Thoughts on the United States of America: Coming Together as One

KATO Ryozo

I was in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., when I heard about the assassination attempt on former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The local news reported the tragedy on the night of July 7th (Eastern Standard Time), and the next morning a “Presidential Proclamation on the Death of Abe Shinzo” was issued. Flags were lowered to half-staff across all buildings in sight, including the National Mall, banks, commercial buildings – even McDonald’s. The same was probably true in every state capital in the U.S.

From President Biden to former President Trump, it was a united response. Moreover, the White House and others were so quick to offer their condolences that Japan’s government could not respond in a timely manner. These expressions of sympathy were capped by President Biden dispatching Secretary of State Blinken to Japan as an “emergency envoy”. Soon thereafter, the Senate adopted a resolution to honor and remember Prime Minister Abe’s achievements. It unanimously passed the Resolution on July 20th and the House passed a similar resolution honoring Abe’s life and legacy on the 26th.

On a personal level, I received a stream of condolence e-mails from American friends. Several Uber drivers that I rode with during the next few days expressed their sympathies when they learned that I was Japanese.

The last time we saw such a large-scale, fast and bipartisan response from the U.S. in Japan-U.S. relations was after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. That time, we were talking about a natural disaster. This time, it was the passing of an individual, the former Prime Minister of Japan.

I thought once again that it is extremely important to understand the characteristics of the U.S., which can be said to become a single entity on any given critical occasion.

A Country of “Division”

It has been a long time since the phrase “unprecedented division of the United States” last came and went. While this is partly true, the United States has been a country of “division” going back to the time of its founding. It took thirty-six Congressional ballots before Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1801. Then came the Civil War, big business and antitrust, the Great Depression, and Vietnam. Europe had a difficult time getting the U.S. into World War I and II because the nation was ambivalent about the extent of her obligations to European allies. Indeed, has there ever been a time other than the Cold War era when the U.S. was not a “divided” country?

After visiting the U.S. for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I once again felt that, contrary to what is reported on the surface, the U.S. still has underlying strength that is difficult to see. One of the sources of this power is her federalist system of government. The power of the states is strong and fundamental, not only as defined by the Constitution, but also in the daily lives of American citizens.

The structure of the United Nations is modeled on this system. Its member countries correspond to the states and the U.N. Security Council to the U.S. federal government. The Security Council has been rendered dysfunctional by the irrational selection of its permanent members, the “P5”, and the fatal misjudgment in granting them “veto power”. On the other hand, I believe that the U.S. federal government and Congress are functioning much more soundly than is reported in Japan.

However, from an outsider’s perspective, I can see that both the Democratic Party, with its leftist supporters like Black Lives Matter (BLM), and the Republican Party, whose base includes Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, ultimately share the same “minority” and victim mentality, while a “majority” mentality and pride in being “mainstream” are the basis for the whole. I think the current problem is that there is no leadership on the part of either the Democrats or the Republicans that can bring the country together in bipartisan unity.

As confirmed by my friend, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in such a situation, young and talented Americans tend to seek opportunities in their local and state governments rather than at the federal level.

What Can Japan Do in Times of Crisis?

Having close relationships with key US federal counterparts is vital to the Japanese government, but if they remain inert and merely promote “federal supremacy”, it will lead to a waste of limited resources on the Japanese side. It is important to have a strategy to deepen our understanding and further strengthen ties with the fifty states as well.

Fortunately, Japan’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the U.S. extends to all fifty states, far exceeding China in this regard. While most Americans are not as familiar with Japan as they are with other major Western countries, Japan’s high favorability and trustworthiness among both Democrats and Republicans in all fifty states is a great “plus,” and also a rare one. The bipartisan outpouring of sympathy following former Prime Minister Abe’s sudden passing stands as a testament to this.

The more difficult and unstable the world situation becomes, the more reassuring it is for Japan to have “a leader who is outstanding by global standards” and “an effective, reliable, and stable alliance”. The same may be true for the U.S., albeit to a slightly different degree. While I do not want to generalize based on our great ally’s reaction to a single event, it will become increasingly important to keep in mind the above-mentioned characteristics of the U.S., and to be prepared to strengthen the alliance on a daily basis, taking actions to ensure that the U.S. will be united in her resolve to help defend Japan in times of crisis.

KATO Ryozo : Former Japan’s Ambassador to the United States and Japan Chair of CULCON (U.S-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchanges).