The past week has seen two political leaders pass from the scene: one a farce and the other a tragedy.
First, the farce. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing a storm of opposition from within his own party, reluctantly announced his resignation. Johnson is the kind of politician who exposes the vulnerabilities inherent in democracy. He is a showman, con man, habitual liar and consummate fraud. Boris has one great gift — the gift of gab. He can entertain, beguile and seduce. Becoming prime minister (“the best job in the world”) was an end in itself — a chance to preen in the spotlight. Actually accomplishing something was entirely secondary. As far as personal behavior is concerned, the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to him. [Does all this remind you of anyone?]
The narrative around Shinzo Abe could hardly be more different. Abe, postwar Japan’s longest-serving prime minister (2012-2020), was gunned down by an assassin while campaigning for a colleague in Japan’s parliamentary elections. Abe was a political blue blood, born into a family that had produced two postwar prime ministers and a foreign minister (his father). His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, had been part of Japan’s World War II regime and was briefly incarcerated by American occupation authorities. He was soon released and went on to become prime minister and an architect of Japan’s postwar economic recovery as well as the U.S.-Japan defense alliance.
As a still young politician, Abe had a brief stint as prime minister (2006-7) before being forced out by illness. When he returned to the top post six years later, he knew exactly what he wanted to do — to transform Japan economically and strategically. The Japanese economy had become mired in years of stagnation, hamstrung by the rigidities of interlocking bureaucratic and corporate cultures. Abe sought to stimulate growth with increased government spending while opening the economy to innovation and foreign capital and technology. This, in turn, required political change. Much of the problem had been weak central government with prime ministers coming and going while real power settled in the hands of the bureaucracy. Abe transformed the constellation of power and influence in Tokyo simply by staying in office far longer than his immediate predecessors.
In the end, Abe’s economic policy success was modest. But it was a very different story in the realm of foreign policy and national security. And from a U.S. perspective, this is what really mattered. Abe saw something with great clarity that other influential Japanese perceived only dimly. The regional and international landscape around Japan was changing dramatically — rapidly becoming more challenging and dangerous. North Korea’s isolated, paranoid dictatorship was increasingly obsessed with acquiring an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. The country most directly and immediately vulnerable to North Korean attack (besides South Korea) was Japan. But, as alarming as developments in North Korea were, there was a far more serious challenge emerging in another neighbor — China.
In the 1980s and 1990s, most Japanese believed that Tokyo could build a cooperative, long-term relationship with Beijing through a policy of economic assistance, corporate investments and friendly diplomacy. By the time Abe became prime minister for a second time, it was evident that this was wishful thinking — dangerous wishful thinking. China was well on its way to building a very large, very capable, very modern navy designed to project power into the maritime domain toward Japan. China began to officially and actively contest Japan’s claim to islands in the East China Sea while laying claim, itself, to almost all the South China Sea. Japan’s economic survival depends on maritime trade carrying exports and imports and much of that vital trade traverses the sea lanes of the South China Sea. China was asserting a right to control Japan’s lifeline. Beijing’s increasingly strident demands that Taiwan (situated at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago) be “returned” to Chinese control only heightened anxieties in Tokyo.
Unlike many (most) Japanese officials, Abe was not paralyzed by these dangers. He made it his mission to rebuild Japan’s capacity to defend itself and to act as a truly effective ally to the U.S. Like his grandfather, he sought to amend the pacifist constitution to allow Japan to become a “normal country” with a fully capable military. Ironically, this long sought goal is now within reach after Abe’s party swept the parliamentary elections that led to his death. While one key goal eluded him, his achievements were, nevertheless, remarkable.
He “reinterpreted” the constitution to allow Japanese military forces to work in concert with their U.S. counterparts. He increased Japan’s defense spending and investments in advanced weapons systems. He professionalized Japan’s decision-making, including creation of a National Security Council. He formulated the strategic concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and convinced Washington to adopt it. He is credited with bringing to fruition the idea of the Quad — a security partnership comprising Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. that is rapidly becoming the cornerstone of U.S. security strategy in Asia. He helped the Obama administration formulate plans for an ambitious Asian economic grouping (the Transpacific Partnership) — and managed to salvage much of it after the Trump White House abruptly pulled out. He conducted a highly personal and successful campaign to win over President Trump (and protect the U.S.-Japan Alliance) after the new president threatened to abrogate U.S. alliances with “freeloaders” like Japan, Korea and NATO.
After he resigned, again for reasons of health, Abe remained the single most influential figure in Japanese politics. The current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, was his foreign minister and protege. Kishida, a stoic veteran official, could not hold back tears as he announced Abe’s death. In Washington, President Biden ordered American flags to half-staff. Abe, who once had been a student in Los Angeles, had great affection for America — “an awesome country.” The feeling was mutual.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.