Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s summit with U.S. President Donald J. Trump this week at Mar-a-Lago maintained all the usual trappings and chummy theatrics of their public bromance. Throughout the two-day summit, in both public speeches and on Twitter, Trump heaped compliments on Abe and Japan, while treating his guest to another round of golf diplomacy. Yet despite the golf game and a brief respite from his troubles at home, the Japanese Prime Minister is heading back to Tokyo all but empty-handed. The summit was most notable as a turning point for Japan, clarifying that Tokyo must now embrace and advance its newfound role upholding the beleaguered liberal international order without an enthusiastic Washington leading the way.
Abe was hoping for a major foreign policy breakthrough, and expectations were high given his successful track record of managing Trump. He also hoped to boost his flagging poll numbers at home, which have recently reached historic lows of just above 20 percent. However, he failed to reach a tangible agreement with Trump over any major policy issues, apart from a promise to raise the issue of Japanese abductees in North Korea in forthcoming talks with Kim Jong-un. The summit showed the pitfalls of Abe’s excessive reliance on his personal relationship with Trump. Japan received its baptism into Trump’s signature “art of the deal”: a transactional, bilateral approach to alliance management conducted with little regard for broader global stakes.
Abe’s “bromance” strategy has backfired largely because of Trump’s peculiar personality and the circumstances around his presidency. Since returning to office in December 2012, the Japanese Prime Minister has successfully cultivated and leveraged a personal rapport with strongmen around the world, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When Trump was elected in November 2016, Abe hoped to do the same, and became the first world leader to meet the then-President-elect at Trump Tower, followed by official summits with obligatory golf diplomacy throughout the following year. Unlike Abe’s autocratic Eurasian partners, however, his American counterpart has from the start been under fire from all corners, prone to volatile policy shifts and fixating on quickly manufactured policy accomplishments to sustain his presidency.
During the latest Mar-a-Lago summit, Trump again seized the initiative from Abe and caught the Japanese Prime Minister off guard. Even before the summit, the two leaders differed over many important items on the alliance agenda, including North Korea. For example, Abe had long abandoned the option of direct engagement with Pyongyang and instead sought “maximum pressure”on North Korea with the aim of isolating the country on the world stage. By contrast, Trump recently opened secret communication channels with Pyongyang, using Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assets—and a clandestine trip by Director Mike Pompeo—to pave the way for an official dialogue with Kim Jon-un. Lacking comparable intelligence capabilities, Abe was blindsided when Trump dropped this bombshell while standing next to him. (Trump’s announcement in March of his intention to meet Kim had already surprised Abe, leading the Japanese Prime Minister to make an about-face and seek an official summit with the North Korean leader.)
While maintaining the same rhetoric of “maximum pressure” at Mar-a-Lago, Abe acquiesced to Trump’s preferred form of engagement with Pyongyang. Having yielded the initiative to Trump on North Korea, the Japanese leader found himself in a worse position to discuss international trade the following day, especially after the U.S. President’s nighttime tweetstorm rejecting a return to the Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP), which Abe had been personally championing.
The two-day summit at Mar-a-Lago confirmed the changing dynamics of the U.S.-Japan alliance. For decades, the United States utilized the alliance largely as part of its global security strategy, in service of its forward-deployed assets. President Obama’s 2012 “Pivot to Asia” strategy significantly expanded the scope of the alliance and sought to leverage it as a key pillar for multilateral engagement in the region. Obama’s renewed Asia strategy was a departure from Washington’s traditional “hub-and-spoke” engagement in the region, spawning multilateral frameworks, such as the TPP, and leading to the globalization of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
By contrast, Trump’s transactional, bilateral approach to the region is essentially a reversion to the old “hub-and-spoke” strategy. Meanwhile, Japan is no longer just a “spoke” in Washington’s regional engagement and has emerged under Abe as a proactive player in shaping the regional order. Indeed, Japan has been the de facto leader of the new TPP-11 format and is also involved in many other multilateral regional frameworks, particularly the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Moscow-proposed connectivity project for the Far East. In short, as Washington increasingly becomes introverted with its preference for “America First” and bilateral engagement, Tokyo finds itself in a unique international position as a proactive leader both willing and capable of globalizing the alliance.
In charting the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Japan must maximize this emerging international role. The first imperative for Tokyo should be to institutionalize the shifting dynamics of the alliance. Japan’s newfound role is largely a legacy of Abe’s proactive foreign policy. As the Japanese Prime Minister faces the toughest political scandal of his career, Tokyo must ensure that its growing international clout survives his potential exit after the upcoming general election this year.
Such an undertaking would first involve conceptualization of a U.S.-Japan+Alpha formula, a possible framework for a multilateral approach to the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe’s single most important foreign policy legacy is his cultivation of burgeoning personal relations with an expanding network of contacts around the globe—not only democratic leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel but also autocratic strongmen like Putin and Erdoğan. In other words, Japan has been emerging as a bridge to many countries that Washington increasingly has difficulty dealing with. Tokyo must therefore consolidate Abe’s foreign policy legacy by boosting its institutional exchanges with other world capitals like Moscow and Ankara. As Washington backtracks on its global engagement, institutionalization of Tokyo’s steadfast engagement with world leaders would contribute to realizing a multilateral U.S.-Japan+Alpha formula.
Second, Japan must deepen its multilateral engagement to lay the foundation for a U.S.-Japan+Alpha formula to counter China’s growing global clout and its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative. For example, Russia and Japan have been boosting their bilateral relations in recent years, culminating in Tokyo’s September 2017 pledge to expand the scope of their cooperation to include greater Northeast Asia, including North Korea. Moreover, Moscow and Tokyo could expand their burgeoning economic cooperation beyond the Far East to other parts of Eurasia. Likewise, Tokyo must leverage its emerging ties with Ankara, such as the upcoming Japan-Turkey Security Council Meeting, to further consolidate Japan’s geo-economic influence in the region. Meanwhile, Japan can also act as a democratic lynchpin connecting Europe and the Indo-Pacific in defense of the liberal international order. Indeed, the European Union and Japan finalized the negotiation of an EU-Japan free trade agreement (FTA) in December 2017. Tokyo and European capitals can further boost their multilateral cooperation across the G7 and G20 platforms with an eye to the Asian market as well as maritime security in the South China Sea.
Finally, Japan should institutionalize its relationships across Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. In December 2012, Abe proposed a Democratic Security Diamond for Asia, consisting of the U.S. state of Hawaii, Japan, Australia, and India. Five years on, his geostrategic vision is increasingly becoming tangible, with the possibility of transforming into a veritable Indo-Pacific Security Diamond, thanks to growing institutionalization efforts like the 2017 resumption of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Given Abe’s significant foreign policy legacies across Eurasia, Tokyo should also consider a possible Eurasian Geostrategic Diamond consisting of Russia, Turkey, India, and Japan by combining geo-economic investment and trade liberalization in the region. A Tokyo-led Eurasian Geostrategic Diamond would bolster Washington’s diminishing presence in the region, and Japan’s liberal connectivity agenda known as Quality Infrastructure Investment would be a significant counterweight to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. Two geostrategic diamonds anchored in Japan would consolidate Abe’s foreign policy legacies over the last five years and would lay a solid foundation for the future of the changing, globalizing U.S.-Japan alliance.
The latest U.S.-Japan summit was Abe’s official, belated initiation into Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. Although the Japanese Prime Minister may head home with little to show for himself, the summit may come to be seen in the long term as an inflection point for Japan: clarifying for Abe the need to consolidate and institutionalize his foreign policy legacy, while picking up the slack from a more tentative and transactional Washington.