Student Blog | The U.S. Presidential Election and the Future of Japan-US Relations

Dr. Toshihiro Nakayama of Keio University lectures at the Tower Center Nov. 15.

When he would quip, “the U.S. is now the geopolitical uncertainty” Dr. Toshihiro Nakayama of Keio University never anticipated that the U.S. would actually become the world’s new geopolitical uncertainty. Rather than raising cynical laughter, in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, this statement holds a great deal of clout.

In his talk at the Tower Center, “The U.S. Presidential Election and the Future of Japan-US Relations”, Dr. Nakayama discussed the uncertainty posed by President-elect Donald Trump’s victory to the established U.S.-Japan alliance. Nakayama approached  the issue unbiased, without declaring support for either candidate. His point was a simple – the United States must have an ally in the Asia Pacific, and Japan is the best choice.

Prior to the election results, Hillary Clinton’s projected victory was easily accepted by Japan. It was expected that a Clinton administration would be a continuation of Obama-style policy. While George W. Bush’s foreign policy was considered “too forward leaning”, President Obama has been noted for having the opposite problem. Clinton was expected to be the right balance. Japan, like most of the world, was interested in the “Trump phenomena,” but no one anticipated the reality of a Trump administration.

The Alliance Under Obama

At the onset of his presidency Obama was by no means a foreign policy or national security expert. Yet after the tragedy of March 11, Japan truly found a friend in the United States in its time of crisis. Obama is also popular in Japan for his Global Zero stance on nuclear weapons and his much-appreciated visit to Hiroshima.

Nakayama noted that Obama’s Pivot to Asia or “rebalancing” was considered comprehensive and ambitious. Prior to these efforts the United States’s integration into the Asia Pacific was a stack of bilateral relationships –Obama made this stack a regional to-do list. The attempted Pivot was a positive effort, but the messaging wasn’t right. This laundry list wasn’t prioritized, and it sparked myriad unsatisfied interpretations. China felt contained, the West felt abandoned, and Japan was unsure of the United States’s newly bolstered commitment.

For example, while the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was anticipated to hold great symbolic, economic and political implications, it is now more or less dead. This withdrawal only further calls U.S. regional dedication into question. At this point Nakayama emphasized that the United States must “choose to be here.”

Moreover, while Japan normally isn’t talked about in elections, this cycle was a marked difference. During his campaign, Trump called Japan a free rider, said that it was OK for Japan to become a full-fledged nuclear power, and lumped Japan and China together as unfair trade. This understandably worries Japan.

“We feel a bit nervous,” Nakayama said.

The Alliance Under Trump

Both under and prior to the Obama administration, the U.S.-Japan alliance was not simply about countering threats; it was the narrative of two nations with shared values upholding liberal, open, rule-based regional order. Prime Minister Abe likes to call the U.S.-Japan relationship the “Alliance of Hope.” Under the Trump administration does this narrative still make sense? If current rhetoric is to be the standard, the answer is simply, no.

Again Nakayama noted that he isn’t inherently anti-Trump. However, even though Trump’s future foreign policy is uncertain, there is a consistency to his worldview. Trump puts the United States first, and as a result his view of national security is extremely, if not excessively, narrow. Since the end of World War II, upholding international order and norms has been central to U.S. national interest – that’s how the United States became so influential. Trump’s consistency in denying this facet of national security is concerning.

This concern is particularly potent for the U.S.-Japan alliance, as the alliance doesn’t produce immediate tangible benefits. Trump has made clear that he is not firm in the United States’s pre-established global commitments. At the moment, Japan’s primary concern is the prevention of an Asia-Pacific ruled by a China-centric order. While China probably won’t challenge the United States in a global context, there is a definite possibility that it will in a regional context. Not many states are or can outwardly be against a China-centric region; Japan stands alone.

“[Japan] needs friends and our only option is the U.S.,” Nakayama said.

Why Help Japan?

Nakayama stressed, that the United States should help Japan, if for no other reason, because it’s the best deal. The United States must recognize the importance of having a regional ally for both economic and security reasons. The United States cannot sacrifice the economic growth and job making opportunities posed by the Asia Pacific, nor can it risk becoming a removed deterrent threat. Australia isn’t integrated enough to provide sufficient access, and South Korea is struggling with heavy protestation of President Park and possibly anti-American sentiments. Meanwhile, Japan is a stable democracy with high education rates and no civil unrest. Eighty percent, of Japan’s population, supports the U.S.-Japan alliance, and Japan wants to continue cooperating. Nakayama only hopes that Trump will attempt to persuade the American people of the same.

“Trump is not the cause, he is the symptom,” he said, of our domestic political atmosphere. When speaking with Trump supporters, Nakayama said that he feels their sense of loss and sees why they viewed Trump as their last best hope. Both within and outside the United States Trump supporters weren’t taken seriously and there was a sense of arrogance to that dismissal. Despite Trump’s more anti-global campaign rhetoric, Nakayama remarked that the President of the United States will remain what President Kennedy called the “vital center,” and thus we must hope that he will play a more active and positive role in foreign politics.

Claire Huitt is a senior at Southern Methodist University triple majoring in public policy, economics, and political science with a focus on international relations and the Asian Pacific. She is a Bauer Scholar in Political Science, Hamilton Scholar, Engaged Learning Fellow, a representative of IGNITE Women in Politics, Chair on Asian Pacific Relations with the Tower Center Student Forum, Dedman School of Law Pre-Law Scholar, New Century Scholar, and a member of the University Honors Program. After graduation Claire intends to attend law school and pursue a career in international law and foreign affairs.