HOW SHOULD JAPAN DEAL WITH TRUMP ADMINISTRATION?
This week, Donald Trump, deemed the most unconventional president ever, was sworn in as America’s 45th president. The entire world, including Japan and the US itself, awaited the new American administration with varying degrees of anxiety mixed with a horrified curiosity about what the unpredictable former real-estate mogul will actually do in office.
While the policies of the new administration remain opaque, questions directed at Trump’s nominees for major cabinet posts during Senate confirmation hearings have revealed how deeply concerned American congressional members are about the serious threat that Russia is to the US—or rather, how little of these concerns is shared by the new president himself.
Retired Marine General James Mattis, former Commander of US Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) January 12 at his confirmation hearing to become defense secretary. Committee Chairman Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) repeatedly asked whether Russia and China pose threats to the US and whether Mattis thinks America is sufficiently prepared militarily—questions indicating McCain is more than conscious of—and obviously distressed by—Trump’s unguarded singing of Russian President Putin’s praises.
In a composed manner not at all like his “Mad Dog” nickname, Mattis’s remarks pertaining to Russia clearly differed from Trump’s: Russia stands as “the principal threat” to US security, followed by terrorism and China. “There is a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia,” he noted, adding: “Since Yalta, we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard.”
Mattis also sounded a rising alarm: “Mr. Putin is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”
During the three-hour hearing, Mattis also stated that he believes the US “does not have a strong enough military today,” at a time when deterrence is critical; that “the strongest military” is mandatory; and that America must treat its allies with respect. His remarks must have proved reassuring to the Senate committee, as they reflect America’s fundamental commitment to safeguarding the world order it has helped establish.
After the hearing, the SASC voted to confirm Mattis as America’s new secretary of defense, waiving the limitation against an appointment for defense secretary within seven years of retirement from active duty. This is only the second such waver granted since the appointment of Gen. George Marshall in 1950.
Meanwhile, the hearing for Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobile CEO nominated as secretary of state, looked markedly different from Mattis’s. A top oil industry executive who in international transactions over the years has managed hundreds of millions of dollars equaling the national budgets of many nations, Tillerson has developed a cozy relationship with Rosneft, the Kremlin’s state-owned oil company under Putin’s wing. The eight-hour hearing, held on January 11, grilled him to determine if the former oil man is capable of making decisions strictly for the US national interests.
But at the confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) turned out to be the most energized questioner as he fired more than a few tough questions at Tillerson. Afterwards, Rubio candidly admitted to the press he had “serious concerns” about Tillerson as secretary of state. Rubio stressed America does not need a diplomacy that “views human rights issues as secondary”—a reflection of his conviction that a new secretary of state should never give in when it comes to violation of human rights and international law.
To Rubio, born to immigrant parents from Cuba, the suppression of human rights and freedoms in Russia must overlap with what his parents had experienced under Fidel Castro. Some thought he was unfairly demanding that Tillerson denounce as human-rights violators the very people he would have to deal with.
How do Americans feel about Russians? American journalist David Satter, author of The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin (Yale University Press; 2016), stated his own views in the Asian Wall Street Journal of January 11, 2017.
A specialist on Russia, which expelled him in 2013, Satter took a swipe at Putin on the basis of cold facts while also pounding away at Tillerson. Prior to the confirmation hearing, Satter demanded that the committee have Tillerson “demonstrate an understanding of the recent developments regarding three issues”—(1) the 2015 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; (2) the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; and (3) the 1999 Russian apartment bombings purportedly caused by Chechens.
Satter detailed facts about the three incidents. He had this to say about (1): Nemtsov, who planned a massive demonstration against Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, was “shot repeatedly while walking near the Kremlin on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, an area under constant surveillance by Mr. Putin’s personal guard, the Federal Protective Service.”
Satter quoted “expert analyses” that the murder “required the participation of no fewer than two dozen persons,” further explaining: “Video cameras on the bridge were disabled, lookouts were placed at strategic locations, and a garbage track appeared in front of the scene of the shooting to block it from view.”
He further stated that on February 28, 2012, Nemtsov met Ahmed Zakaev, leader of a Chechen separatist government in exile in Oslo, who quoted Chechen sources warning Nemtsov there was a plan to murder him. Nemtsov and a Russian publicist who accompanied him to Oslo were skeptical, wrote Satter, adding that while they were discussing the warning “Putin appeared on television and said he had information that members of the opposition were planning to murder an opposition leader and blame it on the authorities.”
Nemtsov was killed three years later in February 2015. Putin at the time was quoted as remarking that the incident had “a distinct feature of a contract murder of an extremely provocative nature.” One is tempted to ask who Putin thought had hired the killer. Many governments and people around the world suspect that, while the actual triggermen were Chechens, behind them Putin ordered the hit, which reminded some of Stalin’s thinly disguised 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, popular mayor of Leningrad and a rival.
Unlike the managers of other oil companies, Tillerson is credited with having nurtured Russneft as a gigantic oil development enterprise, providing capital and technology. Putin awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship, the country’s highest honor for foreigners.
In a seeming attempt to dispell any doubts that may likely arise from his closeness to Russia, Tillerson expressed tough-minded views of Russia during his hearing that “Russia today poses a danger.” As a top diplomat, Tillerson couldn’t have replied more strongly at the public hearing.
The big question about the Trump administration is whether it can form a credible relationship with Russia whose values differ vastly from the West. Some fear the danger of the Trump administration being trapped by Putin’s cunning game manipulations. Trump appears to be facing China and Russia—two nations that pay absolutely no attention to the rule of law, human rights, and freedoms— with a double standard. He is conciliatory towards Moscow but antagonistic towards Beijing. Why does he keep his mouth shut about Russia’s not-very-covert invasion of Ukraine when he questions the US “One China” policy? Some ask if Trump is deliberately trying to pull Russia and China apart—first attempted by Eisenhower—while others wonder if he has any long-term strategy.
Because the world’s mightiest nation lacks the intellect and strategy to remain true to its values and principles, today’s world is being helplessly driven towards a horizon marked by chaos and uncertainty. That is why I wish to stress repeatedly that Japan must by all means forge solid footing on its own now by reinforcing its capabilities in all fields.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 738 in the January 26, 2017 issue of The Weeklｙ Shincho)