Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s greatest achievements will be the records he set for his time in office: He’s the country’s longest-serving prime minister, a mark he hit last November, and, as of last weekend, has spent the longest consecutive time in office.
Impressive though those accomplishments are, Abe will likely be haunted by the goals that remain beyond his grasp when he officially steps down as prime minister.
It’s a troubling thought because Abe achieved much in office beyond merely counting days.
Most significantly, he provided stability at the highest level of government, which has allowed Tokyo to reclaim its place on the international stage. After eight years in power, the revolving door through which his predecessors regularly passed has become a distant memory.
His longevity, married to a vision of power and purpose, allowed him, and his country, to be a force in regional politics. He used that vision to reshape Japan’s national security bureaucracy, to ensure that Japan was “a rule maker and not a rule taker,” and to strengthen a regional and global order that was under assault from within and without.
Significantly, he was the “Trump whisperer,” the world leader best able to handle the mercurial U.S. president. That was impressive given Trump’s antipathy toward Japan, evident over 30 years and one of the few constants in his public life.
It was even more remarkable given Abe’s inability to deliver on issues that figure so prominently in Trump’s thinking. Unlike Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or Mohammad bin Salman (to name just four), Abe is not an autocrat or a tyrant, able to solve Trump’s problems by fiat. That means that Abe has had nothing to trade with a famously transactional president and their relationship had to be built on something else.
There are other accomplishments. Abe restructured the national security apparatus and forged security relations with new partners. He resurrected the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership in tandem with a trade agreement with the European Union, both of which helped shore up a global trade order that is today under sustained assault.
Those efforts were in the service of an ideal — the Free and Open Indo-Pacific — that Abe articulated over a decade ago and that has become the organizing framework for like-minded nations in this part of the world.
But there are failures as well, and they are likely to loom large.
As he mentioned in his news conference Friday, Abe did not secure the return of the abductees taken by North Korean agents. No Japanese politician championed that cause more loudly. That particular failure stung more than the lack of progress in relations with North Korea. Neither did Abe resolve the ongoing territorial dispute with Russia and he did not have the chance to host Xi Jinping for his long-anticipated state visit. Constitutional revision also remains a task undone.
The Xi visit and the delayed — if not canceled — 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will always be viewed through the lens of the COVID-19 outbreak. The government’s fumbling response to the pandemic will be a defining element of any Abe retrospective.
While a 27.8 percent economic contraction is proof of just how extraordinary this challenge is, economists will note that the downturn preceded the outbreak. Indeed, the failure of Abenomics is likely to dominate assessments of his tenure. While the Prime Minister’s Office continues to proclaim that Abenomics is still progressing, inflation remains practically nonexistent, fiscal stimuli continue to play an outsized role in the economy, meaning that debt continues to mount, and structural reform remains a distant prospect.
A final shortcoming is Abe’s reluctance to identify a successor. Of course, there are good reasons not to do so — making himself a lame duck or alienating all the politicians he didn’t anoint — but a real leader prepares his succession. The Liberal Democratic Party will now be absorbed by a competition that will distract it from the most important task — dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.
And, as Abe stays in office until the party elects its next president, his every move will be scrutinized for its impact on that race. The country does not need that now.
Identifying a successor will not be easy. A prime minister needs three things to succeed: a vision; the ability to operate and maneuver in the party and the bureaucracy; and knowing how and when to retreat when pragmatism demands a course correction in pursuit of that vision.
Abe had all three — but only acquired the third after his first term as prime minister. That ability to tack when facing political headwinds was key to his success and distinguishes him from his successors.
It, too, will figure prominently in assessments of his tenure as prime minister — a term that was long, rich and frustrating.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”