. Such language helped perform the vital political function of communicating the raison d’être of a Japan-US alliance in the twenty-first century. Supported by such discourse, the relationship matured and deepened under the leadership of Abe and President Barack Obama. Officials on both sides of the Pacific agreed that the health of the alliance had never been better.

In terms of strategic outcomes, Obama’s foreign policy is open to criticism. But one of its signal achievements was that of getting the Japan-US alliance firmly back on track and strengthening bilateral security ties.

Dashed Hopes

In terms of building on this legacy, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the right mix of policies. There is no getting around the fact that Japan, like the rest of the world, was banking heavily on a Clinton victory in the November 2016 election. Japan’s leaders assumed that Clinton would continue Obama’s policy of rebalancing toward Asia. They also had reason to suppose that US foreign policy under a Clinton presidency would revert to its basic tradition of muscular internationalism following the lofty intellectualism of the Obama years. At the same time, they anticipated a commitment to multilateral cooperation, as opposed to the unilateralism that characterized the foreign policy of President George W. Bush. In short, there was every reason to expect a further deepening of the bilateral relationship that had been restored to health during the era of Abe and Obama.

Like the rest of the world, the Japanese were caught off balance by the American electorate’s choice. Trump has displayed a singular lack of knowledge and insight on foreign policy and security matters. During the election campaign, he actually seemed to be avoiding contact with the US foreign-policy and security establishment.

In any case, Trump’s underlying worldview is simple and consistent: America first. The basic elements of this worldview were in place long before Trump ran for president. They consist of a tendency toward conservatism, isolationism, and exclusionism—or, if exclusionism seems a bit too harsh, then let us say a tendency to express openly and unapologetically the deep-seated nativist impulses that most hesitate to express. I use the word tendency advisedly, since Trump’s thinking is not precise or intellectually rigorous enough to be described as an ideology.

Trump telegraphed his America-first orientation quite clearly during the campaign, and he continued to do so after his election. The message was that a Trump administration would not waste its time with such abstractions as upholding international norms or building a world order. Rather, it would focus on dealing with direct threats to US security and pursuing without hesitation national interests of the sort one can assess in material terms. In his January 20 inauguration address, Trump took this America-first message to the world.

Undermining the Alliance’s Moral Foundation

Of course, America has always pursued its own interests. But it has pursued them by incorporating them into the global systems and norms that it has built and sustained through its own power and put into practice at the regional level in cooperation with its allies. At times, to be sure, it has been guilty of a double standard. Still, the systems and norms that the United States has sustained in partnership with its allies form the bedrock of a liberal international order that has benefited countless nations around the world. And Japan is one of the nations that have benefited the most.

Under the postwar Constitution, Japan renounced the kind of hard power that countries have traditionally needed if they are to create an international environment that operates to their advantage. Lacking such power, it has relied above all on the stability of the international systems and norms that circumscribe and guide the behavior of individual nations. Without such stability, it would be nearly impossible to predict and respond to developments in a fluid and uncertain international milieu.

Japan’s renunciation of hard power and its reliance on the liberal international order explain why the Japan-US alliance was our only security option from the beginning, and why—notwithstanding occasional questions as to America’s reliability—it has remained our best option throughout. For the most part, the Japanese people recognized this fact of life intuitively, which is why anti-American forces opposed to the bilateral security arrangements have remained relatively quiescent since the renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1970.

However, Trump’s demonizing of Japan during the election and the America-first view he has clung to since his inauguration have forced many in Japan to imagine a future in which their security no longer hinges on the Japan-US alliance. The rhetoric of narrow self-interest, replacing the language of partnership and shared values, threatens to undermine the moral foundation of the alliance.

Abe’s Unemotional Realism

Despite the profound anxiety produced by Trump’s rhetoric, we have yet to see signs of a major surge in anti-Washington sentiment at the political level. While Japanese leaders are deeply troubled by Trump’s style, their response has been quite restrained compared with that seen in much of Europe.

One’s interpretation of this behavior will doubtless depend on one’s political affiliation. Some will characterize it as a manifestation of Japanese realism and flexibility, while others will attribute it to a habitual attitude of subservience toward our Western overlords. But surely there is something to be said in favor of the cool, realistic view that we in Japan can do nothing about whom Americans choose for president beyond working to build as healthy a bilateral relationship as possible, regardless of our personal feelings about that choice. With this in mind, Prime Minister Abe went cheerfully along with the program at the White House and Mar-a-Lago and succeeded in getting into Trump’s good graces.

The fact is that despite the ongoing noise on both sides of the Pacific, it remains to be seen how the Trump administration will unfold for Japan. Some have characterized the recent bombing of Syria as a repudiation of the America-first doctrine, but here, too, it is simply too early to judge. Overreacting to each new development is not in our own best interests. It would seem, after all, that the wisest course at this point is a policy of watchful waiting.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 8, 2017. Banner photo: US President Donald Trump extends a warm welcome to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō just before the two leaders’ press conference at the White House on February 10, 2017. ©Reuters/Aflo)

Abe Shinzō Japan-US Alliance national security Donald Trump