Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference in Tokyo, Japan, December 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference in Tokyo, Japan, December 2016.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / REUTERS

Over the past few years, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has scored a string of foreign policy successes that have led analysts such as Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to dub him a shrewd pragmatist. In 2015, Abe secured a historic agreement with South Korea, in return for an apology and restitution for World War II era “comfort women.” (Japan’s kidnapping of thousands women and forcing them into sex slavery during the war has regularly harmed relations since it became public in the late 1980s.) He also hosted then-U.S. President Barack Obama at a commemoration in Hiroshima, in which Obama paid respects to the victims of the atomic bomb, a first for a sitting U.S. president. Abe returned the favor by visiting Pearl Harbor, “a remarkable about-face” that the media dubbed yet another demonstration of his political pragmatism.

Abe’s actions, along with his willingness to court controversial leaders such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. President Donald Trump, seemed to demonstrate his willingness to set aside his personal beliefs for politically unattractive short-term moves in service of his long-term economic and security agenda. Abe remains a staunch conservative, believing that Japan was forced into WWII, that Japan’s constitution was forced on the country following the war and thus is in need of revising, and that Japan needs to reassert its strength in the international arena. His softening on historical issues is tied to his need to secure an economic recovery and build regional relationships to balance an increasingly assertive China. But his willingness to ignore the liabilities of courting these leaders may not be a sign of pragmatism, but of dependency.

Abe's willingness to ignore the liabilities of courting these leaders may not be a sign of pragmatism, but of dependency.


After Trump’s surprise victory last November, analysts and politicians such as former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage proclaimed that populism and anti-globalism had become the new norm in world politics. Brexit and growing nationalistic sentiments in many countries had already hinted that decades-old neoliberal norms were eroding and that leaders needed to shift their attention toward those dissatisfied with the global order, lest they be ousted themselves. As a result, it became less politically costly for proponents of the old order, such as Abe, to engage with leaders who spouted controversial anti-liberal and openly antagonistic positions.

No world leader may have been more willing to work with Trump, for example, than Abe. Hoping to salvage the Trans–Pacific Partnership (TPP) and maintain the United States as a willing partner to balance a rising China and belligerent North Korea, Abe was the first head of state to meet Trump following his election victory and to conduct business at both the White House and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida following his inauguration. During the latter visit, Trump stated that Washington is “committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control” and “stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.” This reversal on the importance of the U.S.–Japanese alliance, which Trump had criticized only months earlier as one-sided and too expensive, gave the impression that Abe’s visit was a success.

Yet a closer look reveals that the effectiveness of Abe’s pragmatism is overstated. First, Abe was unable to revive the TPP, from which Trump had withdrawn the United States just days after taking office. Moreover, in a December audio recording leaked three weeks after the February Abe meeting, Trump can be heard criticizing Japanese agricultural policy and threatening to pressure Japan with safety regulations on food imports. Following the February meeting, Trump has maintained his criticism of Japan as the United States submitted a statement to the WTO urging Japan to “take new, bold steps” in reforming its automobile and agriculture markets. And in general, Trump has downplayed Japan’s role in the U.S. economy, instead taking credit for recent job-creating Japanese investment deals in the United States. In addition, Trump’s criticism of the North Korean missile test during Abe’s visit and his more recent criticisms of the rogue state on Twitter are consistent with the position of previous administrations, hardly evidence to suggest Abe’s overtures changed Trump’s mind on issues critical to Japan’s economic and national security.

Thus the gains from the meetings were few, but the potential risks of Abe’s decision to tie his political future to Trump are numerous. Trump has many liabilities that have proven harmful to close associates. His new administration is already rife with scandal, leaks, and allegations of corruption and ties to Russia, any of which may prove disastrous for the administration. Abe’s judgment may be questioned if he places so much trust in a president who has seen some of his hand-picked surrogates quickly forced out of government. Moreover, if the current FBI investigation proves the Trump campaign maintained illegal contact with Russia during the election, Abe will be working with an administration that, at the very least, will be crippled domestically.

Meanwhile, Abe has aggressively sought to improve relations with Russia to settle the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. The Japanese leader hopes to fulfill a pledge for the return of the Northern Territories that were seized by Soviet forces and conclude a peace treaty formally ending WWII. In December 2016, Abe hosted Putin for two days in the hopes of having a breakthrough in negotiations. Japan and Russia agreed to several joint economic projects, but Abe was unable to improve Japan’s position in the territorial dispute. For Putin, meeting with Abe weakened the global coalition against Russia for its actions in Crimea and Syria; Abe is the only leader in the G–7 to not apply diplomatic isolation as punishment. But following the talks, Russia proceeded to name the five uninhabited islands, an embarrassing blow to Abe. A Kyodo News poll showed 54 percent of Japanese voters viewed the outcome of the meeting negatively.

Abe was also the first foreign leader to visit Duterte. In the hopes of building a strategic relationship, Abe pledged a trillion yen aid package to the Philippines. Duterte is one of the most controversial figures in the world today and was regularly criticized by Obama for gross human rights violations that have characterized his war on drugs. Duterte’s bloody campaign has targeted children, promoted vigilantism, and has claimed over 7,600 lives. Abe has been willing to ignore criticisms of Duterte, hoping to promote the United States' and Japan’s security goals in the region and limit China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Yet Abe’s willingness to ignore Duterte’s possible crimes hurts Japan’s moral standing in international affairs, especially since “proactive peace,” the foundation of his foreign policy framework, calls for Japan to play a greater role in defending human rights around the globe. He has also failed to reverse Duterte’s tilt to China; in January, Duterte rejected Abe’s offer to provide missiles to the Philippines. Abe’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Duterte’s human rights violations has drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch, which has called Abe’s pledge to assist Duterte in countering illegal drugs as “shameful” and argued that “Japan can and should do better.”

Duterte’s bloody war on drugs has targeted children, promoted vigilantism, and has claimed over 7,600 lives.

In both cases, Abe’s pragmatism seemed to yield little and cost Japan much in moral standing.


Domestically, Abe’s popularity rating has dropped significantly following the revelation that he may be tied to a land-purchasing scandal involving a controversial nationalistic school. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seeks to challenge Abe, and his relationship with Trump provides an opportunity to do so: Renho, head of DPJ, has pressured Abe to speak out against Trump’s immigration restrictions. Furthermore, leaders of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party, such as Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida and Minister of State for the National Strategic Special Zones Shigeru Ishiba, have criticized Trump’s comments on trade and security issues. And even if Abe could work out a bilateral trade agreement with Trump, he would likely need to make concessions only to secure a deal less favorable to Japan than the TPP would have been.

Abe’s dealings with Putin and Duterte add to the pressure. Much of Japan’s foreign policy strength comes from its reputation as a robust democracy, a reputation that will erode if Abe gets too close to authoritarians.

In short, glowing articles about Abe’s pragmatism ring false. But they may simply be an overcorrection on the part of foreign policy analysts, many of whom had exaggerated his hawkishness and stubbornness in the past. It is easy to forget that during his first term, Abe was willing to set aside historical issues to improve relations with China; his 2006 visit, the first by a Japanese leader in five years, was heralded as a “turning point” in relations by the Chinese government. And at any rate, Abe may have spent precious political capital without securing long-term gains. That is why, given the risks of dealing with authoritarian leaders, it would be more pragmatic for Abe to preserve Japan’s reputation as a global democratic leader, lest he find himself on the wrong side of history.

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  • TOM LE is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Pomona College.
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