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Commentary: Appointment of Emanuel reflects U.S. emphasis on Japan

Article contributed by Hokkaido University Associate Professor Watanabe Masahito


U.S. President Joe Biden’s appointment of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan is a sign of the priority our ally places on our country. Emanuel has close ties with the President and wields extraordinary power in the Democratic Party.


Emanuel was director of the finance committee for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. He expanded into political affairs and policy and took on key responsibilities under two Democratic presidents, serving as Senior Advisor to the President under the Clinton administration and as White House Chief of Staff under the Obama administration. During his six years as a member of the House of Representatives, he dedicated himself to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Caucus. It is rare [for an ambassador] to have experience in the Congress.


Emanuel is gifted with an ability to discern which way the wind blows and to harness it. I [the author] has been in awe of his acumen since I began to follow Chicago politics in the end of the 1990s. In the 2008 presidential election, Emanuel did not support Hillary, even though she is the wife of Bill Clinton, who had treated him well. Emanuel is adept at aligning himself with a winning horse. In the Obama administration’s reform of health insurance, Emanuel initially advocated a small-scale plan. When he saw that the President and the Democratic Party were unwavering in Congress about promoting an ambitious policy, however, he shifted and took the lead in achieving it. Emanuel is a Democratic centrist, but his flexible attitude has been well received by the left. He earned the trust of Vice President Biden during the Obama years.


An intellectual, Emanuel is determined and tenacious and will not abandon a goal once it has been set. Not only is he influential among top Congressional leaders, he also has a huge list of business connections, which he built over his years as an expert fundraiser. Everyone in Chicago politics who knows him well says he is “a very energetic and active person.”


“He is a hard worker, so he’ll probably race around Japan visiting many places” after he arrives there, predicts a Democratic Party heavyweight in Chicago. The Chicago politician also says Emanuel is a pragmatist and hinted that he will likely agree to proposals with concrete goals if they benefit the United States, the ambassador himself, and Japan. If he is across from you at the bargaining table, however, he will be a formidable adversary in issues where Japan and the United States differ.


Emanuel supports free trade and sought to promote the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the Clinton years and approved of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact. He also engaged in behind-the-scenes work through non-diplomatic channels to advance the 1993 [Oslo] Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.


His skill in Asian diplomacy is not known, however. In terms of China policy regarding security, some predict he will take a hawkish stance, but others point out he has always taken a position favorable to the business community and so he may seek a balance that emphasizes economic relations with China. While Chicago mayor, he was criticized by conservatives for strengthening relations with Chinese companies.


In American political circles, it is said that Emanuel speaks in an abrasive and aggressive fashion. Insiders in Chicago politics say the decision to send Emanuel to a country like Japan is “the biggest surprise.” “Americans have the impression that Japan is a very tranquil country and the Japanese place a premium on etiquette. This is the exact opposite of Rahm.”


Emanuel is also known for his affinity for the arts, having been very involved in classical ballet in high school. He is also devoted to his family. He did not run for a third term as mayor because he wanted his wife, Amy, and their three children to lead a quiet life.


Profile of Watanabe Masahito

Born in 1975, Watanabe Masahito earned an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in politics [from Waseda University]. He specializes in U.S. politics. He was a visiting scholar at Harvard University. His most recent publication is “Daitoryo no joken (Requirements to become a U.S. president)” (Shueisha).

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