Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives on the issues we explore here.
The relationship between Japan and the United States has provided the underpinning for security in the Pacific region. But could unsatisfactory conditions prompt the U.S. to pull out?
Yoshinari Kurose, Washington correspondent for The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward, sought insights on these and other key foreign policy concerns in a July 7 telephone interview with John Bolton.
The former Assistant to the U.S. President for National Security (2018-2019) is the author of the recent book, The Room Where it Happened (Simon and Schuster, June 2020). He also served as Deputy Secretary of State (2001-2005) and United Nations ambassador (2005-2006).
In the interview, Mr. Bolton emphasized the mutual importance of the alliance with Japan, but warned that President Donald Trump is unlike traditional presidents, and Japan should take his request for increased cost sharing more seriously.
Bolton expressed concern about the Trump administration’s China policy, and bluntly commented, “North Korea intends to stick to its nuclear program.” However, he acknowledged that President Trump had responded favorably on the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese and other nationals.
Mr. Bolton left the Trump administration in September 2019 because of disagreement over Afghanistan peace issues.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
What’s the fundamental problem you saw in President Trump’s view on the alliance with Japan?
I think he doesn’t really understand how a deep and strong political alliance works, especially in the case of the Japan-U.S. alliance, obviously born out of conflict in World War II and turning from a relationship of military hostility to one of the closest friendships that the United States has in the world.
This is something that has developed through the Cold War, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now into a period of multiple threats, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and — most significantly for this century — the threats and challenges posed by China.
So, even though many things have changed, what has been a constant during this period is that the alliance has remained strong. And it’s not a question at the end of every year of who did more this year, who did less this year, like a bunch of accountants adding up assets and liabilities. This is something that’s long-term and in the interest of both countries. When you reduce it simply to an accounting exercise, really you risk reducing the trust on both sides. I thought that was very, very dangerous.
There’s a lot to be said for all of America’s allies, in Europe and Asia and around the world, spending more in our collective self-defense efforts. But I don’t think you judge the strength of the alliance by looking at the balance of payments between two countries or by who had more expenditures in a given year.
For President Trump, is it all about money?
Well, it’s money, but money is also a surrogate for the transactional approach. He looks at the deployment of U.S. forces in Europe, in Japan, in South Korea, around the Pacific, as the United States defending Europe, or the United States defending Japan, or the United States defending South Korea. He doesn’t see it as a mutual self-defense alliance.
And, in fact, I think he’s making this mistake now in the case of Afghanistan, where he’s trying to withdraw American troops on the theory that they’re no longer necessary there. But it could result in a greater threat of a terrorist attack in the United States.
Is there really a possibility of a drawdown or pullout of U.S. forces from Japan if the negotiation on host nation support breaks down?
Well, it is a possibility. I think it may be more of a possibility in South Korea, because the base lease — the arrangement there — had expired, and now it’s still being renegotiated. It has been a year and a half of this now.
What I tried to explain in the book, particularly about one of my last trips as National Security Advisor to Tokyo and Seoul, was trying to explain to my counterparts and others in the Cabinets in Japan and South Korea, that they had to take this request for greater support for the U.S. bases seriously because of the risk that Trump would withdraw.
Other presidents might come and say, “We think you should spend more on supporting the cost of the U.S. deployment in Japan,” but it would not be a question that if Japan didn’t, then U.S. forces would withdraw. Here, it’s much more at risk.
Now, I think Trump has some compromise figure on the base support payments. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know that he does at the moment either, but it’s probably not his initial asking price. It emphasizes that it just needs to be taken seriously.
If Trump loses the election, probably Japan and the U.S. will come to terms much more quickly. But I just wanted to stress this because people don’t appreciate how transactional Trump is. And so people look at a threat to withdraw from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), or withdraw from South Korea or Japan, and they don't really take it seriously. I think with the Trump presidency, you have to take it seriously.
Your overall account relating to Japan was somewhat positive compared to other countries. How does the personal relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe come into play?
Well, Prime Minister Abe has done an amazing job in trying to keep Japan-U.S. relations on an even keel, despite the Trump presidency. I don’t imagine that this has been a lot of fun for him. I recount several of their meetings, and it must be difficult for Prime Minister Abe, as with other foreign leaders, to sit and listen to some of the things that Trump says. But I think that Prime Minister Abe has Japan’s interests uppermost in his mind. He knows that both Japan and the United States are better off with a strong alliance. He knows that presidents come and go and his determination to stick through it with Trump really reflects very highly on him.
And I think it also shows, fundamentally, how strong the relations are between the two countries. But Abe deserves a great deal of credit for helping keep the alliance stable during a difficult period on the American side.
One reason President Trump is still popular among Japanese conservatives is that he has shown keen interest in the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea. Just a simple question: can we count on him?
You know, the abduction issue is something that I was first introduced to back in 2001-2002, when I first met Abe when he was Deputy Cabinet Secretary. The abduction issue had been very important to him since his early political days. I remember having a breakfast with him where he explained how strongly people in Japan felt about it, for obvious reasons, and why he was so determined to try and get a satisfactory resolution.
I think this has become increasingly clear in the United States, as [important] in Japan as it would be for the United States if we had faced the same kind of hostage taking. So, when Trump promised that he would raise the abduction issue with Kim Jong Un, he did it every time he promised he would do it. And I thought it was important to tell that story because too often these days in the U.S., you’re either in favor of every single thing Trump does or you’re against every single thing Trump does, and that’s a mistake for the U.S. political system.
Now, would Trump give away the abduction issue if Kim Jong Un were to offer him something else in trade for it? I don’t think we know the answer to that question, but if you’ll recall what I was saying a few minutes ago, that everything is transactional and not based on policy considerations, you can’t rule it out.
That’s why this is an example of how hard Prime Minister Abe worked to keep the alliance strong. He would call the President regularly. He took every opportunity he could to meet with Trump in the U.S. or in international meetings. It’s why he helped facilitate the first state visit with the new Emperor to be President Trump. What Abe recognized was that the only way to be confident that Japan’s view was being heard was that he personally took every chance he could to speak with Trump directly.
Speaking of North Korea, are the nuclear talks dead?
Well, I think the North Koreans pretty much signaled that they were not serious about talks when they blew up the buildings at Kaesong that they had constructed for liaison discussions with South Korea.
It has always been my view that North Korea is determined to keep its nuclear weapons program. It said four separate times, in writing, it would give up the nuclear weapons program, but it never gets around to it. So, I view the negotiations mostly as North Korea’s effort to get relief from the economic sanctions.
It is always possible that with Trump behind in the public opinion polls, as we get toward the November election, that there’s a chance for what in the United States we call “the October surprise” — some completely unexpected event that a politician uses to help his election campaign. Another meeting with Kim Jong Un and Trump, that would be a real surprise in October. But I think, in fact, there’s no chance, even if such a meeting took place, that there would be any substantive progress on the nuclear weapons issue.
What should be the next step?
It’s long overdue for the U.S. and Japan and others to look at something other than an agreement with North Korea on the nuclear issue. Agreeing is easy. It’s always the implementation, which is why the Libya model of 2003-2004 would be the only secure way to a diplomatic resolution.
There, Britain and the United States had clear evidence that Moammar Khadafy had made a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons. We have no evidence of that from North Korea. In fact, the evidence is entirely to the contrary: the strategic decision is to keep nuclear weapons to try and get economic benefits.
So, we’ve got to look at the longer term, and the increasingly difficult situation with China has made that more difficult.
Ultimately, our objective should be the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the South Korean government, much as the reunification of Germany took place, essentially, under the control and model of the West German government.
I don’t think you’re ever going to see the elimination of the North Korean weapons program until the North Korean government doesn’t exist anymore. This is different from other countries, because you don’t need regime change in North Korea. You simply need the Korean Peninsula to be reunited. We already have a regime in South Korea.
How serious is President Trump in tackling various kinds of threats from China, though his words are harsher since the COVID-19 pandemic?
This is a good example of Trump not following a philosophy or a grand strategy, or even a consistent policy. I am very worried that, despite some of the rhetoric on the coronavirus and on Hong Kong, [after] signing the recent Uyghur legislation, that in fact, concretely, not much will be done about these different Chinese acts of provocation.
And [I’m worried] that after the election, if Trump wins, he’ll be right back to trying to negotiate the big trade deal. So, I think this is very dangerous and it’s one reason that you see all this variation in what American policy is. It has more to do with American politics than anything else.
If the wind changes, would he possibly change his attitude and go the other way?
Yes, I think that’s a real possibility. Once he’s freed of the need to get the base to turn out and vote for him, there’s no telling what direction he’ll move in. He’s untethered to a philosophy or policy.
If he thinks that the big China trade deal would be the deal of the century, he will be back to following Xi Jinping. Now I think that’s a real problem, but as I described in the book, even on COVID-19, his unwillingness to listen to anything bad about China in early January and February held up what could have been a stronger American reaction to the disease earlier and prevented a lot of the difficulty we’ve had since then.
Do you think the world would be better off under a [Joe] Biden presidency?
The risks and the downside are different. Biden, at best, would be another four years of Obama. And, given the left-wing pressure in the Democratic Party, it could be worse. But Trump is four years of complete unpredictability, where China and other adversaries might well figure out how to take advantage of it. So, I’m not going to be happy in November, whatever the outcome is.
Do you see dangers of foreign interference in the elections, like 2016?
There’s a real risk of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea all trying to interfere.
China, as Vice President [Mike] Pence said in the speech last year, is trying to influence our overall political discussion in the U.S. and I think in other countries, too. It’s something Japan should be very much on the alert for, too. Democracies are vulnerable in that regard and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to defend against it.
Your book is a bestseller around the world, but reviews in the U.S. are mixed, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial board review. How do you respond to these criticisms?
Well, what I tried to do in the book was tell the truth. Sometimes that’s difficult for people to appreciate. But I knew going in that there would be criticism of it.
Tomorrow in the Wednesday Wall Street Journal newspaper, I’ll have the first op-ed that I’ve written since I left the government in September. I’m glad to be back in the Wall Street Journal. I guess they are glad to have me.
Interview by: Yoshinari Kurose