New ambassador
Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

The pain of being ordinary

Is Japan's offense at Obama's new ambassadorial appointment warranted?

While the White House has not made the announcement official, the Nelson Report said that the Obama administration will be sending John Roos, Silicon Valley lawyer and major Obama fundraiser, to Tokyo as U.S. ambassador.

As Armchair Asia notes, this is a sign that Japan has indeed become normal: "It is about to nominate for ambassador to Japan a presidential crony and big money fundraiser--just like the traditional emissaries to the Court of St. James or France or Italy or Bermuda." Indeed, Jun Okumura looks at Britain and finds that the British press is disappointed with Obama's choice for ambassador to the Court of St. James. Japan, welcome to the club of countries that think they deserve better from Washington.

The disappointment from certain circles in Japan is palpable. Yoshihisa Komori, Sankei's editor-at-large in Washington, lists the accomplishments of previous ambasssadors and concludes that all Roos has achieved is "collecting funds for Obama's election." Naturally he compares the selection of Roos with the appointment of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to be ambassador to China — a selection that the Economist's Banyan blog rightly calls "brilliant" — and finds Roos wanting. Asahi looks at Roos's background and reports blank next to "foreign languages," obviously calling to mind the Mandarin-speaking Huntsman.

Japanese are not the only ones questioning the Roos appointment. Jonathan Adler, blogging at the website of the conservative National Review, calls the news "interesting (if disturbing)," relaying the opinion of a nameless correspondent who calls the appointment a "slap-in-the-face" [sic].

A big part of the problem is that the Japanese media jumped the gun in its reporting on the ambassadorial sweepstakes. Recall that Asahi, surveying Obama's likely Asia policy team, pegged Joseph Nye as ambassador before Obama had even taken the oath of office. After no further news was forthcoming, Yomiuri suggested the same later in January (which prompted me to write an open letter to Nye). In hindsight, it appears that both newspapers were running with rumors, hoping for the scoop. While the story of how close Nye was to be named as ambassador has yet to be told, it appears that the Japanese newspapers were talking to the wrong people in Washington. In short, it is fine if Japan's elites feel disappointed, but they should assign the blame where it belongs, with the newspapers that rushed their reports and gave Nye an air of inevitability as the president's choice for ambassador.

And what about Roos? I do not think this is something about which to hyperventilate. Nor do I think it is a slap in the face for Japan. This is normal. While Japanese elites worry that the alliance is adrift or in crisis, the Obama administration clearly does not feel the same. The attitude appears to be, every alliance has problems and the US-Japan alliance's problems are no more severe than the problems with any other alliance. While it is natural to compare the administration's China and Japan appointments, this strikes me as a mistake. The appointments say nothing about the countries' ranks in the administration's eyes and everything about the intensity of the problems in the bilateral relationship. Obama picked a Mandarin-speaking rising star with foreign policy experience for the Beijing job because it is a job that demands a Mandarin-speaking rising star with foreign policy experience. The task of coaxing China's path to becoming a "responsible stakeholder" requires an ambassador with sufficient clout on the ground in China.

What problems in the US-Japan relationship require the same class of appointment? Is a Harvard professorship or fluency in Japanese necessary to go stand on the beach in Niigata and look out to sea? It would be one thing if Japan was ready for a serious bilateral discussion on the future of the alliance, but given the response Ichiro Ozawa's musings on the subject, Japan's leaders are not even ready to have such a discussion amongst themselves. (Speaking in Okinawa on Saturday, Ozawa revisited his remarks and said that his reference to the Seventh Fleet was "symbolic," which I presume means that he does not want the US presence reduced literally to the Seventh Fleet, but the Seventh Fleet would be the core?) As useful as Nye would have been as ambassador, his time would likely have been frustrating. Japan is simply too preoccupied with fixing its institutions to commit to make a major bilateral initiative on the alliance worthwhile. At this point it will be a major achievement if the realignment of US forces in Japan goes forward as scheduled, something that could become even more difficult should the DPJ take power later this year. Japan's preoccupation with a domestic concerns is not meant as a criticism of Japan — it is what it is. Japan does have a lot on the agenda, what is not helped by political uncertainty. Readers will know that I do not think that the "twisted" Diet is anything to panic about, but rather that I expect that the present turbulence is natural as Japan transitions to more "normal" politics. The fact that Japan can slight its foreign and security policy is a testament to the success of the alliance.

Would Nye's presence have made a difference in hastening the realignment process or fixing the obstacle that is Futenma? Will Roos fare any better or worse? It is unfair to Roos to treat his appointment as an insult to Japan without considering what exactly is the problem. I expect that Roos will be fine. I am sure that he is a quick study and in James Zumwalt, the deputy chief of mission, he has a first-class Japan specialist. (Indeed, the staff of the US Embassy in Tokyo rarely gets enough credit for the work they do managing the alliance.) As ambassador Roos will also carry a lighter burden than ambassadors to other countries because so much of the bilateral relationship is handled by the department of defense and US Forces Japan. And, in the event of a major crisis, Roos will have the president's ear.

Unease over the Roos appointment is ultimately the product of asymmetrical dependence. Given the importance of the US-Japan alliance for Japan, it is natural for Japanese officials to worry about every signal from Washington (like this signal, which will undoubtedly be another source of discomfort in Tokyo). But the Roos appointment should not be treated as Japan's being downgraded but as Japan's not being a problem for Washington. I have previously written about this administration's tendency to approach foreign policy as problems to be solved. Japan, not being the source of major problems for the US, naturally does not require a high-profile troubleshooter as ambassador. And thus it continues to look as if the Obama administration has opted for benign neglect towards Japan.

This will no doubt continue to be the case in the US-Japan relationship for years to come. Japan's dependence on the US will continue, and even intensify, over the coming years as falling defense spending will make it harder for Japan to countenance life outside of the alliance; a crowded foreign policy agenda will lead Washington to focus on fixing problems rather than tinkering with alliances; and Japan will be judged on how it contributes to fixing problems rather than how loyal an ally it declares itself to be (through "showing the flag" and the like).

There is, however, a lesson in all this for Washington. The political appointment of ambassadors should cease (or be scaled back from the thirty percent or so of ambassadors who are political appointees). US allies should not be reduced to guessing their worth by the quality of the ambassador sent by the US. Ambassadors should be career foreign service officers, preferably with knowledge of the country's language and earlier time spent working in country. It seems like a fairly simple idea that might actually make for better American diplomacy on the whole.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: