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A violent death in Japan, and a great loss for America

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped and influenced U.S. policy in Asia


Shinzo Abe in August 2020 Associated Press/Photo by Franck Robichon (pool)

A violent death in Japan, and a great loss for America

The West lost a great leader last week. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe died at the hands of a deranged assassin while campaigning in the city of Nara for a parliamentary candidate. It may seem peculiar to describe a Japanese leader as “Western,” but Abe personified and embraced the best of Western values, such as liberty, democracy, human dignity, open markets, and anti-totalitarianism. And he combined these convictions with a deep affinity for the United States. During his two terms as prime minister—the longest-serving in Japanese history—he positioned Japan as the Asia-Pacific anchor of the Western alliance.

When thinking about the world, Americans too often overlook Japan. It exemplifies one of the greatest successes of U.S. foreign policy in the past century—turning a defeated and destroyed adversary in World War II into a thriving democracy and one of the world’s largest economies. It is no accident that President Ronald Reagan often described the United States–Japan relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.”

While China has since surpassed Japan’s economic might, Tokyo remains, along with London, one of the United States’ two most important allies. Geography matters, too. Japan is our only major ally located near our two major adversaries, China and Russia. This, in part, is why Japan hosts the largest number of U.S. military bases and troops among all of our allies.

There are many reasons for Japan’s postwar success, such as a democratic political system, a market economy, and the grit and enterprise of the Japanese people. Yet leadership was indispensable. In the past half-century, Abe stood third in a line of three remarkable Japanese leaders who revitalized their country and deepened its alliance with the United States.

First, from 1982 to 1987, Yasuhiro Nakasone partnered with Reagan to counter the Soviet threat and support the growth of democracy and economic prosperity throughout the region. Second, from 2001 to 2006, Junichiro Koizumi collaborated with President George W. Bush as a vital partner in fighting terrorism and extending U.S. influence in Asia. Third, from 2012 to 2020, Abe worked closely with the Obama and Trump administrations to counter China and preserve U.S. influence in the region.

Abe’s career provides a case study of how allied leaders can help and even influence U.S. policy. Earlier than any other leader in Asia, he identified Communist China as more of a strategic threat than an economic partner. In so doing, he also helped persuade the Obama administration to recognize, albeit belatedly and reluctantly, the growing menace from Beijing. Once President Donald Trump took office, Abe became his most important Asian partner and continued helping shape the Trump administration’s tougher stance on China.

Abe personified and embraced the best of Western values, such as liberty, democracy, human dignity, open markets, and anti-totalitarianism. And he combined these convictions with a deep affinity for the United States.

Abe pioneered the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a shared strategic goal of Japan and the United States. Those words may sound at first like banalities, but they are not. “Free and Open” means that aggressive dictatorships like China will not be allowed to dominate the region, seize new territories and shipping lanes, or control the vast maritime flows of energy and commerce that are so vital to the world economy.

“Indo-Pacific” means that the United States and Japan regard the Indian and Pacific oceans as one integrated body of water, thus linking India to the future of the East Asia and the Pacific basin. That the Trump and Biden administrations embraced a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy speaks to Abe’s bipartisan influence.

Building on this Indo-Pacific concept, Abe championed and helped develop the Quad. This new partnership of India, the United States, Australia, and Japan brings four leading democracies together to counter China’s malign influence. (Do not be surprised if South Korea under the leadership of its new conservative president, Yoon Seok-youl, soon seeks to join this initiative).

Abe also ensured that Japan shouldered more of the military burden in the region. Rather than just free-ride under the U.S. security umbrella, he boosted Japan’s defense spending, extended its commitments to maritime patrolling and joint exercises with allies, and even called for Japan to join with the United States in helping defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression.

As Japan expert (and my former Bush administration National Security Council colleague) Mike Green testifies, Abe was “the most consequential modern Japanese leader” since World War II. Thankfully, it appears that Abe’s protégé and successor as prime minister, Fumio Kishida, plans to continue the policy path laid out by his mentor. Japan’s election results this weekend boosted Abe’s party and prospects for his vision of amending the archaic pacifism clause in the Japanese Constitution.

But even as Abe leaves a notable legacy, his death grieves the hearts of his fellow Japanese and his many American friends and leaves a leadership void in the region. His assassination robbed the world of a much-admired leader. He will be missed.


William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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