Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.11.20

How Tokyo saw the U.S. midterm elections

the japan times on November 13, 2018

Last week Tokyo was caught up in an unprecedented media frenzy over the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Having followed, officially or personally, almost all the national elections in America for the past 42 years, I have never imagined that the Japanese media would pay so much attention to those usually insipid midterms. On Friday and Saturday I served as a commentator on five TV and radio news or debate programs in Tokyo and Osaka. The schedule was so hectic that I could not sleep for almost 24 hours. This time, people here were so anxious to know what would happen to the United States.

The first American elections I was involved in were the presidential and congressional elections of 1976, as a volunteer, when I was a university student in Minneapolis-St. Paul. I could easily predict that "Jimmy who?" Carter would win because people at that time wanted to change the government after the infamous Watergate scandal.

Forty years later in 2016, however, I could not predict the victory of Donald Trump -- probably the first time this happened to me. Therefore, last week on election day I was nervous and afraid that I might repeat the same mistake as I made two years before. Fortunately, this time the results were within the range of the imagination.

Having said that, Tokyo's perspectives and concerns are indigenous. For the benefit of readers outside Japan, the following are typical questions raised to me, combined with my answers, during those 24 hours. Forgive my ignorance if I am wrong. The first few questions are no different from those in the U.S.

1. Who won the 2018 midterms, Trump or the Democrats?

Although the American democracy showed a healthy sense of balance, the battle was a painful draw and nobody won.

2. How will the election results affect U.S. domestic politics?

President Trump should be worried, though he declared victory. The House under Democratic control will do whatever it can to cause him trouble. What is more worrisome, however, may be the disappearance of the center or center-right, which used to represent moderate conservative voters.

Similar polarization is witnessed in the Democratic Party, where more far-left or liberal candidates seem to have won the House seats. I am afraid that such a void in the center in the political spectrum will make American domestic politics much more divided and unstable in the years to come.

3. What about the possibility of a Trump impeachment?

If I were the next speaker of the House, I would not pursue the impeachment of Trump. Not only would it be unsuccessful since the Democrats don't have a two-thirds majority in the Senate, but it would also be counterproductive and even suicidal since Trump could easily take advantage of an abortive impeachment in the 2020 election.

4. What about the impact on Trump's foreign policy?

Trump will find no reasons to soften his positions in foreign policy. His top priorities will continue to be Iran and China. Although there may be some difference in temperature between the president and his foreign policy/national security advisers, no one will challenge the president.

5. Will the trade war between China and the U.S. end soon?

It's not about trade. It's about China challenging U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific. America's China policy is consistent. The foreign policy establishment seems to be unanimous on concerns about China, although the modalities may vary for achieving the goal of denying China's ambitions.

6. Will the Trump administration get tougher on trade vis-a-vis Japan?

Most likely so. However, I remember that the American trade negotiators were much tougher and nastier in the 1980s and '90s. In addition, Japan is an ally of the United States, unlike China. If Trump is concerned about China, there should be a different American attitude in U.S. trade negotiations with Japan.

7. Will Trump expedite denuclearization talks with North Korea?

Trump's priority on North Korea may not be high. My nightmare would be the day when Trump, trapped in the "Russia-gate" probe, is tempted to do something flamboyant to distract the attention of his opponents or media from the scandal. This could, of course, include a second U.S.-North Korea summit.

8. Will the Iran-U.S. showdown affect Japan?

Although the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was deplorable, Japan has been preparing for the worst-case scenario for a long time. In addition, why did crude oil prices, such as West Texas Intermediate, fall from the $70-range per barrel to $60 over the past month? Somebody must be pumping more oil.

9. What Japan should do next?

We are at a crossroads now. Japan must remember two important points. First, the free, democratic, rule-based and open international order that was established after 1945 has been facing serious and formidable challenges, especially from revisionist nations like China and Russia.

Second, Japan has been one of the most successful beneficiaries of the international order and the global free trade system. Island nations like Japan succeed best in globalism and it is in Tokyo's interest to maintain the open and free system in the years and decades to come.

If America under the Trump administration is not as interested in upholding such universal values as it was in the past, other countries must bear the banner of the free and open international order. It's time for Tokyo to do so together with like-minded partners.

All in all, Tokyo is still concerned about what Trump will do or not do next. Such uncertainties made the 2018 midterm elections very special. People in Japan, especially in business circles, try their best not to miss a single sign of a future trouble or crisis. I am sure people in the rest of the world are doing the same.