By Kuni Miyake, contributing writer
“Their eyes fixed on the ballots to be counted starting Nov. 3,” wrote Sylvie Kauffmann of Le Monde for The New York Times, “Western European leaders are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.” Alas, here in Tokyo, there are quite similar concerns being expressed, although from a different perspective.
Concerns were also heightened on the news of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Trump administration will promptly nominate her successor — another woman — but this time a conservative jurist. Although the Senate may not confirm the next justice before the election, the vacancy may give Donald Trump more momentum than Joe Biden.
Is the rest of the world really prepared for the worst? If the incumbent U.S. president is re-elected, the West may have to restore, without the United States, the status lost by the Group of Seven, NATO and the Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul alliances.
It is, of course, easy to talk about. But is it possible? A recent report by the Pew Research Center showed how difficult it will be. The survey, conducted in 13 industrialized democracies, was titled “U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country Has Handled Coronavirus Badly.” The following are takeaways from the report:
Ratings for the United States
“Since Donald Trump took office as president,” the Pew report showed, “the image of the United States has suffered across many regions of the globe.” In fact, in the year 2000, the approval rating for the United States was as high as 60 to 80 percent in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Australia.
Twenty years later, the rating for the U.S. in those Western democracies fell to 41, 31, 26, 41, 35 and 33 percent, respectively — a sharp drop. The only exception is South Korea, where the U.S. rating was 52 percent in 2002 and 59 percent in 2020. No other surveyed nation showed such a consistently high rating for the United States.
Since Japan’s approval rating for the United States was only 41 percent, South Korea’s 59 percent is quite extraordinary. A Korean colleague said those numbers may show that ordinary South Koreans well understand that the U.S. is the only ally their country can count on in times of trouble. The fact of the matter is he may be right.
Donald Trump’s ratings
Pew’s survey also showed that “Attitudes toward Trump have consistently been much more negative than Obama, especially in Western Europe.” In 2020, the approval rating for Trump in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada stood at 19, 11, 10 and 20 percent, while in Australia and Japan, it came in at 23 and 25 percent, respectively.
Again, the most striking aspect was South Korea’s approval ratings for Trump in recent years. The trend showed a reverse V-shaped trajectory, with 17 percent expressing approval in 2017, 44 percent in 2018, 46 percent in 2019 and falling again to 17 percent in 2020. No other nation has shown such a fluctuation, which may indicate how optimistic the South Koreans were about the Trump-Kim summit meetings.
In 2017, before the first U.S.- North Korea summit meeting held in June 2018, tensions on the Korean Peninsula were extremely high. The second and third meetings followed in 2019. And unlike the Japanese, who showed skepticism about the meetings, the South Koreans must have been much more hopeful about the outcomes at the time.
Right-wing populist parties
The biggest difference the Pew report revealed between Western Europeans and East Asians is the existence of the European right-wing populist parties not seen in East Asia — at least so far. East Asians’ confidence in Trump appears to have nothing to do with such political ideologies as White nationalism, which has become quite common in Europe.
World’s leading economic power
Another important difference is the way people in the surveyed nations view China as an economic power. Pew’s report showed that “South Korea and Japan are the only countries where the U.S. is the most common choice for the leading economic power,” while in “Australia, Canada and the European countries, China is the top choice.”
Some 42 to 57 percent of those surveyed in European countries saw China as the world’s leading economic contender. In this regard, Japan and South Korea, again, are unique. In the two Asian nations, 77 percent of South Koreans and 53 percent of Japanese consider the U.S. as the top economic powerhouse — even though their economies are heavily dependent on China. What does this mean?
This may mean the following:
- Despite their recent review of China’s policies in Western Europe, the strategic concerns there are still Russia and the Middle East.
- The Europeans will continue to try to keep U.S. forces stationed in Europe.
- Europeans may not fully share strategic interests with U.S. allies in East Asia.
Future of the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul partnership
The findings of the Pew survey are scary. While South Koreans trust the United States and view America as a leading economic power (77 percent), they are much less interested in Japan and its economy (1 percent). The belief, however, that U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula alone could defend South Korea from aggression might be wrong.
The U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) or the United Nations Forces in Korea cannot fight against North Korea and its allies without operational support from U.S. Forces in Japan (USFJ). USFK and USFJ are like Siamese twins who in the case of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula must fight together under the Indo-Pacific Command.
Tokyo well understands that the South Koreans have special concerns vis-a-vis Japan and their shared history. What is more important, however, is to ensure their mutual security. To achieve this goal, joint operational cooperation among South Korean, American, and Japanese forces must be seamless, whether Seoul likes it or not.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, is indispensable to maintaining a successful deterrent, something South Korea’s military leaders are surely aware of. Tokyo sincerely hopes that its friends in Seoul think strategically for the security of the Korean Peninsula. Japan’s leadership in Tokyo and the nation’s strategic thinkers support Korean unification, although Seoul may not believe it.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.