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Posters hanging with pictures of President Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, with a message in Hebrew reading “No to a Palestinian state sovereignty, do it right!” in Jerusalem on June 10. | Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images The Israeli writer Yoram Hazony is one of the American right’s most celebrated thinkers — and the personification of a quietly influential Israel-American right-wing world of ideas. It is a peculiar irony that one of the most influential theorists of President Donald Trump’s “America First” style of conservative nationalism is an Israeli citizen. Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute think tank in Jerusalem, has become a mainstay of the American right. Michael Anton, a conservative academic who served as one of Trump’s senior advisers from 2017 to 2018, drew on Hazony’s vision of nationalism in formulating what Anton describes as “the Trump doctrine” in foreign affairs. Hazony’s new American organization, the Edmund Burke Foundation, held a 2019 conference that featured speeches from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton. Hazony emerged out of an increasingly influential yet little-known Israeli-American conservative nexus. Though born in Israel, he spent his formative years in the United States, his worldview molded by his time as a Princeton undergraduate during the Reagan years. And though he built his career in Israel, the institutions he helped create there were funded in part by American donors — part of a broader campaign to establish an American-style conservative movement in a country with a very different kind of right-wing tradition. During a trip to Israel, sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I explored the influence of Hazony and the broader American-Israeli conservative intellectual movement. It is a world that holds extraordinary sway in the current Israeli Knesset (parliament), closely aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. Relative to some others on the new Israeli right, Hazony is not a pivotal figure in Jerusalem. (He declined to comment for this article.) But his rising star in Washington, and even some European capitals, points to something important about the globalization of conservatism: that right-wing movements from different countries are increasingly influencing each other, putting aggressive nationalism at the center of the broader Western intellectual and political right. Hazony isn’t just a popular conservative writer: He is the embodiment of one of the most significant global trends of our time. The Israeli-American conservative nexus Eli, the West Bank settlement Hazony moved to after finishing his American education in the early 1990s, is one of many illegal Jewish communities in the majority-Palestinian territory. Started by a handful of settlers in 1984, Eli today boasts a population of over 4,000, growth that has come at the expense of nearby Palestinian communities. During my trip, I drove up Route 60, the major north-south thoroughfare in the West Bank along which Eli sits. From the highway, Eli doesn’t look like a particularly remarkable place: a collection of the characteristically Israeli light-colored homes with red roofs that dot the West Bank, clearly distinguishable from nearby Palestinian villages. You see small communities like this all around the West Bank, each one creating an Israeli-imposed security bubble that can justify land seizures and cut off Palestinian communities from each other. Eli is one cog in the vast machinery of the West Bank occupation; the larger and more entrenched these communities get, the harder it is to imagine Israel ever evacuating them — a seemingly necessary step if a contiguous, viable Palestinian state is to be created. Eli is a physical symbol of the most aggressive right-wing form of Israeli nationalism, a religiously informed territorial maximalism that sees Jews and only Jews as the rightful owners of the biblical Holy Land. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images A picture taken from the Palestinian West Bank village of Lubban ash-Sharkiya on January 16, 2017, shows a Palestinian woman standing in front of a view of the Jewish settlement of Eli. David Vaaknin/Washington Post/Getty Images A Palestinian village in the background behind houses at the West Bank Jewish settlement of Eli. This expansionist project has been helped along by American money. An investigation by Ha’aretz, Israel’s center-left paper of record, found that evangelical Christian organizations and donors contributed between $50 million and $65 million to settlements between 1998 and 2018. But American money hasn’t just supported the physical infrastructure of Israeli nationalism, it has also funded its intellectual infrastructure, a network of think tanks and publications that has helped entrench the settlers and their worldview in Israel’s halls of power. Of the many US donors to right-wing Israeli causes, none loom as large in the intellectual realm as an organization called the Tikvah Fund, founded by American-born billionaire Zalman Bernstein in 1992. At the time, the right-wing intellectual tradition in Israel was institutionally weak — a point that became quite clear to Hazony after his time in the United States, where the conservative movement was more clearly established. “In most countries, the role of defending the idea of the nation — the preservation and deepening of its heritage, its texts and holy places, and the wisdoms and social crafts which its people have acquired — belongs to political conservatives,” he wrote in the inaugural issue of Azure, an Israeli conservative journal he founded in 1996 and whose archives are currently hosted on Tikvah’s website. “What passes for a ‘national camp’ in Israel, the [right-wing] Likud and its sister parties, has no tradition of intellectual discourse to speak of. It has no colleges, no serious think tanks or publishing houses, no newspapers or broadcasting.” Tikvah has worked to change that, shelling out $10-15 million annually — a meaningful investment in a small country like Israel — to create and sustain conservative institutions. (Tikvah also operates in the United States.) Foremost among Tikvah’s Israeli grantees is the Kohelet Policy Forum, a libertarian and nationalist organization that Ha’aretz described as “the right-wing think tank that quietly ‘runs the Knesset.’” Yechiel Leiter, a senior fellow at Kohelet, told me that the Ha’aretz headline was “way overstated” but agreed that his organization has real clout in Jerusalem. “Kohelet is influential, though it by no means runs the Knesset,” Leiter said. “An [economist] colleague of mine ... he’s producing a policy paper every few weeks. And believe me, it is read by everyone serious.” Tikvah has supported other conservative think tanks, like the Institute for Zionist Strategies and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. It has created ideological publications, including the hard-right news site Mida and the policy journal Hashiloach — though neither of these is as influential as Israel Hayom, a free daily tabloid funded by American billionaire and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. Tikvah has also built educational institutions, such as the Jewish Statesmanship Center, aimed at training Israeli public servants. Thinkers in the Tikvah orbit generally take anaggressive line on the conflict with the Palestinians, including a hardline defense of the West Bank settlement movement. Their papers and articles defend the wisdom and legality of the settlement enterprise; this June, Leiter published an open letter to American Christians calling on them to lobby Trump on behalf of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. It was signed “your friend from Eli.” “There is no right-wing movement in Israel. What you see is a settler’s movement,” says Stav Shaffir, a former member of the Knesset for the center-left Labor Party. This aggressive approach to security policy is quintessentially Israeli, strengthened by American money but hardly invented by it. Tikvah’s approach to the economy, on the other hand, is an attempt to import a version of all-American libertarianism that’s only weakly rooted in Israeli political thought. Free-market economics are not historically popular in Israel, a country founded on a social democratic economic model that has traditionally enjoyed support from leading political parties. Despite a significant amount of deregulation and privatization since the 1980s, the voting public still supports the main pillars of Israel’s welfare state. The 2019 Israel Democracy Index, an annual assessment of public opinion, found that over three-quarters of Israelis support budget increases for health, education, and social services — while fewer than 5 percent support cuts. Tikvah and its allies believe this Israeli supermajority is in dire need of some foreign education. “Israel still needs to break free of the socialist mindset of its founding fathers,” Eric Cohen, Tikvah’s executive director, wrote in a 2015 essay. “Here is a clear instance where importing external ideas, in this case the ideas of the best free-market economists, can serve Jewish interests, Jewish values, and the success of the Jewish state. And here, too, American Jews have a role to play — and credit to claim.” These organizations are not always so interested in advertising their role in bringing American ideas into Israel. Cohen did not respond to my request for comment on this article; Moshe Koppel, the chair of the Kohelet Policy Forum, downplayed his organization’s ties to the United States. “Kohelet has no substantive connections with American NGOs and takes no position on any American issues not directly related to Israel,” he told me in email. That may well be true, but there’s no denying the role American funding plays in the organization’s work: Kohelet receives millions annually from a Philadelphia-based 501(c)(3) called the American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum. When I called the phone number listed on the organization’s tax filings, a man told me this was not the American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum and hung up. Hazony, perhaps the paradigmatic case of an Israeli whose worldview has been shaped by time in the States, has been a player in Tikvah-world. The organization provided early funding for perhaps his most influential creation, Jerusalem’s Shalem Center — a right-wing think tank that has morphed into Shalem College, Israel’s first American-style private liberal arts college. Alex Kolomiensky-Pool/AFP via Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 15. But today, he is not on Shalem’s day-to-day leadership team, instead running the less-well-known Herzl Institute. Though he once worked closely with current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — another Israeli right-winger who spent significant time in America — the two men had a falling out some time ago. Observers of the Israeli intellectual and media scene I met with in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv described Hazony as fairly marginal in domestic politics, even as the Tikvah-Kohelet world more broadly grows in influence. “He’s so out of touch with the actual sensibilities of Hebrew-speaking Israelis that I think he’s completely irrelevant,” Avner Inbar, the co-founder of the progressive think tank Molad, told me. “Institutionally, the founding of the Shalem Center was influential. But it’s not him, personally.” Leiter had a more positive view of Hazony, describing him as “an intellectual force to be reckoned with.” At the same time, he agreed with Inbar that his influence was greater outside of Israel than within. “I don’t think his book on nationalism has drawn the same interest in Israel as it has in the United States,” Leiter said. Hazony’s career arc, then, is something like a boomerang: the American conservative project of strengthening the Israeli right coming back home to the States. How Hazony universalized American-Israeli conservatism When Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, it became clear that the old conservative paradigm did not adequately represent what the Republican Party had become. The party of free markets had been taken over by a trade skeptic who (disingenuously) promised to protect Medicare; the party of American empire had been taken over by a man who (disingenuously) claimed to oppose America’s wars in places like Iraq and Libya. There was an urgent need to explain what he really stood for and how he had won — a task that the old American conservative elite, steeped in pre-Trump conservative dogma, wasn’t well-equipped to do on its own. Enter Hazony. In a September 2016 essay in Mosaic (a Tikvah-funded conservative journal), he argued that Trump’s ascendance, together with the Brexit vote, represented an emergent divide in global politics — between nationalists, who believe countries should be free to choose their own destiny, and liberal imperialists, who wish to dissolve national borders and impose their secular, deracinated vision on an unwilling world. “The painful debate over Donald Trump’s personal qualities and qualifications for the presidency has made it difficult to sustain a thoughtful discussion about the issues —primarily, the issue of American national self-determination — that catapulted him to the center of political attention,” Hazony wrote. “But no matter what happens in November, the political fault line that has been uncovered at the heart of Western politics is not going away.” If you read Hazony’s work carefully, it becomes evident that his vision for the global right is a universalization of the Israeli settler’s mindset: a religious nationalism that has some key points of agreement with Trumpists and the European far right. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images A man wrapped in a Trump campaign flag walks in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market during the Jewish holiday of Purim on March 11. One of the core tenets of Zionism is that Jews are not fully safe in other countries; so long as they do not have their own state with a powerful military, Jews are fully at the mercy of non-Jewish national majorities who have proven themselves to be hostile time and again. On the Israeli right, Zionist self-determination fuses with a (somewhat justified) sense that Israel has been unfairly targeted in international organizations like the United Nations into a doctrine of extreme self-reliance. The rest of the world will hate us no matter what, the logic goes; we should ignore what they think and take actions we think are best for ourselves — including seizures of Palestinian land in the West Bank justified by Biblical entitlement. The depth and power of this thinking really struck me when I visited the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, just outside the Palestinian city of Hebron. There’s a little park there named after Meir Kahane, an Israeli American rabbi infamous for his advocacy of violence against those he saw as threats to Jews or Israel. Kahane was convicted on terrorism-related charges in the United States in the 1970s and banned from running for the Knesset in 1988 on grounds that he and his Kach party advocated for anti-democratic and racist ideas (this was after he won a seat in Israel’s 1984 election). Today, Kahane is celebrated as a hero by many in places like Kiryat Arba. The park there named after him houses the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Kahane’s who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers while they prayed at the Cave of the Patriarchs (a holy site in Hebron significant to both Jews and Muslims). When I walked over to Goldstein’s tombstone, I saw a smattering of small pebbles on top of it — a sign of care for the dead in Jewish tradition — left by his contemporary admirers. The inscription refers to Goldstein as a “martyr,” one who “gave his life for the Jewish people, its Torah, and its land.” Hazony penned a ”heartfelt farewell” to Kahane after his assassination in 1990. While disavowing Kahane’s politics, including his “predilection for violent solutions,” he credited a meeting with the late rabbi at Princeton in the 1980s as a significant influence on his understanding of his own Judaism. “We found ourselves drawn to Kahane in spite of ourselves because, unlike any other Jewish ‘leader’ we had ever met, he was willing to say what needed to be said,” Hazony wrote, describing the influence of Kahane on himself and his college friends. “He returned to us the belief that Judaism could have truth on its side, that it could be something we didn’t have to embarrassed about, that we should be proud to wear a kipa and make our stand on the world stage as Jews.” “There is no right-wing movement in Israel. What you see is a settler’s movement.” In his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony argues that international organizations and progressive Europeans alike mistreat Israel not primarily out of anti-Semitism per se, but out of a more generalized disgust about what Israel stands for. They believe in a world without borders and without defined nations; Israel is the exemplar of a country founded on the ideals of national self-determination and exclusive national rights to land, the antithesis of what progressives want the world to become. Anti-Israel sentiment “is driven by the rapid advance of a new paradigm that understands Israel, and especially the independent Israeli use of force to defend itself, as illegitimate down to its foundations,” he writes. “If Germany and France have no right to exist as independent states, then why should Israel?” In this way of thinking, Israel — by choosing to “make its stand on the world stage” as an avowedly Jewish state — is at the forefront of a global struggle over borders and nationalism. Trump, Brexit, and electoral victories by European far-right populists like Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland represent Western conservatives finally waking up and joining the war against globalist imperialism that Israel has long been waging. Of course, this valorization of national self-determination is selective: Hazony’s book-length attack on “imperialism” never once mentions Palestinians. National conservatism’s moment Hazony’s political vision, which he calls “national conservatism,” has proven enormously attractive among segments of the American conservative movement. His book was omnipresent in the conservative press after its 2018 release. The 2019 National Conservatism conference in Washington, DC, thrown by Hazony’s Edmund Burke Foundation, has been referred to by one popular conservative writer as that year’s “most important intellectual gathering.” Its keynote speakers were some of the leading figures in the post-Trump “future of conservatism” conversations — Sen. Hawley, Fox’s Carlson, and venture capitalist Thiel. Hazony is working with some A-list American talent: Christopher DeMuth, the head of the influential American Enterprise Institute from 1986-2008, currently serves as the chairman of the National Conservatism Conference. Somewhat ironically, given Hazony’s links to the Tikvah network, the way he talks to American audiences about economics sounds more traditionally Israeli than American free-marketeer. In his 2019 National Conservatism conference speech, he criticizes the pre-Trump American right for elevating the ideals of the free market over values of national cohesion and religious principle. “These conservatives, in particular, forgot everything they ever knew about how to conserve anything,” he said. “They lost interest in the Bible, in Christianity and Judaism. Neither nationalism nor religion had any hold on them any longer. All that interested them was economic liberalism and the rights of the free and equal individual. Instead of conservatives, they became a revolutionary movement.” You see here how the efforts to build cross-national ties between intellectual movements can morph the animating ideas behind them. American donors worked to reshape Israeli conservatism, effectively injecting American ideas into the Israeli political bloodstream. Now one of the Israeli beneficiaries of this American largesse has become more influential in America than his home country, thanks to fortuitous political timing. He is using that influence to pitch an Israeli version of conservatism that preserves the nationalism but eschews libertarianism — and American conservatives are listening. The United States isn’t the only country where Hazony’s thinking finds receptive ears. In early February, just before the pandemic shut the world down, the Edmund Burke Foundation hosted a National Conservatism Conference in Rome. Notable speakers included members of parliament in Sweden and the UK, a leading Polish member of the European Parliament, and French far-right politician Marion Marechal (granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the country’s leading far-right party). The marquee guest was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, widely seen as the most effective right-wing nationalist leader in Europe. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images People hold Trump flags during a demonstration for personal freedoms in Rome, Italy, on September 5. During his appearance, Orbán — who invited Hazony to his office to discuss his book in 2019 — identified himself and similar leaders in Central Europe (like Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party) as exemplars of the kind of “national conservatism” the conference was promoting. “What I represent here is not just a success story of a country, but a success story of a region. And everywhere in this region the governments are based on national sovereignty. They’re all national conservatives,” Orbán said. “You can have great hopes and expectations that the renovation and a new current, a new blood to national conservatism could come from Central Europe.” The point here is not that Orbán’s ideas and doctrines sprung from a close reading of Hazony’s work. Rather, Hazony’s idea of a nationalist conservatism is consistent with the vision of Hungary that Orbán has been working towards since 2010. The Israeli-born, American-trained thinker is theorizing what the Hungarian politician is actually doing — and what Trump has been establishing in the United States. There is an increasing sense of a “nationalist international” — the idea that various right-wing parties need to band together and fight against the liberal-progressive vision for a more globalized world. Some of the efforts to codify this idea, like Steve Bannon’s laughable organization called “The Movement” in Europe, have failed. But the success of the American intervention in Israeli politics, and the global rise of Yoram Hazony, shows how it might actually work: how globalization can fuse political traditions of distinct conservative movements, connecting the halls of power in Washington to the settlers in Eli. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide poses for a portrait on September 14, 2020, in Tokyo, Japan. | Nicolas Datiche/Pool via. Getty Images Suga Yoshihide faces a hellish year. Japan’s new prime minister is at once the likeliest and unlikeliest person in decades to lead his country. Suga Yoshihide was former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s right-hand man, serving in a role that mixes the duties of top spokesperson and chief of staff. He helped Abe govern for eight years until illness forced Abe to resign in August. If there was anyone who could continue Abe’s legacy while attempting to stabilize the country, Suga was it. Many in the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) thought it’d be foolish not to stick by the figure in the party election to choose the next leader. At the same time, Suga isn’t cut from the same cloth as Japan’s previous 98 prime ministers. He doesn’t have any familial ties to politics. He doesn’t come from a big city. He doesn’t have an elite education. He doesn’t really even have a faction within his own party. All he does have is a reputation as a hard worker and an effective operator who gets stuff done. “The impression of him is that he’s Dick Cheney,” a prickly and shadowy behind-the-scenes mastermind, said Joshua Walker, president and CEO of the New York-based Japan Society, though he noted Suga is actually more personable, folksy, and charming than the public’s perception of him. Suga “is the Japanese common guy who realized his dream,” Walker said. Since he became prime minister last month, the 71-year-old Suga has worked to ensure his dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare. Parliamentary elections must be held by next October, which gives Suga no more than a year to make his case to stay in charge. That’s a daunting task, as he must curb his country’s Covid-19 outbreak while boosting a sputtering economy — and all in time for Tokyo to host the 2021 Summer Olympics. If Suga doesn’t succeed, a younger cohort of party leaders who covet the premiership — some of whom are in his Cabinet — might move to unseat him. Their hope, experts told me, was for Suga to take the blows in the hard year ahead so they could take over in calmer times, untainted and unharmed. But such a play is risky as it rests on betting a popular bureaucratic infighter will fail. Issei Kato/Pool via Getty Images Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (who is in the center of the front row) walks with his cabinet on September 16, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. “The prime ministership is a good place from which to advocate staying prime minister, so long as you have successes under your belt and are leading and moving the country in the right direction,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has met Suga. “He’s going to have to make his mark now.” The question of whether he can do that will dominate the next year of Japanese politics. Clearly not everyone is convinced Suga can stand out and survive, but perhaps the likeliest unlikely prime minister in the nation’s modern history knows how to take his shot. “Everyone has always underestimated him, and he’s always blown people away,” said Walker. “Underestimating him is a mistake.” From farm boy to national leader Most origin stories about a new Japanese prime minister begin with their upbringing in a powerful political family or their time at a great university. This is not that story. Suga grew up the son of strawberry farmers in Akita prefecture, a mountainous rural region of northern Japan. Instead of taking over the family business, he moved to Tokyo after high school. To pay for his part-time education at Hosei University — which he chose because it was the cheapest option available — he worked at a cardboard factory and a famed fish market. It was in school that Suga realized he wanted to be in politics. But with no support system in a country where political fortunes depend on them, he had to start from the very bottom. In 1975, two years after graduation, he became the secretary for a representative in the government of Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. It was an unglamorous job, as his daily tasks included fetching cigarettes and parking cars. Twelve years later he sought office for himself, wearing down six pairs of shoes while running for Yokohama City Council. According to the LDP, he knocked on 300 doors a day, visiting 30,000 homes. He won his race, and quickly earned a reputation as Yokohama’s “shadow” mayor after pushing through some key initiatives, such as making it easier to get to the city’s port and reducing waitlists for day care centers. But what distinguished him most in that time, and what continues to define him today, is his dogged work ethic. “He’s known for sleeping in his office,” Walker, the Japan Society chief, told me. That workaholism is part of what initially attracted Suga to Abe, experts said. After serving 10 years in Japan’s lower house of Parliament, Suga was picked by Abe during his first stint as prime minister in 2006 to serve in his Cabinet, overseeing internal affairs and telecommunications. Corporal Jessica Collins for U.S. Marine Corps Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga listens to proposals for the government of Japan’s plan for Camp Foster on August 12, 2020. The former farm boy stuck by him ever after, even when a scandal led Abe to resign as prime minister the following year. When Abe returned to power in 2012, Suga’s loyalty was rewarded with the plum post of chief cabinet secretary. That job is arguably Japan’s second-highest government position. Whoever assumes it must hold two press conferences a day and run the bureaucracy from the behind the scenes, basically combining the portfolios of the American press secretary and chief of staff. It’s both an incredibly visible job and a thankless one. It takes someone with an innate sense of power and an insatiable drive to get the work done. The right-hand man Ask experts and people who worked with Suga about his time as chief cabinet secretary, and the first thing they note, unsurprisingly, is his assiduousness. In his more than 2,300 days in the job, he woke up each morning at 5 am, read the newspaper, did 200 situps, and took a 40-minute walk — but always in a suit in case he had to run into the office for an emergency. Michael Green, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, said Suga had breakfast every morning at a hotel near his office with someone who could teach him something. Sometimes that someone was Green. “He liked to ask me about Obama or Trump and the state of American politics,” Green told me. Suga’s curiosity stemmed from a firm belief in the US-Japan alliance and that Japan must be a leading world power. “He’s a patriot,” Green said. Once at work, Suga would visit Abe’s office multiple times a day to coordinate messaging, advise on economic policy, provide intelligence, and much more. With his staff, he was known for asking sharp questions about why the government should take certain positions. He could be prickly, sometimes even mean, with those who didn’t have a good answer. “He’s a no-nonsense guy,” a Japanese official who worked with Suga told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Everyone was always on their toes around him and alert whenever they had to brief him.” Sometimes he preferred to read documents by himself, the official added, but he was always willing to take advice from senior aides. His dedication to his job, many noted, was evidenced by his preference to live in a Parliament-provided apartment in Tokyo instead of his home in Yokohama, and how he only ate soba noodles for lunch so he could finish within five minutes. But he wasn’t just the guy behind the curtain. He found ways to step onto the stage. Innately understanding the needs of rural communities, Suga launched a “hometown tax” system in 2008 by which a Japanese citizen can donate money to any local government or prefecture (it doesn’t actually have to be the person’s hometown). In exchange, that person receives a tax deduction nearly equaling the size of the donation, as well as locally made gifts from the recipient to incentivize further donations. Carl Court/Pool/AFP via Getty Images Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during his press conference in Tokyo on September 16, 2020. More recently, he pushed Japan’s three major wireless carriers in 2018 to slash their prices by 40 percent. He argued they basically had a monopoly in the country and that competition between them wasn’t lowering bills for everyday citizens. That same year, he took charge of an effort to bring more foreign workers into Japan as a solution for the nation’s aging workforce — batting back years of resistance to such a reform. Japan is “aiming to be a country where foreigners will want to work and live,” Suga said in a statement advocating for the change. In 2019, he also became the first chief cabinet secretary in three decades to visit Washington, DC, where he discussed national security issues at the White House. It’s unclear what the discussion was specifically about, but experts say it likely touched on North Korea and how much Japan should pay to keep 50,000 US troops stationed in the country. That Suga made the trip, and not a high-level diplomat, underscored just how much Abe trusted him with major foreign policy matters, experts told me. After all, Suga also had oversight of the country’s national security team and could veto the firing of any government staffer, requiring him to have deep visibility into all bureaucracies, including foreign policy-related ones. Speculation immediately swirled during the trip that the chief cabinet secretary might be angling to replace Abe once he stepped down. By all accounts, Suga proved himself a capable operator over eight years. “He has an incredibly good reputation for being able to manage the levers of the bureaucracy,” said CFR’s Smith. “He’s astoundingly good at it.” Whether he’ll be as effective as prime minister is what everyone is watching for now. Suga’s make-or-break year When Abe abruptly resigned in August, Suga pretty quickly consolidated support within his party to become the next prime minister. He faced challengers, but the consensus in the party was that Japan should have continuity at the top of its government during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Suga, Abe’s “Mr. Fix It,” fit the bill. He vowed to stay on the course Abe set, pushing for a strong Japanese foreign policy and some economic reforms at home. Eugene Hoshiko/Pool via Getty Images Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (right) presents flowers to now former Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after Suga was elected as new head of Japan’s ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Partyon September 14, 2020. The foreign policy part may not be a new challenge for Suga, analysts noted. China continues to be antagonistic to Japan, relations with South Korea are tanking, and North Korea is advancing its nuclear arsenal, but all that was true when he was the chief cabinet secretary. His greatest immediate global challenge might actually be dealing with the US. “If he has a bad relationship with Trump or Biden, whoever is president, he’s toast,” said CSIS’s Green. Indeed, the US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of Tokyo’s global relations. Without a good working relationship with the American president, it’ll be harder for Japan to push back on adversaries or reach any reconciliation with South Korea. But what will most occupy Suga and define his year in charge will be the coronavirus and the economic havoc it’s wreaking. As of October 21, Japan — a country of around 127 million people — had more than 90,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1,600 deaths. That’s not bad compared to much of the world, but the pandemic caused the nation’s economy to shrink by around 28 percent between April and June, the largest contraction since the country started keeping records in 1980. That’s bad news on its own, but Japan was already dealing with a years-long economic slump due in part to an aging workforce. It’s a trend Suga’s keenly aware he must reverse, and doing so starts with minimizing the virus’s spread. “Reviving the economy remains the top priority of the administration,” Suga told reporters just after becoming prime minister on September 16. Japan’s living standards are falling behind rich countries with growing populations— Bloomberg Opinion (@bopinion) October 21, 2020 But Suga has other ideas to help his country in the meantime. He’s ordered his government to create a new digital agency that, among other things, would help citizens file all necessary paperwork online instead of with old technology. Experts say this is a needed change, especially since the coronavirus required millions of Japanese people to file paperwork to get their benefits. The problem is the government’s response to most requests was very slow, as officials still prefer hard copies and fax machines to online forms and email because the hanko — a stamp with a family’s or individual’s seal — is still the main way Japanese people sign documents. Only about 12 percent of all of Japan’s administrative work is currently done online. Suga and his administration minister Taro Kono — whom many believe wants the premiership — say it’s high time to change that practice. “The creation of a digital agency is a reform that will lead to a major transformation of the Japanese economy and society,” Suga said in September. “I’d like all ministers to cooperate in this major reform with all their might.” CFR’s Smith said digitizing the government and the nation’s private sector will be hard, and Suga’s initial push was met with raised eyebrows. But now Smith is inundated with requests for Zoom meetings from Japanese colleagues, something that didn’t really happen until the new prime minister encouraged his nation to adopt more digital tools. “Once you begin that process of shifting gears, it can move very quickly in Japan,” she told me. If Suga can maintain close ties with the US, improve the economy, and quash the coronavirus — making it possible to host the (spectator-less) Olympics in the summer — then he may have a chance of ensuring his party wins parliamentary elections whenever he calls them before next October. “There’s a lot on the line here for the LDP,” Smith said. Analysts say the LDP is expected to prevail, though a victory doesn’t necessarily mean Suga remains prime minister. Party elders could decide it’s time for new blood, or Abe could come out and say he didn’t like the way his former top staffer ran things. In that case, the race would be on for yet another prime minister in Japan. Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga leaves after a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo, Japan on August 31, 2020. Suga could also make mistakes that lead him to lose his current mandate. For example, he surprisingly refused to accept the appointments of six professors to a state-funded science panel of over 100 academics because of their past criticisms of Abe. Some say he’s aiming to stifle dissent, and while his decision isn’t expected to become a major controversy, it calls into question his judgment. But Suga, experts say, is keenly aware the job is his to lose. The best chance for him to enact his reforms and Abe-like foreign policy is if he stays in control. Few believe he’ll do anything to jeopardize that possibility in the months to come. “He understands power very well. He knows you have to build up your position to gain your leverage,” said CSIS’s Green. “Anything he wants to do is just talk until he proves he can win.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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