WASHINGTON -- President-elect Donald Trump's apparent choice of a transition adviser as U.S. ambassador to Japan aims largely to reward a key supporter of unknown diplomatic caliber, who would return to Tokyo at a critical time for the two nations' security alliance.
William Hagerty, Trump's likely pick for ambassador, has recently been spotted more often in Washington than in New York, home to the presidential transition team's headquarters at Trump Tower. The consultant-turned-investor, who apparently sought the Japan ambassador post, is the team's director of presidential appointments.
These frequent visits to the capital were likely preparation for Trump to tap Hagerty. The president-elect's previous diplomatic picks often have been introduced to officials from the countries where they are supposed to serve before being named officially. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, presumptive ambassador to China, paid a visit to the Chinese embassy, for example.
U.S. ambassadors to Japan in the postwar era have stood on the front lines of the most strategically important American alliance in the Asia-Pacific region. These figures tend to fall into any of three categories: academics or career diplomats well acquainted with Japan; high-profile figures in the administration or Congress; or businesspeople, lawyers and other acquaintances of the president.
Edwin Reischauer, nominated by President John F. Kennedy, fell squarely into the first group as a Harvard University professor. He was born in Tokyo to American missionaries, and remained in Japan until age 16. His wife Haru was the granddaughter of Masayoshi Matsukata, a key Japanese political figure in the late 19th century. This background helped Reischauer soothe U.S.-Japan ties strained by major events of the period such as the Vietnam War and turmoil surrounding the renewal of a security treaty between the two nations.
Mike Mansfield, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, was a member of the second camp. The long-serving Democratic leader in the Senate called the U.S.-Japan alliance the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Mansfield served as ambassador for over 11 years, both under Carter and his Republican successor Ronald Reagan.
President Bill Clinton also preferred political heavyweights for the job, appointing Walter Mondale, vice president under Carter, and Speaker of the House Tom Foley. President George W. Bush chose Howard Baker, a former leader of the Senate Republicans.
Reward for loyalty
John Roos, ambassador during President Barack Obama's first term, fell into the third camp. The CEO of a major Silicon Valley law firm was a big-money donor to the president's campaign, and the appointment rewarded that support. Trump's choice of Hagerty is in the same vein.
Though Hagerty has spent time in Tokyo as a business consultant, he is hardly an expert on Japan. His diplomatic skills have yet to be tested, creating uncertainties for the alliance as security concerns in Asia -- including Chinese maritime expansion and North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development -- are growing dire.
Current Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the former president, has enjoyed considerable access to Obama and influence over decisions made regarding Japan. It is tough to envision her successor playing such an active role, some have said.