For sheer force of transformative strategic vision, Ronald Reagan’s only peer in my lifetime was Shinzo Abe. As Reagan recognized that American decline in the 1970s was reversible and could fundamentally tilt the balance of geopolitics in favor of freedom, Abe understood that a Japan still living in the shadow of the Second World War would be unable to secure her freedom and prosperity against the rising power of a stubbornly autocratic China. In the case of both these great men, it was not just the vision but the political skill they brought to bear. Statesmanship of this order is rare, and as the reputation of Reagan among Americans grew after his death well beyond those who supported him in office, so will Abe's among Japanese.
Shinzo Abe was my friend. We met in 2003 on my first trip to Tokyo. He would emerge faster and to far higher heights than me, but we remained in close touch during all the years since. When President Trump nominated me to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan, it was largely because of my close relationship with Abe.
Much to our mutual disappointment, we never met in an official capacity. Abe resigned from office for health reasons in 2020, and the Trump administration came to an end before the United States Senate could confirm me as ambassador. Nevertheless, I looked forward to many years of valuable exchanges and visits between us: we chatted virtually in February, met in May, and were planning to meet again this Wednesday in Tokyo. It is a painful tragedy for me, as well as a national tragedy for Japan and the world that an assassin has cut his life short.
Nevertheless, Abe's life was long and profound enough to make lasting strategic change for the better for Japan, the United States, and an entire region of the world, the Indo-Pacific. Sensing the North Korea threat and the challenge of the rise of China long before other major world leaders did, Abe shifted Japanese diplomacy from a consensus footing in UN-based multilateral institutions to a bold, outward focus, working with key strategic partners but grounded in a renewed military alliance with the U.S. Rather than merely following America’s lead, however, Abe helped mold American policy and strategy in the interest of both our nations.
Strategic thought requires an analytical and inquisitive mindset. Abe had those, but something more as well: a gentle, sensitive soul.
He was devastated by the failure of his first, brief term as Prime Minister in 2006-07 but determined to live up to his mission, and that of his family, including his father, Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, and grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi: to lead Japan to a central and constructive role in international politics.
Adversity, it is said, is often the best mirror of character. While other politicians spend time after losing office stewing about opponents, Abe took a different approach. Without rancor, he studied what went wrong during his first term, focusing his attention on the mechanics of governance. The diffusion of power in the Japanese bureaucracy led to instability, with six prime ministers in 2007-12 in office on average less than a year. Preparing for his comeback in 2012, Abe concluded that government needed to be centralized in an enhanced prime minister’s office. For foreign affairs, the key was his establishment of the National Security Council and its Secretariat in 2013.
Just as Abe changed the mechanics of Japanese government, so he changed the way Japan dealt with the rest of the world. As a young member of the Diet in the late 1990s, for example, he was among the first LDP lawmakers to meet regularly with the families of Japanese abducted into North Korea. Their stories touched him deeply. Though bureaucrats and the mainstream Japanese media paid such stories little heed, Abe became the champion of these families, eventually forcing a rare admission from Pyongyang. This story also illustrates how well Abe understood the importance of connecting deeply with the public. Like Reagan, Abe was a great communicator.
By far his most far-sighted strategic insight, however, was his early awareness of the growing challenge of the rise of China. At the time, most American officials still hoped the PRC would become a “responsible stakeholder” internationally. Abe's view was far less benign and has been entirely vindicated. He saw the best way to meet the China challenge in redefining the field of competition. As prime minister in 2007, in a prescient speech before the Indian Parliament, he shifted from Japan's traditional focus on the Pacific Ocean to a broader focus on the Indo-Pacific, where maritime democratic powers Japan and India could promote freedom and prosperity in partnership with a network including Australia and the U.S.
Although Abe’s first tenure as prime minister came to an abrupt halt in 2007, his strategic prescience remained constant through his return to that office in 2012 and thereafter. As China sought greater influence through its coercive and confiscatory “One Belt, One Road” Initiative, Abe returned to the theme of promoting freedom in the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans. In a historic speech in August 2016, he unveiled his vision of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific."
Highlighting the “sea lanes” that connect Asia and Africa, Abe noted that “stability and prosperity” as well as “enormous liveliness” would arise “through the union of two free and open oceans and two continents.” “Japan,” in implicit contrast to China, could help make the Indo-Pacific "into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion."
With this vision, Abe placed Japan at the center of geopolitics and at the center of efforts to promote freedom and international order. Few strategic concepts have garnered as much international support as rapidly. It has become central to U.S. grand strategy under both the Trump and Biden administrations. Abe’s legacy in promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific must be carried forward, not just in his memory, but for the benefit of mankind.
The strategic genius and communication skills of this great man will be sorely missed – as will his gentle soul.
This piece originally appeared in Japanese in Yomiuri Shimbun