Kishida-san: A Day in the Life of an Alliance Manager


It was a night in Washington like any other night.  In fact, it was last Friday night.  And the scene was set at the spacious Nebraska Avenue residence of the Japanese Ambassador to the United States.  The guest of honor, Fumio Kishida, the 56-year-old Foreign Minister of Japan, had arrived half an hour late due to a traffic backup on Massachusetts Avenue.  He was immediately escorted to a dining table to converse with seven Americans: a former national security advisor, a former deputy secretary of defense, a former ambassador to Japan, two former National Security Council senior directors for Asia policy, a former trade official, and this writer.  Although it was the Foreign Minister who had flown across the Pacific that day, and he had already faced an unstinting series of high-level meetings, it was he who seemed most alert towards the end of this small, elite gathering.  Having finished six courses of exquisitely prepared Japanese cuisine the dinner party was now fussing over petite pots of sesame blancmange with brown sugar jelly.  Foreign Minister Kishida wanted to discuss China’s attempt to define a “new type of great power relationship” with the United States.  Wasn’t the aim of this slogan to win U.S. acceptance of China as the central player in making Asian order and to receive assurances that Washington would not interfere?  This reanimated the Americans, and the conversation continued another round.  It was all in a day’s work for an alliance manager.

No formal title of “alliance manager” exists on a government organizational chart.  Instead, the phrase is used to recognize the coterie of officials with primary responsibility for guiding, shaping, and using an alliance. For Japan, this responsibility has often fallen disproportionately on the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who in turn is backstopped by numerous lower-echelon bureaucrats.  The efforts of alliance managers, like the sacrifices of so many public servants, receive little attention or understanding unless there is a crisis or a scandal. To outsiders, diplomats and alliance managers seem to spend more time just showing up or managing expectations rather than seeking serious results.  Yet expectations and results require steady, deliberate tending.  As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pointed out recently when recognizing one of America’s unheralded alliance managers, Christopher Johnstone, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz has likened alliance managers to gardeners, without whose daily attention a coveted patch of land would soon be strangled by weeds.

Alliances, unlike gardens, are rooted in common interests rather than soil.  But common interests do not guarantee a ready security community.  They, too, require regular devotion.  Allies want constant reassurance, not neglect.  Allies want autonomy and respect, not dependence and condescension.  Like an Olympic ice skater, the leaps and twists of the alliance manager are all meant to appear effortless and not cause undue notice.  Successful alliance management is often about taking the news out of the alliance (making it boringly steady rather than trending toward acute crisis).  Yet, alliance managers must also ensure that the alliance is serving its intended major purpose.  The goal is not to manage feelings and process (which can at times mask differences that exist between societies even while governments share overlapping security interests), but to preserve a ready alliance capable of fulfilling its fundamental goal.  In the course of daily alliance upkeep it’s easy to take one’s eye off the prize.  Objective metrics related to core interests are obscured by the subjective relationships among alliance managers.  At any given moment in an endless skein of busy moments, it may be hard to know whether one is advancing key national security goals or simply perpetuating a process and preparing the next meeting.  China’s rapid reemergence is affecting its neighbors, and the Foreign Minister of Japan appeared to realize how vital a healthy alliance with the United States remains for the security of Japan.  So let us visit another day in the life of Minister Kishida.

Prior to that long Friday, February 7th, the last time Minister Kishida had seen Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Kishida-san and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera were completing the first-ever “2+2” meeting held in Tokyo.  The October 3, 2013 joint statement issued at this “historic meeting” noted that the United States “welcomed Japan’s determination to contribute more proactively to regional and global peace and security.”  Washington’s endorsement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s effective normalization of Japanese defense policy would be followed by a rapid succession of decisive moves out of Tokyo. It appeared that America finally had the stout allied Prime Minister it had so longed for in Japan.

But in late December, Prime Minister Abe made a surprise visit to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors the 2.5 million souls who are entombed there, encompassing those who died for the emperors from the 1868 Meiji Restoration through the Pacific War.  This visit was controversial because while Yasukuni is an icon to Japanese nationalists, to others in the region – China, as well as American friends and allies – it is a symbol of Japanese aggression during World War II, not least due to the 14 Class A war criminals who are interred there.  Thus, while most Americans were celebrating holidays, the State Department issued a statement offering a rare public rebuke of its ally. As rebukes go, it seemed fairly mild (the U.S. was “disappointed” with the Prime Minister’s visit to the shrine).  But even that mild reprimand stirred Japanese public and official concern, concern magnified by the mistranslation of the United States’ “disappointment” to mean “loss of hope.”

U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, still basking in a honeymoon period, was about to witness an altogether different facet of the alliance.  It began when she tweeted her opposition to the annual killing of bottlenose dolphins at Taiji cove, an inhumane act of slaughter made prominent in a 2009 documentary.  The tweet of disapproval, against the backdrop of “disappointment” over the Prime Minister visit to Yasukuni Shrine, prompted a quick riposte from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who defended the culling of dolphins as legal and part of Japanese tradition. Intentional or otherwise, various rhetorical volleys traversed back and forth across the Pacific at the speed of electrons.  While the U.S. media covered the story, Japanese media fired off a daily barrage of contradictory narratives about what Washington was said to be really doing: dictating to Japan; abandoning Japan and tilting to China; showing ignorance of history; placing too much stress on history; and so on.  Amid this tsunami of emotions, policymakers appeared to be ceding control of the alliance to mercurial public opinion.  Had China found a new seam in the alliance (history) that would render it far less capable?  Within this welter of commentary, the suggestion was raised that President Barack Obama should not visit Japan in April unless the Prime Minister would promise to forgo any other visits to the shrine while he was in office.

Top-level officials privately reassured the U.S. Government that the Prime Minister merely felt an obligation to repay a campaign debt to those nationals responsible for his return to power.  Abe apparently also thought he could make a distinction between honoring most spirits without venerating war criminals.  Japanese officials and commentators offered many soothing words, but perhaps too few from the Prime Minister himself.  Having been caught off guard once, would Americans accept the words of surrogates?  As Minister Kishida was caught in the crossfire of U.S. criticism during the Washington dinner, he remained a model of composure, the ideal alliance manager.

It was February 2014 and Secretary of State Kerry was preparing for another trip to Asia.  But Japan did not want the Secretary heading to Seoul, Beijing, and Jakarta at a time when there was a cloud hanging over the alliance.  Thus it was that Minister Kishida had come to charter a special flight to Washington last Friday seeking to repair any damage that had been caused to its one and only treaty alliance.

When allies find their counterparts in deep water, they throw them a lifeline.  The Obama administration went out of its way to ensure that the hasty ministerial visit was given priority.  It’s not easy to schedule successive meetings with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry, but the White House made it happen for Kishida-sensei.  His energy and intelligence had been taxed all day, and they were still on display late into the evening on Friday.

Minister Kishida is part of the moderate “Koga Faction” (Kochikai) of the Liberal Democratic Party.  He made it clear that he understands that the Yasukuni Shrine visit, not to mention some outrageous remarks by the Chairman and a Governor of NHK, were undermining Abe’s security and economic agenda and the U.S.-Japan alliance.  If Japan were not more careful, Japan could find itself far more isolated.  Over the course of the dinner, Kishida made a forceful case that Prime Minister Abe and his entire Cabinet are fully committed to previous Japanese official apologies and remorse for Japan’s wartime aggression, including mistreatment of so-called comfort women. He also agreed on the need to do more to repair relations with Korea while seeking an improved and stable relationship with China.  Minister Kishida’s tone was at once conciliatory and sincere.  He would faithfully report to Prime Minister Abe all of the advice offered by the Americans around the dining room.  Furthermore, he appeared confident that the Prime Minister would in the future be better at communicating; after all, Abe was attempting to promote a postwar, democratic Japan committed to upholding the international system and the rule of law, and not some anachronistic throwback to the 1930s.

Kishida exuded obvious satisfaction with administration pronouncements about China.  Earlier last week Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel had testified about Chinese maritime coercion.  Similarly, during the visit, Secretary of State Kerry said that the United States neither accepts or nor recognizes China’s recently declared East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).  Clearly the Japanese get nervous when the United States appears to accept the Chinese premise that the future of Asia will be determined in China (e.g., when Dr. Rice spoke of “operationalizing” the U.S.-China partnership). But the Minister was reassured to hear from authoritative voices that the Obama administration’s only nod in the direction of such a “new” relationship was seeing whether China and the United States could disprove the idea that a rising power and an extant major power must inevitably come to blows.

Moreover, the search for avoiding conflict with China was embedded within a larger strategy that is predicated on strong alliances and growing partnerships and calls for a gradual reorientation – economically, politically, and militarily – toward the Asia-Pacific region.  This is the definition of America’s rebalancing policy.   Critics of the Obama administration have found the “pivot” (as rebalancing was initially dubbed) an easy target, if only because the follow-through has seemed anti-climactic in the wake of the 2011 summit pageantry accompanying its initial debut.  The humdrum daily push for advancing U.S. interests in the world’s fastest growing region cannot compare to top-level visits to Asian capitals when it comes to garnering attention.  This may be true for other major policy pronouncements, too, especially when the marketing of a phrase raises expectations in scope or speed beyond planned implementation.  Because rebalancing policy suggested reinforcing America’s advantageous position in the Asia-Pacific, the fact that there appeared to be a rift in its cornerstone alliance required both sides to provide assurances.

But Minister Kishida’s main mission was not only to repair strains in the alliance, but also to help pave the way for a successful visit by President Obama in April. Without adroit alliance management, tensions left to fester could undermine the agendas of both leaders and the security of both nations.  Obviously progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership looms large on the April agenda, but there will be other issues as well, including progress in updating the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines that provide the overall framework for alliance military roles, missions and capabilities.  Kishida’s timely consultations made it seem that all was in good hands.  Based on his 36-hour (but one-day) trip, the alliance remains on course.  After a power breakfast, the Minister departed Saturday morning, primed to brief Prime Minister Abe, bracing for more questions from members of the the Diet, and ready to begin another day of alliance management.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Photo credit: Secretary of Defense