Caroline Kennedy: Good or bad choice for US ambassador to Japan?

Caroline Kennedy has largely shunned public political life, spending much of her time working at nonprofit organizations. Is it a good idea to send someone with little diplomatic experience as envoy to an important US ally?

Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor
Caroline Kennedy for a photo session last month at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts. She promoted her new poetry anthology 'Poems to Learn by Heart.' Ms. Kennedy is on the verge of serving as US ambassador to Japan, according to news reports.

Caroline Kennedy is on the verge of serving as US ambassador to Japan, according to news reports. The Obama administration has apparently asked her to take this major post, and she’s now being vetted for the position.

The last surviving member of President Kennedy’s family, Ms. Kennedy has largely shunned public political life, though she often speaks at quadrennial Democratic National Conventions. She’s spent much of her time working at nonprofit organizations in New York. Her latest book is called “Poems to Learn by Heart.”

Is it a good idea to send someone with so little diplomatic experience as envoy to an important US ally?

Not always. But in Ms. Kennedy’s case, the answer to that question is most likely yes.

The main reason for this is rooted in the hierarchical Japanese political culture. In the US view, Japan prefers well-known American ambassadors, not necessarily because they are more effective, but because they symbolize the importance of Tokyo to Washington.

Thus Walter Mondale was a good choice for US envoy during the Clinton administration. In the United States, he was still somebody who’d lost a presidential bid to Ronald Reagan. In Japan, he was a revered elder statesman to a degree perhaps difficult to fathom back home.

Other Democratic Party elder statesmen who have served as Washington’s person in Tokyo include former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, from 1977 to 1988, and ex-Speaker Tom Foley. Former Republican Senate majority leader Howard Baker was ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005.

In addition, Japanese commentators are currently noting that Ms. Kennedy has displayed past interest in Japan. It was one of the stops on her 1986 honeymoon with husband Edwin Schlossberg.

“And in a country still very much captivated by the Kennedys, her celebrity could also provide a subtle antidote to the growing concern among Japanese officials that Japan is being eclipsed in American eyes by its chief regional rival, China,” writes Tokyo-based reporter Coco Masters in Foreign Policy.

Ms. Masters makes another interesting point in her piece: Kennedy would be the first woman in the Tokyo post. This could be a powerful symbol of a different kind for Japan, which remains more male-dominated than almost all other developed countries. Only 12 percent of Japanese management positions are held by females, according to an International Monetary Fund study.

“Kennedy could ... be a powerful example to Japanese women,” Masters writes.

Not every commentator in the US thinks Kennedy-to-Japan is a great idea, though. Conservatives who have long seen the Kennedy family as the avatar of tax-and-spend liberalism are particularly negative.

They point out that Kennedy’s attempt to follow Hillary Rodham Clinton into a New York Senate seat was something of a train wreck. After Mrs. Clinton was named secretary of State, Kennedy angled for an appointment from then-Gov. David Paterson to fill out the term. But her public appearances were stilted and made her appear as if she knew little about New York State politics. Eventually she withdrew her name from consideration, citing unnamed personal matters.

“I realize that the U.S. government can’t function without a Kennedy or two somewhere in the mix, but is there really no lesser diplomatic position to gift Princess? The Koreas are on the brink of war and Japanese tensions with China will be fragile for years to come. This is not a purely ceremonial role. Why not ambassador to Luxembourg instead? I’ll bet the skiing’s great,” writes conservative commentator Allahpundit on Hot Air.

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