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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 09:18 06/16/2008
June 16, 2008

The Next U.S. Administration: Implications for U.S.-Japan Relations

Weston Konishi (Council of Foreign Relations, U.S.A., and Hitachi International Affairs Fellow in Japan)

This is a partial summary of Mr. Konishi's presentation at the June meeting of the Global Communication Platform seminar, which was held at GLOCOM Hall in Roppongi, Tokyo, on June 12, 2008.


I recently visited Washington D.C., and had a chance to talk to some advisors and staff members of the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. Although domestic problems, such as unemployment and high oil prices, are the central campaign issues, there are some emerging differences between the two camps in their policies toward the Asian region, including Japan. The following is my "snapshot" comparison of the two candidates in this regard.

First of all, there is a clear contrast between the foreign policy advisors in each camp. The McCain foreign policy group is dominated by a number of "big names" such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Brent Scowcroft, Richard Armitage and Joe Lieberman, whereas the Obama team has fewer household names. Perhaps the most prominent Obama foreign policy advisory is Anthony Lake, former national security advisor to President Clinton. McCain's foreign policy advisory team consists of a typical mix of conservative members, with some neo-conservatives and at least one independent member; whereas on the Obama side there are liberals and moderates, as one might expect, but also a few Republicans who have joined the Obama camp this time, including Gordon Flake of the Mansfield Foundation.

With regard to their Asia policy teams, the McCain camp has a small group, say, only a handful of advisors on Asia policy issues, while the Obama camp has a group of 15 or more advisors in charge of Asia related agenda items. It seems from the faces of those advisors that the McCain team has a preponderance of expertise in Japan, followed by China and Korea, whereas the Obama team has more China experts, followed by experts in Japan and Korea.

One point that is clear at this juncture is that the McCain team has had time to sharpen its foreign policy message. The Obama team, on the other hand, was in a holding pattern until the prolonged primary battle within the Democratic Party was settled in early June.

What are some of the messages about Asia policy that the McCain camp has issued so far? First, is that Japan is the number one, key ally and nation for the U.S. in Asia. Second, the McCain team is emphasizing its support for free trade, especially in contrast to Obama and the Democrats, who they label as protectionists. Third, interestingly, McCain is trying to link Iraq to Asia policy by suggesting that Obama's pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq would lead to increased anxiety in Asia about the U.S. strategic commitment in the region. This is a very nuanced critique of Obama's position, and will probably become a bone of contention as the campaign heats up. Fourth, the McCain people have tried to preempt the Democrats' position on "soft" issues, like global warming, by promising that a McCain administration would cooperate with Japan and other countries in environmental protection and climate change. That is a card that the Democrats would like to play, but that the McCain camp has proposed first.

Turning to the Obama camp's response to the above four points, first, although there is a strong core of China experts within the Obama camp, few people would argue against the assertion that Japan should be the number one ally for the U.S. in Asia. Regarding the second point on free trade, there might be some division between the Asia advisory team and the professional campaign staff over this issue. My sense is that the foreign policy team is more supportive of free trade than most Democratic voters, which is why the campaign staff is bolstering Obama's protectionist image. Third, I expect the linkage of a potential U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to strategic commitments in Asia to be vehemently opposed by the Obama camp at some point. Fourth, the Obama team will likely come up with a package of plans and proposals to deal aggressively with climate change and environmental issues. Therefore, we can expect a future set of debates to take place on this point.

One policy proposal that we should pay attention to is the idea of a so-called "Concert of Democracies," or "League of Democracies," as McCain puts it. This grouping of democratically like-minded nations would be formed in order to more effectively deal with global challenges when the United Nations and other multilateral institutions fail to act. McCain has consistently argued for a League of Democracies throughout his campaign, but even key members of the Obama foreign policy team endorse some version of this idea. In fact, Anthony Lake, Obama's top advisor, has voiced support for this idea. It is not yet clear how both camps differ on a Concert of Democracies, but one point that might split the two sides is whether to make such a concert "exclusive" or "inclusive." Judging from the comments of advisors in both camps, it appears that the McCain people prefer a more exclusive club of nations, such as the so-called "strategic quad" in Asia, consisting of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. Obama advisors, on the other hand, appear to favor a more inclusive grouping of nations that would strike a less ambivalent posture vis--vis certain nations.

In the course of the campaign so far, the Middle East has been the dominant foreign policy issue, while Asia has not emerged as a significant point of contention (with the possible exception of policy toward North Korea). Although this could change in the future, Japan is unlikely to be taken up as a campaign issue by either candidate, and no radical shift can be expected in U.S. policies toward Japan, regardless of which candidate wins this time. Nevertheless, Japan should stay on top of competing visions of a potential Concert of Democracies, which would likely have real implications for U.S. policy toward Japan as well as Japan's own foreign policy. Japan needs to start thinking about how it might play a role in such a coalition of democracies and to what degree it is willing to be an active member, given the current political inertia in Japan. In this context, it is possible that the "values-oriented" diplomacy proposed by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his foreign minister, Aso Taro, may reemerge as a focal point of Japanese foreign policy.

Finally, we often hear that Japanese leaders and policymakers have not established adequately close ties with liberals and Democrats in the U.S. If this is true, Japan should consider the fact that the Obama team is made up of relatively young advisors who represent the next generation of "Asia hands.".The Government of Japan would be wise to forge stronger working relations with this cohort of advisors and to consider substantive ways for both nations to work together on global challenges in the future.

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