'Ron-Yasu' relationship model for Japan-U.S. ties

This dialog appeared in The Daily Yomiuri on July 8, 2004, and it is reproduced here with the Yomiuri's permission.

Following the death on June 5 of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who is widely credited with helping to end the Cold War, attention has turned to the lessons of Reagan's presidency for today's world leaders. The following are excerpts from a dialogue between former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard H. Baker, Jr. on Reagan's leadership and the Japan-U.S. relationship. The dialogue was held on June 30 at the Japan National Press Club in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. The moderator was Goro Hashimoto, senior political writer for The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Goro Hashimoto
President Reagan passed away recently, and we would like to take this opportunity to discuss the attributes that make a good leader in the context of his presidency. Mr. Prime Minister, you enjoyed a warm relationship with President Reagan. Could we start with your comments?

Yasuhiro Nakasone
President Reagan showed great leadership, even when he passed away. I attended his state funeral (on June 11). The tone was not subdued, like Japanese funerals; it was like a great sending-off party. U.S. presidents plan their own funerals in advance, so I'm sure Reagan had his scenario mapped out before he passed away. In his will, I believe, there were instructions that the funeral should be a jolly affair.

Howard H. Baker, Jr.
I have an enormous admiration for President Reagan. He was one of the great men of the last century and one of the greatest U.S. leaders of all time. I knew him for a long time. He was elected governor of California in 1966, the year I was first elected to the U.S. Senate. So we knew each other as political compatriots.

I knew him when he was president, and I was Republican leader of the Senate. I knew him well then, and indeed it was my responsibility as majority leader to carry his program in the Senate. Since the Senate was Republican, it was largely responsible for the legislative achievement of the Reagan presidency.

But I really didn't know Ronald Reagan well until he asked me to be chief of staff (in 1987). I was with him every day at 9 a.m., just the two of us. I was with him all day long, and you get to know a person very well indeed when you work with him daily. I came to have an even greater admiration and respect for him as time went by.

He was truly one of great men of our time.

3 prerequisites to becoming a great leader

U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker, Jr. said Reagan had the three attributes needed to be a great president.

"Number one, he must understand who he is. Ronald Reagan knew he was president of the United States; he had no doubt about it; he was comfortable with it and he was perfectly willing to serve in that role. He knew who he was.

"Number two, he knew what he believed. Not all presidents, perhaps not all leaders, always have a clear set of guiding principles when they become president or leader, but Reagan did. He had a well-developed central core of conviction.

"He believed the United States was overtaxed, overregulated, and underdefended.

"He was determined to see that U.S. defenses were rejuvenated and that we were strong enough so that no nation would ever dare to successfully challenge us for our own security.

"The third thing is--he knew what he wanted to do. No matter how bright you are, how smart you are, no president, no leader can do everything. It's important that you focus your effort on a few things that you can do, and Reagan did that.

"It was very clear what he believed. He believed he had to rejuvenate the armed forces, he had to reduce taxes, he had to reduce the burden of regulation in order to unleash the power of the individual, of our economy and of the human spirit," he said.

Those attributes drove everything else about his presidency, Baker said.

Yasuhiro Nakasone
The most important thing for a leader is to have a great personality that is attractive to the whole nation. And he must build confidence and trust among the people. Unless that leader is attractive and trustworthy, no one will be attracted to him. In the case of Ronald Reagan, he had a great personality.

He was very good at using the right people in the right places, such as (former U.S. Secretary of State) George Shultz, Ambassador Baker and (former U.S. Defense Secretary) Caspar Weinberger. The people whom Reagan appointed worked enormously hard because they were trusted by the president. They took pride in the fact they were trusted and had his full confidence.

Another lesson we can draw from the Reagan presidency is that politics should be a moving experience for the people. Unless you are moved, politics will not proceed forward.

The most important thing for a great leader, then, before considering specific policies, tactics and strategies, is to have a great personality. Even Democrats became Republican because of Reagan's attractiveness. He was truly an attractive person and a leader we all could trust.

One gets the impression that President Reagan was not well aware of the details of some of his policies. How did he overcome this weakness?

Howard H. Baker, Jr.
It's simply not true that Reagan failed to grasp details. Reagan had a firm understanding of issues; it was the details for the implementation of his decisions that he was impatient with. But he had a keen understanding of the great issues that confronted the country.

He was not afraid to hire strong people. Caspar Weinberger was certainly a strong person as secretary of defense. George Shultz was a great secretary of state. On down the line, he was not afraid to have strong people around him.

But he was always sure that he could tell them what he wanted done, with the assurance that they would do it.

So it wasn't that he didn't know the details. He was perfectly willing to deal only in the broad generalities and leave it up to others to fill in the blanks. I think that makes a great president. I certainly do not count it as a weakness.

The relationship between former Prime Minister Nakasone and Ronald Reagan was unique, not only because they shared many views on issues, but because they understood each other.

They instinctively understood what it took to lead a great nation, so they established a great bond of friendship and a great bond of cooperation.

It's often remarked that Japan and the United States are great allies, but in my view that's less important than (the fact) we are great friends. That friendship follows the pattern that was established in the "Ron-Yasu" friendship.

Yasuhiro Nakasone
The background to the "Ron-Yasu" relationship was as follows.

I became prime minister in November 1982. The United States was demanding that Japan lower a range of tariffs--on tobacco, for example. Within one month of becoming prime minister I implemented these measures. On Jan. 11, 1983, I went to South Korea, and one week later I went to the United States.

I believe Reagan thought that this Nakasone--this new Japanese prime minister--was somewhat different from previous premiers. So perhaps he thought it worthwhile to try to have a closer relationship with me.

On the eve of my meeting with President Reagan, there was a special reception held by Vice President Bush. Dr. Schultz, Mr. Weinberger and Ambassador Baker were all there too, with their spouses.

I made a speech about how my daughter had done homestays with a U.S. family when she was in junior high school and high school, and about how we had met my daughter's homestay family--the Winski family--on that trip.

I had finally achieved my long-held dream of being able to take my own daughter as an interpreter to the United States when I was visiting as prime minister.

Early the next morning Dr. Schultz met President Reagan and told Mr. and Mrs. Reagan about my meeting with the Winski family and about my daughter. They were moved by the whole story.

That is why the president suddenly invited me to the White House for breakfast the following day. This was quite unprecedented. I went to the breakfast meeting and President Reagan told me the only people who had had breakfast with him there were myself and (former British Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher.

After that President Reagan suddenly asked me whether he could call me Yasu. I agreed and decided I should call him Ron. That was the whole process that led to the Ron-Yasu relationship.

What will be the view of the United States if, as may happen, Japan in the future develops closer ties with South Korea and China?

Howard H. Baker, Jr.
I cannot peer into the future with any accuracy, but my guess is that as Japan and China--or Japan and South Korea and China--establish cordial and favorable relationships between each other, that the United States would not only applaud, but wish to participate in those policies.

The secret to the relationship in this region is to see that trade barriers do not arise and that freedom of trade and commerce and communication between the people of the Pacific region continues and is improved as time goes by, because person-to-person relationship, in my view, is the surest guarantee against misunderstanding.

There are all sorts of opportunities for misunderstanding in this region.

You have China growing at an astonishing rate. You have Japan, the second-largest economy in the world. You have South Korea, a major economic power. They are all in a way in competition with each other, not only on the world market, but within the Asian region.

So, communication--personal interaction--I think is the secret to a successful set of policies for the future.

The relationship that developed between the United States and Japan during the time that (former) Prime Minister Nakasone was in power and President Reagan was president--I think that example should not go unnoticed by our friends in Asia as they develop these new relationships between competing states in Asia.

There's a proverb in Japan that says that while harmony is necessary, that doesn't mean you have to agree on everything. Does that apply to U.S.-Japan relations?

Yasuhiro Nakasone
The most important point is that Japan and the U.S. share a common goal. We should fully understand that, mutually, and try to uphold such a shared goal. The leaders of the two countries should show strong resolve and determination and show that to the people of each country.

Leaders and the government should be "great communicators," following Ronald Reagan's style. They try to communicate with and provide information to the people. That way, the people will follow.

We are now in a highly information-oriented society, so what is most important is to establish a communication network to receive information from different corners of society.

The top leader should respond quickly to information coming from the people. To make sure this is the case, there should be no fragmentation within the government.

Howard H. Baker, Jr.
The United States and Japan must understand each other on questions like mad cow disease; on exports like the exchange of technologies.

Like so many other things, we must have a decent respect for different points of view. That's what the future requires of us.

I am confident the relationship between Japan and the United States will continue to be a model for the rest of the free world, and I think that's as it should be.

I think that Prime Minister Koizumi is a genuine change agent and a genuine leader, and I think that Japan has many things going for it.

It's not only the second-richest nation in the world; it not only has the second-largest navy in the Pacific, but it also has a functioning parliamentary democracy. It has an educated population. It has a demonstrated record of achievement, of advancement, and of willingness to hear what others have to say.

The United States has a tradition of friendship, of strength, of individual initiative, of commitment to democracy.

Those things taken together spell a bright and rosy promise for the future, and I think Japan and the United States, more perhaps than any other two nations--I think surely more than any other two nations--are in a position to realize all these advantages and to provide an advancement not only for our relationship, but for the peace and security of the entire world.