US Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel: A Strange Choice for an Important Role

December 22, 2021 Updated: December 22, 2021

Commentary

It’s official. Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago who also served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, will be heading to Tokyo as the new U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Emanuel Is a Controversial Figure

Why did President Joe Biden nominate him as ambassador to Japan?

I don’t know why Emanuel was nominated. He lacks Asia experience (other than some past ties to Chinese business interests), and certainly lacks a “diplomatic” temperament. Indeed. it’s hard to imagine anyone less suited for dealing with the Japanese. It’s almost as if the choice was made in order to irritate the Japanese—though they will never complain publicly about an ambassador. Does Emanuel have direct and immediate access to Biden? Maybe, maybe not. He’s not mentioned very often as an administration “insider.”

Making Emanuel’s selection even more perplexing is that the “professionals” are supposedly back in charge of American foreign policy. Or at least that’s what Team Biden keeps telling us.

Views and Expectations of Emanuel’s Appointment

What are the views and expectations of the United States and Japan regarding Emanuel’s appointment as ambassador to Japan?

The United States wants Japan to remain a solid ally and to cooperate fully on defense matters—now that the China threat needs to be addressed head on. Taiwan is another important issue from the American perspective, and there are concerns Japan is not willing to “step up” and provide enough support for Taiwan—diplomatic or military.

Of course, Japan’s help as a long-time diplomatic ally of the United States on global issues is also valued (though often taken for granted), and the U.S. government wants to maintain that close relationship and cooperation. By and large, the U.S.-Japan relationship is in reasonable shape, and the ambassador just has to keep things on an “even keel”—or, in other words, maintain the relationship. But it’s even better if he leaves things better than he found it. That really is the test of a successful ambassador to Japan. Few have passed the test.

Looking at things from Tokyo’s perspective, Japan wants most of all to continue having U.S. support—particularly American defense coverage (to include the “nuclear umbrella”). Japan simply cannot defend itself without American backing. This, more than anything, is what the Japanese want. They want the U.S. ambassador to do what’s necessary to keep American defense coverage in place (and hopefully not ask too much of the Japanese).

Japan, US conduct first anti-submarine warfare exercise in South China Sea
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine and a U.S. Navy destroyer pictured in their first joint anti-submarine drill in the South China Sea, on Nov. 16, 2021. (Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force)

For many years there was concern in Tokyo that America was “bashing” Japan over economic issues. Then the concern changed to America “passing” Japan and being more interested in China. Now, however, the Americans are concerned about China and, once again, are more focused on (and appreciative of) the Japanese. So that makes things easier for the Japanese.

Impact of Emanuel’s Posting on China and Taiwan

What is the possible impact of Emanuel’s posting on China and Taiwan matters?

Nobody knows for sure. Emanuel is going to have to show his critics that he is able to act like a proper diplomat and work well with the Japanese, and get them to do more in concrete terms to back up Taiwan.

Maybe he can use his legendary rudeness and aggressiveness against the Chinese when they bully and threaten the Japanese—both around Japan’s southern islands and on the propaganda front. And maybe he can ensure that the U.S. administration staunchly supports Taiwan—which directly feeds into Japan’s own defense.

He will, of course, need to convince the Japanese to do more in terms of defense spending, military capability improvement, and more overt support for Taiwan—and support for American forces that will be involved in a Taiwan contingency. Maybe his rudeness (or more charitably, his brusqueness) will come in handy with the Japanese? Sometimes a little firmness can be helpful when dealing with Japanese government officials, who sometimes seem skilled at figuring out the least they have to do, and then doing a little less.

At the end of the day, however, it’s often hard to predict how well a new ambassador will perform. Sometimes, candidates with little expertise in their assigned country or even lack diplomatic experience perform very well. Tom Schieffer, who was ambassador in Tokyo in the mid-2000s, was outstanding. And he was not a professional diplomat nor an “Asia hand.” Indeed, before he arrived in Tokyo, the professional foreign service officers in the Embassy belittled him as just “a friend of George Bush,” a “baseball team owner,” and only having been ambassador to “no account” Australia.

However, he was the best of the Japan ambassadors over the last 30 years, in my opinion.

So while Emanuel wouldn’t have been my first choice—or even my last choice—he has a chance to prove his critics wrong. I wish him well.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.