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Opinion | John R. Bolton: Shinzo Abe’s death is a loss to the U.S.

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John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.”

Shinzo Abe’s assassination was a brutal and completely unforeseen end to a life of public service to the people of Japan. The shock of his death will not dissipate quickly. He was a visionary leader, someone who believed his country was capable of taking a central, and responsible, role in international affairs. His loss will be deeply felt in part because he had more contributions to make.

Americans should appreciate how important Abe was for our nation. Over the past several decades, Japan had sought a role behind the historic memory of its part in initiating World War II and its conduct during that conflict. Abe agreed that Japan was right to believe, after this discreet but public soul-searching by his fellow citizens, that they lived in a “normal” country. And as with any “normal” country, Japan was legitimately entitled to defend its interests, especially in the hostile geography of Northeast Asia.

This Abe was determined to achieve, and he made giant steps toward reaching that once impossible goal.

Shinzo Abe, former Japanese leader, is assassinated by gunman

Abe knew his country’s history well, but he could also see that it was time for Japan, and the rest of the world, to move beyond 1945. Germany had done so, forming a full military defense capacity (albeit one that has fallen into ill repair), and becoming a NATO member. Why shouldn’t Japan be able to do the same? And why shouldn’t the United States fully support Abe’s aspirations, not for Japan, but for ourselves and our other friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific and around the world?

I first met Abe in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, during a visit to Tokyo. At the suggestion of the U.S. Embassy, I had breakfast with Abe, then the deputy chief cabinet secretary and little known outside Japan. Our diplomats had tagged Abe, scion of a prominent political family, as a rising star, and so I found him to be, over 20 years ago.

He had focused on the threat of the North Korean nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs. As a Diet member, he made uncovering the fates of dozens of Japanese hostages kidnapped by Pyongyang a major campaign theme, demanding their safe return to their families, or at least a full accounting of what had happened to them. He never wavered from that goal. When he was assassinated, he was wearing the blue pin representing solidarity with the hostage families on his left lapel.

Through several U.S. administrations during his two stints as prime minister, and as a private citizen and political leader when not in office, Abe never tired of explaining to U.S. officials why they had to take the North Korea threat seriously. No one needed to convince Japan that Pyongyang was dangerous. Nonetheless, naive, ill-informed and obtuse leaders from more distant lands often needed to have the obvious explained to them.

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I never saw Abe lose his sense of humor or his patience, as he tried repeatedly to stress why commitments made by various Kim dynasty leaders from the North shouldn’t be trusted. We could have used more of his wise warnings over the coming years. Now, that is not to be.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Nara, many instant commentators have said that Abe’s policies were “divisive” and “controversial.” That tells us more about the ideological biases of the commentators than about Abe himself.

He was prudent in his approach, meticulous in his planning (in politics and foreign policy) and resolutely calm in his demeanor. What distinguished him was the strength of his beliefs, despite adversity — adversity so intense that, in 2007, he resigned prematurely from his first term as prime minister, leaving the cognoscenti certain that his political career was over.

But Abe, who was as resolute as any politician in the contemporary democratic world, fought back. Five years later, he was reelected to lead Japan again and became its longest-serving prime minister. What really irritated his opponents were his successes, not his failures.

Abe’s international view is more important today than it ever was. He understood the long-term, indeed existential, threat posed by China, in all its spreading ramifications.

In the last years of his administration, Abe more than anyone else stressed the possibilities of a new constellation in Asia, the Quad: India, Australia, Japan and the United States. Initiated roughly 15 years ago but never developed effectively, Abe saw its potential, quietly pushing other Quad leaders to see what he did.

Especially as nations came to understand China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic, heads of governments in many Indo-Pacific countries intensified their search for more effective ways to constrain China, and they too see the Quad as an important building block.

We do not yet know the motives of Abe’s assassin. He might simply be a madman. But we should not let Abe’s tragic death obscure the permanent contribution he made to his country’s progress, or his friendship toward the United States.

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