The Senkaku Islands and Chinese irredentism. . . Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the prospects for political stability under the resurgent Liberal Democratic Party . . . the influence of the New Komeito and other small parties on the volatility of Diet majorities . . . the viability of the Peace Clause of Article IX in an era of Kim Jong Un, North Korean lunacy, and Chinese chauvinism . . . prospects for expanding the mission and resources of the Japanese Self Defense Force in the face of looming military threats across the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan . . . Kadena, Futenma, Yokosuka, Sasebo, Iwakuni, Yokota, and the long-term viability of the profusion of U.S. bases in Mainland Japan and Okinawa. . . Yen devaluation and the aggressive stimulative monetary policy of the Bank of Japan.
These are merely some of the critical issues involving current U.S. relations with Japan, America's foremost ally in East Asia and the Pacific and still one of the essential lynchpins to international economic stability and regional security in East Asia. These issues are all familiar to government and academic experts on Japan and East Asia, and even to dilettantes in that realm.
But one somehow doubts that a Triple A-List New York socialite and pampered Kennedy Family Princess has torn herself away from the fashionable distractions of SoHo and Martha's Vineyard even to notice, let alone comprehend, the esoteric concerns of a remote and inscrutable Japan.
The Ambassador Presumptive
And yet, we now learn that Caroline Kennedy, one of the last recognizable relics of Camelot, is to be nominated as Ambassador to Japan. How very curious and incongruous.
Apart from her iconic name and her prominence as a financial and political supporter of Mr. Obama, there is not the slightest hint in Ms. Kennedy's experience or accomplishments, such as they are, to even remotely associate her with a critical diplomatic post in Japan. As far as the record shows, she seems entirely innocent of any academic or professional interest in East Asia, let alone Japan. True, she is a highly sophisticated lady, and once took an advanced art course at Sotheby's in London and worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which might at least have introduced her to the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. But that is a far cry from grasping the complex and subtle history and culture of the Land of Yamato.
If Ms. Kennedy knows Tokugawa Ieyasu from Toshiro Mifune, I would be very much surprised.
It is true, of course, that ambassadorships are commonly awarded to relatively unqualified financial contributors and supporters of the president, but there are at least minimal limits even on this unseemly but accepted practice. An ambassadorial appointment of someone who lacks all plausible credentials connected to the receiving country seems especially inappropriate in the case of so prominent a country as Japan -- and at a time when issues relating to that country are especially pressing and sensitive.
Although many prior appointments of Ambassadors to Japan have been clearly political in character, those appointees have generally been quite well qualified either by prior experience in government posts of the highest responsibility, or in foreign relations matters in general, or Japanese affairs in particular. Ms. Kennedy's undoubted glamor and celebrity, however appealing to the fawning media, falls far short of that mark.
President Kennedy selected Edwin Reischauer, one of his cadre of Harvard faculty supporters, for the post, but Reischauer was a distinguished and accomplished scholar on Japanese and East Asian affairs. Senator Mike Mansfield, whose status as a Democratic Senate Majority Leader gave him the best possible political connections for his appointment by Jimmy Carter, also had strong credentials as a student and professor of East Asian affairs, had served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and would have qualified for the position independent of his senatorial connections. The first President Bush's appointee to the post was Michael Armacost, a government and academic expert on East Asia who, like Reischauer, was fluent in Japanese and highly experienced in national security and foreign affairs. Other prominent political appointees to the Tokyo post include Vice President Walter Mondale, Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, and House Minority Leader Thomas Foley. Their extensive experience in the most senior government positions -- positions requiring both strong diplomatic skills and general foreign affairs knowledge -- more than adequately offset their lack of particular expertise on Japan.
Ms. Kennedy has earned a J.D. from Columbia Law School, has written a number of books, and presumably has an engaging personality -- credentials which qualify her to be an associate in a good New York law firm, or perhaps an Assistant U.S. Attorney, but hardly for appointment to a preeminent ambassadorship. She has also been active in supporting and giving money to successful political candidates like Obama, and was once seriously considered for appointment to the U.S. Senate to complete the term of the departing Hilary Clinton. Unfortunately, the confluence of her celebrity and political largesse with her consideration for a senate appointment tell us more about the sorry state of contemporary political standards than about her qualifications for assuming diplomatic responsibility of the highest order. She is painfully lacking in those offsetting government credentials that have qualified other appointees to the Tokyo post notwithstanding their lack of particular experience in East Asian or Japanese affairs.
While it is true that few prior appointees have been fluent in Japanese, and that Ms. Kennedy can be readily excused for her lack of that desirable credential, there are limits to the leniency that can be extended to an ambassador's ability to communicate with the host country. So far from being conversant in Japanese, it appears that she has proven herself painfully inarticulate in English. In a disastrous interview that has become something of a template for incoherent political communication, Ms. Kennedy used that winsome Valley Girl phrase, "you know?", a reported 200 times during the 30-minute conversation -- a rhetorical fiasco that was instrumental in undermining her abortive candidacy for the New York senatorial appointment. One can only wince at the prospect of perplexed Japanese interpreters uttering "Gomen nasai, wakari-masen," -- "Sorry, don't quite follow" -- if Ms. Kennedy's diplomatic explanations of the U.S. position on, say, North Korea's latest bellicosity bear any resemblance to her attempted justification of her candidacy for the New York senate seat.
Oddly enough, however, none of these apparent deficiencies are likely to elicit any objection from the Japanese themselves. For one thing, they are simply too polite, and would consider it unforgivably churlish to notice an appointee's lack of qualifications. Moreover, putting aside the diplomats who must actually deal with the U.S. Embassy, the Japanese are generally more interested in the stature, celebrity, and cache of the American Ambassador rather than his expertise or experience. And at a time when improving the status of women in government is a stated goal of the LDP, the fact that Ms. Kennedy is a female may be viewed as more of an asset than a shortcoming.
Which raises an interesting question: If experience in government and foreign relations or expertise in Japanese affairs are irrelevant to the appointment, whereas celebrity and a record of prominent support for the President are sufficient qualification, why settle for a faded icon of Camelot? When it comes to American celebrities in Japanese eyes, R&B superstar Mariah Carey is second to none. Ms. Carey is far and away the most popular U.S. recording artist in Japan, with album sales there in the multi-millions, and she has repeatedly charmed thousands of Japanese in sold-out concerts in Tokyo and other major cities. Further, Ms. Carey's support for the Obama campaign was probably at least equal to that of Ms. Kennedy's. She even composed a fawning pro-Obama campaign ballad, called "Bring it Home," which she performed herself at a ritzy New York fundraiser. In an administration obsessed with red carpet glitz, over-the-top extravagance, and triumphant superficiality, Ms. Carey seems far more suitable even than Ms. Kennedy for selection as its prime representative to Japan.
But never mind. Since Obama's policies on Japanese affairs are unlikely to be any more successful than his disastrous policies on the economy, legal affairs, or energy independence, naming a highly qualified official to advance those policies would be a waste of diplomatic resources. On the bright side, Ms. Kennedy will likely do less harm baffling the Japanese Foreign Ministry with her Soho-Martha's Vineyard patois than she would financing yet more victorious liberal candidacies here at home. Ya know?