By Yoshinari Kurose, Washington D.C.
In an interview with the Sankei Shimbun on June 7, former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton pointed out that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an important contribution to the stabilization of the Japan-U.S. alliance, which is rocky under the administration of President Trump, and offered high marks to the Japanese leader. The interview follows:
Question: What is the problem with President Trump’s view of alliances, including the one with Japan?
John Bolton: President Trump does not really understand how deep and solid political alliances function. Japan is one of the countries in the world which have the closest relationship with the U.S. The Japan-U.S. alliance has been solid amid the emergence of a series of threats including the Cold War, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and China.
PM Abe contributed to maintaining Japan-U.S. alliance
Q: How has the personal relationship between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump contributed to the Japan-U.S. alliance?
Bolton: Prime Minister Abe did a great job of stabilizing the bilateral relationship under the Trump administration. I imagine it was not a fun job for him. I attended bilateral summits several times, but I believe it was sometimes hard for Prime Minister Abe to listen to President Trump’s opinions. But Prime Minister Abe gave the highest priority to Japan’s national interest and was aware that it was best to strengthen the alliance with America. Prime Minister Abe deserves high marks for his contribution to stabilizing the Japan-U.S. alliance at a time when the U.S. was in a difficult situation.
Q: President Trump’s efforts on the abduction issue have won praise in Japan.
Bolton: In the early 2000s, Abe, who was then deputy chief cabinet secretary, explained (to me) the abduction issue. Later, an American citizen taken hostage in North Korea. So the abductions have been clearly recognized in the U.S. as a very critical issue. President Trump promised Prime Minister Abe to bring up the abduction issue at meetings with Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un and he actually did so at all meetings with the North Korean leader. The reason why I decided to write about this in my book is that in the U.S. there is a strong tendency to either embrace or reject President Trump.
But I don’t know what will happen if Kim suggests the abduction be taken off the table in exchange for some sort of condition. That is why Prime Minister Abe tried to maintain a solid alliance, frequently made phone calls to President Trump, held meetings with him at every opportunity, and invited him to Japan as the first state guest since the inauguration of the Emperor. The prime minister was aware that continuing to directly talk to President Trump is the only way to make sure that Japan’s position is heard by the President.
Q: Have denuclearization talks with North Korea been derailed?
Bolton: North Korea made clear that it has no intention of engaging in serious talks by blowing up the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in the city of Kaesong. It firmly intends to retain its nuclear weapons development program. In the series of past nuclear talks, the North generally tried only to achieve an easing of economic sanctions imposed on itself. If President Trump has a low approval rating before the November presidential race, it is possible that Kim and President Trump will meet again around October in an “October surprise” in a bid to revive the talks at the eleventh hour. But absolutely no practical progress can be expected on the nuclear issue.
Q: What should be done to denuclearize the North?
Bolton: Pyongyang has already agreed to denuclearization in writing as many as four times. The problem is the implementation of the agreement. The Libyan model (of providing economic assistance and so on in return for a complete abandonment of nuclear weapons) is the only diplomatic solution. North Korea should eventually aim for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the South Korean government. It is difficult to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons unless its government ceases to exist. The North does not need to change its regime if it is reunited with the South under the South Korean system.
President Trump lacks consistency
Q: In your book, there is a description of President Trump praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But President Trump is currently taking a hardline stance against China.
Bolton: That’s a good example of President Trump’s lack of a philosophy, major strategies, and a consistent policy. He has not taken many specific initiatives on China, except for the (hardline) rhetoric on the new coronavirus and Hong Kong as well as the signing and enactment of the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act. If he is re-elected, he will return to negotiations on a major trade deal. I think that’s very dangerous.
Q: Does President Trump have a vision for his second term?
Bolton: He himself doesn’t know (what he wants to do). I think that will be a disadvantage in the election campaign.
Q: Do you think the world improve if Biden becomes president?
Bolton: I will vote for neither President Trump nor Biden. A Biden administration would by and large be another Obama administration at best. But there is a growing pressure from leftist forces within the Democratic Party, so the situation could worsen. I will not be happy whoever wins.
Q: Some people in the U.S. are critical of your book.
Bolton: I just tried to tell the truth through my book. People sometimes do not want to accept the truth. I was prepared for criticism. (Abridged)