It would therefore be safe to say that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is less than thrilled about Biden awarding such a plum post to Emanuel:
Even if one is not a progressive, one has to acknowledge that Cooper has a point. Think of Rahm Emanuel and the word “diplomat” does not come to mind. In his story, Sevastopulo has a deliciously understated observation from my Brookings Institution colleague Mireya Solis, who said that “while Tokyo would value his relationship with Biden, there was some ‘trepidation’ over his reputation for bluntness.” The Japan Times’ Jesse Johnson reported that Emanuel “could prove an unnerving pick for polite Tokyo. … Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University, said that Japan ‘might be worried about Emanuel’s temperament.’ ”
To be blunt: Emanuel is known for being blunt to the point of rudeness. Does the United States really want a “ratio magnet” to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan? Is this comparable to appointing Richard Grenell as U.S. ambassador to Germany, a role that he flailed in performing?
I am pretty sure the answer is no.
For one thing, this is no small appointment. As Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez notes, “The relationship between the U.S. and Japan has been a focal point of the administration. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first foreign leader to meet with Biden in person.” It would be odd to believe that the Biden White House would jeopardize all of that with a high-risk pick (in contrast, the Trump White House had genuine animus toward Germany, so with that context the Grenell pick made perfect sense).
Given Emanuel’s, er, temperament, why this job? To the extent that ambassadors matter in U.S. foreign policy in a world of globalized communication, it is as signals. Appoint a seasoned Foreign Service officer, and an administration is implying that it takes the country seriously. Appoint an ignorant big-money donor, and an administration is signaling it does not care all that much about bilateral relations. Appoint a political ally to the post, and an administration is communicating that they will have privileged access to policy principals.
For decades, the pattern in Japan has been to appoint political bigwigs. Beginning with former senator Mike Mansfield, the list of recent U.S. ambassadors to Japan is extraordinarily long on plugged-in politicos: former vice president Walter Mondale, former speaker of the House Tom Foley and Caroline Kennedy. Emanuel would not even be the first former White House chief of staff to occupy that diplomatic post: Howard Baker was ambassador during George W. Bush’s first term.
For Biden, this template might extend beyond Japan. The Guardian’s Daniel Strauss reports that Biden plans similar appointments, including Cindy McCain to the U.N. World Food Programme and Ken Salazar to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
I would understand why progressives want to fight Emanuel’s appointment, but they might want to consider the consequences. If he does not go to Japan, does he wind up with a more significant appointment in D.C.?
Rahm Emanuel is no one’s idea of a courteous diplomat, but he does fit the profile of “well-connected political insider.” And I suspect that is the only thing that matters to Tokyo.