By Cory Evans
En-route to the recently concluded Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Vice President Mike Pence stopped over in Tokyo for meetings with senior Japanese officials, including Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. How did the trip go? How is the vice president perceived in Japan? What impact does the vice president have on foreign policy?
The power of the office of vice president is highly variable. At times, the role has been fairly minimal. President Calvin Coolidge, the twenty-ninth vice president, said: “I enjoyed my time as Vice President. It never interfered with my mandatory 11 hours of sleep a day.” The first vice president, John Adams, was more scathing, writing: “The Vice Presidency is the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
In the original Constitutional system, the vice president was the runner up for President. The Founders assumed that the Members of the Electoral College would vote for candidates from their own state. They therefore forced electors to cast two undifferentiated votes for candidates from two separate states. This second vote, they reasoned, would ensure that the president reflected a candidate of national appeal.
Shortly after the Founding, it was clear that this system was not working. As early as 1796, each of the two parties rallied behind different presidential candidates. The loser wound up the vice president, but obviously disagreed with the views of the president. During the presidency of John Adams (a Federalist), his vice president, Thomas Jefferson (a Democrat-Republican), became the active leader of the political opposition!
To remedy this, the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, allowed the electors to vote separately for president and vice president. From then on, the president has served as an adviser, counselor and deputy within a presidential administration. With limited constitutional powers focused mostly on his tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the vice president’s power flows from his ability to shape the policies of the administration.
The vice president’s voice in foreign policy, then, depends in a large part on the Administration in which he serves. In the Bush administration, for example, many pundits thought that Vice President Dick Cheney wielded very great influence on foreign policy, especially with regard national security and defense. It is hard to know for certain, of course, since the power the vice president flows through his private relationship with the president.
If no one knows for sure exactly how powerful the vice president is, how do foreign governments like Japan treat a trip by Pence? Naturally, given the United States’ supreme importance to Japanese foreign policy, they err on the side of maximal deference. In diplomacy if an official might or might not be very powerful, it behooves you to treat them as if they are. After all, if they are not, all you’ve done is extended extra courtesy, hardly an offense. But if they are and you do not recognize that, well, you have really made a mess of things.
In particular, an outsider looking in at the Trump administration might well be inclined to think that Pence is unusually influential on foreign policy. President Trump is relatively inexperienced in foreign policy; at least from the government side, Trump has never previously represented the United States abroad. Trump does not immediately appear to have much interest in the diplomatic minutia of America’s global Alliance System.
Pence, by contrast, is a known entity. He has a long track record of government service and clear views on foreign policy. He speaks for core factions within the Republican Party and has strong ties to the Movement Conservative base. “Vice President Pence has deep roots within the conservative movement,” a senior conservative source deeply familiar with the movement reported. “The selection of Vice-President Pence was greeted very positively by movement conservatives. He continues to be highly regarded.”
In foreign policy, Pence represents much of what the international community thinks about when they think of the Republican Party: American exceptionalism, national-greatness conservatism, deep commitments to promoting international freedom, strong focus on the Alliance System and a deep commitment to the rules-based international order.
Japan has long gotten on well with old-guard National Review conservatives. It comes as no surprise then that Japan is very comfortable with Pence. “We know what we’re getting with [the Vice President],” one Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told The National Discourse. “There are few surprises; and that’s a good thing,” says another, now working with Japan’s National Security Council.
In particular, Pence has developed a close relationship with Taro Aso, the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan and the Minister of Finance. Aso is a powerful force within the Abe administration. He is a former prime minister and has deep connectivity within Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Aso and Pence co-chair a joint U.S.-Japan economic dialogue focused on trade and economic policy and consequently speak to one another frequently.
Given the circumstances of this trip and of the current security crisis in East Asia, it should come as no surprise the bulk of Pence’s discussions centered on North Korea. Japan and the U.S. are united in a policy toward North Korea which is sometimes called maximal pressure.
Short of actual strikes, this doctrine calls for imposing the stiffest economic and diplomatic consequences possible on the Kim government, in the hope of bringing North Korea to the table on denuclearization. Despite Trump’s outspoken hostility to the use of this policy in the Obama administration, this approach is quite similar to efforts that led Iran to surrender the bulk of her nuclear weapons in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The core strategic aim of the U.S. regarding North Korea is to prevent a rogue state from acquiring nuclear weapons they might easily proliferate, undermining a world order created by American hegemony. The core strategic aim of Japan is to prevent a nearby hostile power from acquiring nuclear weapons that might easily be used to extort Japan. The game theory of both of these strategic postures unites in its goal of preventing the North from acquiring nuclear weapons, at almost any consequence.
To further this end, Japan has recently helped enforce international sanctions by tracking ships going to and from North Korea. Using advanced satellite technology, Japan has alerted the international community to several attempts to evade North Korean sanctions. Pence discussed these efforts during his trip and reaffirmed that Japan and the U.S. were on the same page. The prime minister and the vice president also discussed the broader strategic picture and reaffirmed their shared commitments.
Overall, this trip was a successful visit by a vice president that seems to understand and work well with the Japanese government. It was not the first time Pence has visited Tokyo and it surely will not be the last. As the Korea crisis continues, cooperation within the U.S.-Japan Alliance will be of critical importance. Close links between the White House and Kantei make that cooperation possible. Expect further trips and a significant role for the vice president for the remainder of this administration.