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How Ambassador Mondale won friends and influenced foreign policy

He wasn't just a veep and failed presidential candidate. His work with Japan offers truly poignant lessons for future diplomats.

Analysis | Global Crises

Walter “Fritz” Mondale probably never needed to read Dale Carnegie’s 1936 landmark book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The former Vice President had a pol’s sixth sense for interacting with people — friend or foe. Tributes pouring in after his death on April 19 underscored his inherent decency, dignity, and civility. 

But these tributes — which focus on Mondale’s tenure as vice president and the drubbing he received from Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election — overlook his most impressive accomplishment: his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton. From 1993 to 1996, Mondale, among other things, turned over the Marines’ Okinawa Prefecture to Japan, reduced the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, and revitalized a bilateral relationship that had been sagging because of trade tensions and military mishaps.

As Beijing challenges Indo-Pacific security, the Biden administration will need to cooperate more with Japan to deter China and keep the peace. The recent summit between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was a good start. Tokyo, however, won’t jump at every opportunity to work with Washington. Its leadership prefers a stable relationship with Beijing so as not to provoke economic retaliation or diplomatic backlash.

Not to worry. Walter Mondale’s conduct as U.S. ambassador to Japan can instruct current and future American diplomats on how to handle and charm Japan (and other allies) while persuading foreign leadership to work with Washington to uphold regional security. Even better, Mondale’s blueprint for diplomatic success adheres to many techniques Dale Carnegie espoused in his book.

Avoid criticizing and complaining

For most of 1993, Clinton administration officials criticized Japan’s economic policy and closed markets with little effect. Mondale’s predecessor, Michael Armacost, tried resolving trade issues by strong-arming the Japanese. Before stepping down, Armacost called Japan’s self-proclamation as a “free trader” nothing more than a “PR campaign” reeking of “chutzpah” and “propaganda.” Japanese officials nicknamed Armacost “Mr. Gaiatsu” (or “Mr. Foreign Pressure”) because of his frequent ridiculing. Those same officials expected Mondale to behave the same. He didn’t — and he yielded different results. 

During his confirmation hearing, Mondale urged American officials to treat the Japanese with respect: “I hope to show by my own example that our two nations can discuss our differences with civility and without mutual bashing of each other.” True to his word, the Minnesotan practiced what he preached in Tokyo. He toned down American rhetoric in trade negotiations by ridiculing Washington’s blunt negotiating style, which reminded him of a “Pekingese dog. We’re always going, ‘Yip, yip, yip.’”

He restored bilateral amiability by calling Japanese bureaucrats “very gifted people with a lot of experience…they’re good allies.” Instead of issuing threats of geoeconomic force, Mondale quietly worked “the halls of the Prime Minister’s office and the phones back [in] Washington” to avoid a trade war and broker a deal granting American access to the Japanese construction market. Observing this shift in American tactics, one Japanese trade negotiator asked whether Mondale had been sent to “crush us with his friendly handshake.”

Make others feel important

A lifetime in American politics taught Mondale how to make others feel special; he brandished that talent in Japan. When, for example, he had to decline a dinner invitation from a Japanese official, Mondale “called the official to personally explain.” Reporters at the time credited Mondale’s “personal touch” with helping “bridge the distance with his Japanese counterparts.”

Sympathize with the other person

Mondale attuned himself to the wills and wishes of the Japanese people because he interacted with them. After meeting with Japanese officials for hours, Mondale sought another perspective by “talking to [ordinary Japanese] people…to understand issues.” Some of those unofficial conversations made him realize that Washington had to accept the “pleas of locals” to return the Futenma air base to the Okinawans. Days before Japanese premier Ryutaro Hashimoto met Clinton in February 1996, Mondale convinced Clinton of the Futenma base’s importance and encouraged a frank, open exchange at the summit about the issue. Fritz’s sympathetic ear kickstarted the base return accords. As Nikkei Asia’s obituary for Mondale aptly summarized, “Mondale remembered as a statesman who listened to Okinawa.”

Admit error

Mondale’s ambassadorship coincided with one of the biggest ruptures in U.S.-Japan relations: the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen. When the story broke, Mondale swiftly apologized to the Okinawa governor. This wasn’t Mondale’s only apology. Sheryl WuDunn of the New York Times detailed Mondale’s “knack for apologizing,” which “went over well” and routinely “helped salve the rage among Japanese,” although it raised the occasional Foggy Bottom eyebrow. Mondale’s heartfelt apologies (with no qualifications) built trust with the Japanese people on behalf of the United States, mitigating crises and rage that could have deteriorated relations.

Praise improvements

Mondale understood the power of compliments, which is why he commended any actions the Japanese government undertook that adhered to Washington’s wishes. Mondale praised Japan for their unprecedented economic stimulus package, indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and official apology for Japan’s “war of aggression” during World War II. Even if Mondale suggested these ideas, he never took credit for them. He wanted the Japanese government to “get credit for what they did on their own.”

Express genuine interest in others

Before leaving for Japan, Mondale “refreshed his understanding” of the country “by reading books on Japanese language history and culture” and “visiting Japan experts and companies that have a special interest in trading with Japan.” He remained intellectually curious even after his arrival. The Los Angeles Times likened him to an “honor student” because he continued “reading history, probing how Japan ticks, quizzing Japanese leaders on their ideas for Japan’s future” while taking “12-hour forays into the countryside.” Ambassadors need deep connections and conversations with foreign officials to broker deals, influence policy, and convey national interests. Mondale’s personal interest in Japan helped foster those relationships.

Follow Fritz

Mondale’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to Japan generated rumblings in Washington. How could a man with little interest in foreign policy or Japanese politics succeed in the role? Clinton’s decision, however, paid handsome dividends. Not only did the Japanese respect Mondale because of his resume — they referred to him as an oh-mono, or “big cheese” — but they also appreciated his deft ability at winning them over and influencing government policy. Mondale’s sincere interest in Japan and humility, among other traits and techniques, incentivized Japanese officials to seek his counsel and heed his recommendations for resolving trade disputes, revising domestic policy, and strengthening the alliance. Years later, Japanese officials reached a similar conclusion. Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi praised Mondale for laying the foundation of “today’s strong Japan-U.S. relationship.”

Tokyo and Washington will once again navigate turbulent seas — literally and figuratively. Both nations oppose Chinese aggression but they have varied ideas on preserving Indo-Pacific peace. Future U.S. diplomats in Japan — and elsewhere — should follow Mondale’s compassionate and respectful approach to handling, befriending, and persuading foreign counterparts. They should also heed his words. Mondale wanted Americans to remember that the relationship between “two strong democracies” would “always involve some frustrations and some differences.” Nonetheless, “no nation can do it alone.” Now more than ever, the United States needs Japan’s help. Getting on the same page will be tough, but not impossible. Look to Fritz.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale (R) chats with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prior to their talks at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo December 12, 2001. Mondale, who passed away April 19, 2021, was a former U.S. ambassador to Japan. REUTERS/Katsumi Kasahara/Pool
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