"President Bush will welcome Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Washington for a working visit March 19. In addition to their important shared security objectives in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States and Japan have common interests on a broad range of global issues. The President looks forward to exchanging views with Prime Minister Mori on regional and global issues and to discussing ways to strengthen the alliance and overall bilateral cooperation." — 12 March 2001
"President Obama will meet with Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan at the White House on Tuesday, February 24, 2009. Japan is a close friend and a key ally of the United States and the President looks forward to discussing ways in which the two countries can strengthen cooperation on regional and global challenges. The two leaders will consult on effective measures to respond to the Global Financial Crisis and will discuss North Korea and other issues." — 17 February 2009
In a surprise move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended an invitation to Prime Minister Aso Taro to visit Washington next Tuesday, which the prime minister gladly accepted, which will make him the first foreign leader to visit President Barack Obama.
But upon seeing the news of Mr. Aso's forthcoming trip, I immediately thought back to March 2001, when Mori Yoshiro visited George W. Bush. Former President Bush was then barely two months into his administration. Mr. Mori had been prime minister less than a year, and a little more than a month after his visit, he was replaced by Koizumi Junichiro. And the rest is, as they say, history. In June, Messrs. Koizumi and Bush played catch at Camp David, in September Mr. Koizumi acted quickly in supporting the US following the 9/11 attacks, and from then on the alliance was remade (from the perspective of 2009, perhaps only momentarily).
Why was it so urgent that Mr. Bush meet with Mr. Mori? By the time Mr. Mori went to Washington he had already faced Kato Koichi's attempt to overturn his government in November 2000. In February, the bottom virtually fell out of the Mori government. On February 9, Mr. Mori came under fire for continuing to play golf after learning that the USS Greeneville had collided with the Ehime Maru. On February 19, Asahi published the figure that will forever be attached to Mr. Mori's name: 9% public approval. The poll prompted Mr. Koizumi, whose popularity was beginning to grow as he traveled the country, to call for the prime minister to give up. (Incidentally, Mr. Mori is only the second least popular prime minister in the postwar period: Takeshita Noboru bottomed out at 7%.) The rest of the month was spent in debate on when Mr. Mori would resign and how the LDP would choose his successor, before Mr. Mori finally indicated on March 11 — note the date — that he would resign once the 2001 budget passed. In other words, the day after Mr. Mori indicated that he would resign, the White House announced that he would be coming for a visit the following week. Naturally the planning for the meeting occurred before, but was no one in the administration aware that Mr. Mori was fighting for his political life? Did no one ask whether it would be better off waiting for a new prime minister?
What was Mr. Mori doing in Washington?
The joint statement released following the Bush-Mori summit has the answer: not much at all. The two leaders affirmed that they were committed to continuing to improve the US-Japan relationship in all its facets, bringing the agenda forward from the latter years of the Clinton administration. All well and good, but nothing that merited sending an outgoing prime minister to Washington to perform a task that could just as easily have waited for a new prime minister. One of the benefits of face-to-face meetings, after all, is in the working relationships that emerge between leaders that last over time and provide some support for the working-level officials laboring on alliance management. This importance of relationships between leaders can be overstated — and was overstated in the case of the Bush-Koizumi relationship — but it should be a consideration when leaders, particularly of allied countries, meet.
And so we come to February 2009. While not as embarrassing as the Bush administration's announcing Mr. Mori's visit the day after he announced that he would resign, the Obama administration's invitation overlapped with the embarrassing resignation of Nakagawa Shoichi, Mr. Aso's finance minister, following accusations of drunkenness at the G7 meeting in Rome. In the latest Asahi Shimbun poll, the poll in which Mr. Mori reached 9% back in 2001, Mr. Aso's approval rating is at 14%, and is trending downward. (Mr. Nakagawa's resignation may be enough to push Mr. Aso into single digits in the Asahi poll.) Mr. Aso has already broken the 10% barrier in at least one poll, and will likely do so in other polls soon. But unlike in 2001, not only is the prime minister deeply unpopular, but his party has been surpassed in the polls by the DPJ, as the voting public looks increasingly willing to give the DPJ an opportunity to govern, possibly within the year, as an election must be held by September.
The result is that beyond the public opinion figures, Mr. Aso has lost the ability to govern. Mr. Aso has entered a vicious cycle in which the failure to act in response to the economic crisis has damaged his popularity, which has undermined his authority, which makes it that much more difficulty to respond to the crisis, which lowers his popularity further, and so on until he steps down or calls an election. As the Financial Times put it in an editorial today, "At this moment, it is dangerous for an administration to continue in office when it has already lost power." What will a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Aso accomplish that has not already been accomplished by Hillary Clinton's visit to Tokyo? By sending Mrs. Clinton to Tokyo as her first foreign destination, surely the Obama administration has made an appropriate symbolic gesture to show that it is still committed to the US-Japan alliance. (As Mrs. Clinton said, repeating the standard line, "The alliance between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone of our foreign policy.") Doesn't Mr. Obama have bigger things to worry about at this point? What is so important that Mr. Aso has to hurry to Washington instead of waiting for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in London in April? This trip — which Mr. Aso is clearly desperate to take, as foreign travel is the last resort for an unpopular prime minister — is nothing more than a photo opportunity for the prime minister, an attempt to bask in the glow of a leader who enjoys the confidence of his people (and the Japanese people) in the hope that he might enjoy an Obama bump. (Cf., Colbert, Stephen.)
At some level, the US government should be blind to political conditions within Japan, but given the turmoil within Japan, wouldn't it be sensible to wait and see first whether Mr. Aso survives long enough to pass the 2009 budget and govern into the new fiscal year? The start of the fiscal year conveniently coincides with the G20 meeting. After Mr. Nakagawa's resignation, however, Mr. Aso's survival is even less certain than before. It would have been better to see whether Mr. Aso will survive the next few weeks — during which his government could conceivably be toppled when the bills related to the second stimulus package come before the lower house a second time — and then meet with Mr. Aso in London instead of agreeing to a meeting that will be held largely for reasons of Mr. Aso's domestic standing. Not that it will make much difference. At this point I don't think the Japanese public will be particularly impressed by images of Mr. Aso conferring with Mr. Obama.
Interestingly, when Mr. Mori traveled to Washington in March 2001, who do you suppose was traveling with him? None other than Aso Taro, then the minister of state for economic and fiscal policy.