The question looming over Shinzo Abe’s visit to Mar-a-Lago this week is of profound interest to all allies of the transactional, mercurial, America-First occupant of the White House: Does cultivating a special relationship with Donald Trump get you anything special?
Nearly from the moment Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, when Abe caught a flight to New York and became the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect, the Japanese prime minister placed a big bet: Befriending Donald would serve his nation’s interests better than antagonizing him, despite the fact that his new American counterpart had been describing Japan as a freeloading, bloodsucking ally since the 1980s. Abe’s buddy maneuver has come in various forms: vigorous 19-second-long handshakes; “Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater” hats; literal pitfalls on the golf course. Most substantively it has manifested itself in Abe’s stalwart support for the Trump administration’s international campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear-weapons program. The historical record indicates that dialogue is merely the Kim government’s “best means of deceiving us and buying time,” Abe, who was prime minister when North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, declared last September.
But partners once in lockstep on North Korea are now out of step. The Japanese were blindsided by Trump’s decision in March to abruptly accept an invitation to a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without consulting Abe. Japan was suddenly left all alone, arms still folded in a show of steely resolve, as America, South Korea, and China rushed to extend a hand to Kim. (Abe has reportedly reached out to Kim to arrange a bilateral exchange of his own, but so far to no avail.)