Amateur Hour

Caroline Kennedy might have gotten softball questions at her Senate confirmation hearing, but don’t expect the Japanese to go as easy on her.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Battle lines were drawn last summer when President Barack Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy for the post of U.S. ambassador to Japan. Opponents quickly pointed out that she lacks diplomatic experience and that she failed miserably in her only effort to seek public office — an aborted 2008 attempt to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Like the most recent ambassador to Japan, John Roos, Kennedy is the product of a patronage system that holds the nomination bar low enough for heavy bags of cash — or in her case, tons of influence — to be tossed over. The Kennedy appointment is "ornamental" opined one commentator; it was "amateur hour" declared another. Former diplomats and analysts weighed in, insisting her appointment would discourage the professionals in the U.S. foreign service and insult America’s Japanese allies, who could only interpret it as evidence that Washington sees Japan as a declining state that can be taken for granted.

None of these charges is unreasonable — though Kennedy’s hearing today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appears to have gone smoothly, with no obvious hiccups threatening to derail her confirmation. Nonetheless, Kennedy’s defenders have struggled to make a convincing case, generally employing some variation on one of four arguments in her favor — each of which either misrepresents history or misimagines Japan. As lawmakers prepare to vote on her confirmation — at a private meeting that has yet to be scheduled — it’s worth taking a look at each of these arguments in turn. 

The first is that the only living child of President John F. Kennedy will win the hearts and minds of credulous, celebrity-loving Japanese (see, for example, this puff piece in the style section the Sunday New York Times that might as well have been written by Kennedy’s publicist.) A more substantive version of this trope features a successful 1962 visit to Tokyo by Attorney General Robert Kennedy that is credited with smoothing over a rough patch in U.S.-Japan relations. At a pivotal moment during that visit, Kennedy faced a querulous crowd of Waseda University students, still angry after the violent 1960 protests in Tokyo against the controversial U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Kennedy is said to have handled the situation with trademark intelligence and charm, ending the evening triumphantly and helping to turn the tide against anti-American sentiment. But that was hardly the whole story.

Another hero of that evening was the U.S. ambassador, Edwin O. Reischauer, a Japan specialist who understood the context of the students’ anger. Mollifying the crowd in fluent Japanese, Reischauer provided Kennedy with a much more receptive audience than he otherwise would have faced. One real lesson of that Kennedy visit, then, is that ambassadors matter — particularly in moments of crisis. Given how tense Japan’s relations are with its neighbors and how unsettled relations are with the United States over the relocation of U.S. marines in Okinawa, it is worth asking whether Tokyo in 2013 is the right destination for a political appointee whose qualifications rest mostly with her family’s history in the American spotlight. 

The second argument in Kennedy’s favor stresses her personal qualities, including her ability to navigate gracefully through difficult political and social shoals. People on both sides of the Pacific are well aware of how often she has had to call upon these skills — often in tragic circumstances. These are indeed marks in Kennedy’s favor. Ambassadors, after all, must act diplomatically under pressure. But while social skills may contribute to an envoy’s success, they’re hardly enough to justify appointment in the first place — especially to a country that serves as a front-line ally at a moment when balances of national power are shifting.

In the third argument, Kennedy’s close ties to the president are trotted out as a justification for her appointment. "What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone," former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told the New York Times. "I can’t think of anybody in the United States who could do that more quickly than Caroline Kennedy." There is certainly something to this. U.S. ambassadors often have to deliver bad news and do need to convince their hosts that they speak with the authority of the president. But until Obama’s appointment of Roos, a lawyer and campaign financier, all of the U.S. envoys to Tokyo for the previous three decades were political or diplomatic heavyweights: Mike Mansfield had been Senate majority leader, Michael Armacost was a former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Walter Mondale was vice president, Howard Baker was Senate majority leader, Tom Foley was speaker of the House of Representatives, and Tom Schieffer had been U.S. ambassador to Australia. There was never any doubt that any of these men could get POTUS on the phone, but neither was there the suggestion that this was a sufficient condition for the post.

The fourth and final argument trumpeted by Kennedy’s supporters involves gender: She would be the first woman to occupy the post. We have been told that her appointment would give hope to Japanese women who remain frustrated by gender-bias in the Japanese system. Masako Owada, now the crown princess, was the object of similar expectations two decades ago. At first, the Harvard-educated foreign ministry official was heralded by the Western press as a role model for Japanese women. But these accounts overlooked how alien Owada’s life had been to most Japanese, as well as the many other sources of inspiration that existed for Japanese feminists. At least partly for this reason, they failed to anticipate how Japan’s tabloid press would turn on the princess and make hers a singularly difficult life in the national spotlight.

Ambassador Kennedy, if she is confirmed, will likewise be met with great enthusiasm and high expectations. But the argument that her nomination will somehow inspire Japanese women presupposes that Japan itself lacks strong female role models in prominent diplomatic posts (news, no doubt, to Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, both women) and has no idea how to achieve gender equality without American tutelage. None of these justifications give credit to the considerable sophistication of Japanese women.

Assuming she gets the job, Kennedy will occupy a challenging and symbolic position. She will do fine until her first misstep on policy — perhaps some slight to Japanese pride vis-à-vis China or Korea, or misstatement about the disposition of U.S. bases. Then, if history is any guide, the Japanese public will turn on her (and by proxy, the U.S. government). They will wonder — publicly and loudly — why Americans take Japan for granted and how Washington could dispatch such a neophyte to such a sensitive post.

One does not have to be a defender of white-shoed mandarins in Foggy Bottom to concede that diplomacy is a profession. The last few years have been rocky ones for the U.S.-Japan relationship, partly because of intense mistrust between Washington and the shaky leadership of Japan’s Democratic Party from 2009-2012. We now have a vocal supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — like Kennedy, the scion of a political dynasty — but one whose fervent nationalism has roiled the waters around Japan, not just with China but also with American allies like South Korea.

With alarmingly frequent showdowns between Japan’s Coast Guard and both Chinese and South Korean ships in the waters around disputed territories, Washington is never far from being dragged into a military confrontation in the region. And this leaves aside lingering public concerns regarding radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and simmering tension within Japan about the United States itself — from left-leaning critiques of America’s military presence and encouragement of Japan’s nuclear industry to the right-leaning anger about the imposition of a Tokyo Tribunal version of Japan’s wartime history onto the region.

We can imagine many ways in which Kennedy’s experience with non-profits and her work on educational inequality might resonate with different groups in Japan. Her connections to a range of American elites, meanwhile, may well attract a new stratum of American visitors to the country. Anyone who cares about the U.S.-Japan relationship and stability in the Far East has to hope that Ambassador Kennedy will succeed and wish her — and the cadre of specialists who will surround her at the embassy — well. But there is ample reason to be concerned.

Kennedy’s confirmation hearing today predictably touched on trade, Japanese political economy, and East Asian security — and the nominee appeared well prepared for the pop quiz. But even if Kennedy wins confirmation, the hearing will hopefully provoke a larger discussion of the spoils system through which many ambassadorial appointments are made. If the role of ambassador is largely that of a figurehead — or if close ties to the president really are more valuable than experience and expertise — then the U.S. and Japanese publics deserve to understand why and how.

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