By Richard L. Armitage

The Heisei period has been remarkably successful, not only for Japan, but for the United States. Its beginning, however, did not foretell its ultimate success. At the start of the era, many Americans viewed Japan as an economic rival and a future security concern. Japan’s exuberance during the bubble era fueled fear in the U.S. of “Japan, Inc.” Politicians in Washington suggested that “the Cold War was over and Japan won.” The sun truly appeared to be setting on the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Three decades later, the U.S.-Japan relationship is stronger than ever. Under the leadership of Prime Minster Abe, the relationship has matured into an alliance of equals. Today, due in large part to steady Japanese leadership, one could say that the alliance is driven more from Tokyo than from Washington.

The other factor, of course, is the presidency of Donald Trump. Despite his embrace of Tokyo’s and India’s call for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” President Trump has done great damage to U.S. interests in Asia. He has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, manufactured a crisis with North Korea that he is incapable of resolving, initiated a massive trade war with China, and levied tariffs on U.S. allies for so-called national security reasons. The damage to U.S. interests in Asia and beyond will be lasting.

But President Trump’s erratic governing style doesn’t only threaten America’s regional and global leadership, it also puts at risk the U.S.-Japan alliance. Although Prime Minister Abe’s deft diplomacy has thus far avoided a serious downturn in relations between Washington and Tokyo, every other major allied leader has been forced to break from President Trump. I fear that Japan will eventually be forced to do the same.

This fall, concerns about the dangers to the U.S.-Japan relationship inspired Professor Joseph Nye and me to lead our fourth joint study on the alliance. Our report—entitled “More Important Than Ever”—argued that the alliance is growing more central to regional and global security and prosperity. We suggested that the allies should work together on ten initiatives covering issues such as combining all our military bases to forging a broader regional economic strategy. Unfortunately, an ambitious agenda of this sort is not possible under the Trump administration.

President Trump appears to view U.S. allies—including Japan—as less important than ever. His disdain for allies is evident in his decisions to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan without consulting our friends in those regions or those with whom we are involved militarily. Meanwhile, President Trump has rejected a draft Special Measures Agreement with South Korea, putting our other major Northeast Asian alliance at risk precisely at a time when such an alliance could benefit Japan’s relationship with South Korea. And in Europe, the president has used harsh language and false claims to attack the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

President Trump’s America first policies threaten to leave America alone. Nowhere was this more evident than in James Mattis’s resignation letter. He suggested that President Trump does not share his “views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.” These and other public comments imply that President Trump recognizes the costs of alliances, but not the benefits. They also reflect what little stock allies can place in any of President Trump’s words. The President was adamant about withdrawing quickly from Syria, only to be contradicted by his national security advisor, John Bolton, who now says any withdrawal is contingent on defeating ISIS and the protection of Kurdish forces. What was an imminent departure is now ambiguous, and allies are left only to wonder what the U.S. will do.

Almost all of President Trump’s best relationships are with autocrats. Trump attacks elected leaders in democratic countries while abetting human rights abusers in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Trump says that he and China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping “will always be friends.” Trump professes that he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “fell in love.” And the Mueller investigation appears to be uncovering concerning ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Yet, the Trump administration’s issues go deeper than the president. His administration has struggled to attract and retain capable senior officials. At the time of this writing, the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Interior; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations are all headed by officials serving on a temporary basis. Even President Trump’s own chief of staff serves in an “acting” capacity. Combined with the partial government shutdown, nasty infighting, and lack of internal policy processes, these personnel problems have undermined the administration’s ability to develop and execute effective policies. Facing serious challenges from China, Russia, and North Korea, the United States finds its leaders lacking vision and experience, as well as strength in numbers.

How can Japan protect itself—and the U.S.-Japan alliance—against these dangers? Japan must continue to take the mantle of leadership and fulfill many of the traditional roles of the United States. On issues ranging from security concerns to economic prosperity to human rights, Japan’s voice is more important than ever. Prime Minister Abe is increasingly seen as the leader of the free world, especially in Asia. He is wisely networking Japan’s relationships, and helping to stabilize the American role as well.

In this regard, Prime Minister Abe deserves praise for pushing ahead with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as the recent National Defense Program Guidelines and Midterm Defense Program. Together, these efforts will strengthen regional prosperity and security. With the Tokyo Olympics just over a year away, Japan is in a perfect position to showcase its regional and global leadership.

Most Americans remain deeply thankful for the U.S.-Japan alliance and to the Abe administration for providing the alliance with steady and predictable leadership over the last six years. Let us hope that Japan can serve the same role over the next two years, until the American people can again make a decision on who they want as president.

Richard L. Armitage is president of Armitage International, L.C. and former U.S. deputy
secretary of state.