Shinzo Abe was a rare leader. As the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, he was a great leader of his nation. Abe was also a true friend of America. He was an ally to presidents of both parties — to President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. These three accolades — great leader of a nation, friend to America, bipartisan ally — apply to very few leaders in modern history. The legacy Abe leaves behind is worthy of being honored.
Two accomplishments stand out — one associated with each of his presidential partners. At the encouragement of President Obama, Abe took the difficult step of convincing Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In line with President Trump’s strong focus on defense, Abe advocated for Japan playing a greater role in ensuring East Asian security.
After meeting with President Obama in February of 2013, Prime Minister Abe announced in March that Japan would enter the TPP trade talks. Previous administrations were unable to muster the political will to do so due to “the determined opposition of the agricultural lobby [and a] campaign to scare the Japanese public with alarmist charges that the TPP would undermine Japan’s national health care system, the safety of the food supply, and would lead to massive immigration of unskilled foreign workers.” Given such opposition, many were particularly surprised Abe advanced TPP just before summer elections for the upper house of the legislature. This was done at a time when the party depended heavily on the agricultural vote and almost half of its members had joined an anti-TPP caucus. How much better our world would be today if more political leaders had the courage exhibited by Abe.
As I wrote in October 2015, “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a great risk to lead Japan into entering the TPP … Approving the TPP would do more than just boost the American economy. It would also help Abe advance reforms to revitalize Japan’s economy and make it an even stronger partner. Rejecting it would undercut a loyal friend.” The United States pulling out of the TPP ranks among the greatest wounds a nation has ever inflicted upon itself in addition to being an abandonment of an important ally. China has moved into the void as a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and seeks to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), as America watches others set the terms of trade. It would be a fitting tribute to Abe for the United States to take this moment to join the CPTPP — which he helped create — after our withdrawal from the TPP.
It should not go unsaid that Prime Minister Abe proposed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, as a regional security forum — comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — back in 2007. After a decade of inactivity, it became more active in 2017, “owing largely to Abe’s prodding and China’s growing assertiveness.” Having just met on May 22 in Tokyo with his alliance counterparts — the second in-person meeting in less than a year — President Joe Biden has fully embraced the importance of the Quad. Furthermore, Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent introduction of a roadmap to increase Japanese spending on defense from 1 percent of GDP to 2 percent of GDP certainly continues the spirt of Shinzo Abe.
During a recent visit to Japan, I heard great concern about the nation being surrounded not just by a more assertive China, but also Russia and North Korea. America can honor Abe’s legacy by staying true to its treaty obligations to Japan. At the same time, Japan can honor his legacy by embracing the plan Prime Minister Kishida proposes.
As a six-year-old, I personally felt the loss of an assassinated leader, my namesake, President John F. Kennedy. JFK’s legacy played a great part in inspiring my public service, as I went on to serve in Congress and university leadership. I hope Abe’s legacy will have the same effect.
One of my former students from Japan, Akiko Kawai, shared with me how Abe’s championing Japan’s leadership role in the world inspired her. She said, “Japan was a closed island. But he opened it. Abe’s leadership guided me to start Sakura Cha Meet, my tea-diplomacy NGO, as he showed me how important it was for Japan to embrace its global role.”
Let this moment not pass; instead, allow it to gain meaning through America rejoining Japan in defining the terms of Pacific trade, while Japan leans into embracing the expanded security role championed by Abe and by generations of Japanese seeking to emulate his brave leadership.
Mark R. Kennedy is a global fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a U.S. Air and Space Forces Civic Leader, president emeritus of the University of Colorado, and former U.S. Representative (2001-07) from Minnesota.