Without question, there are better students of Japanese politics than Caroline Kennedy, whom President Obama tapped Wednesday as the US ambassador in Tokyo. The former president’s daughter has spent her career writing books and tending to her family’s legacy, and her nomination may well revive a broader debate on how to choose ambassadors. This position, in country on high alert in response to North Korea’s threats of war, will require ample diplomatic savvy. What Kennedy has to offer is her intellect, her decorum, and her name. Those may turn out to be the right qualifications.
Kennedy’s new post — contingent on Senate approval — will be the culmination of years of Democratic party intrigue. Kennedy joined her uncle, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, in a pivotal endorsement of a young Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary battle, and she awkwardly flirted with trying to fill the Senate seat Clinton vacated to become secretary of state. Those episodes raise the perennial question of whether it’s wise to appoint political figures rather than career diplomats to sensitive posts.
Any drama surrounding Kennedy’s appointment needs to be left back stateside. One key factor in ambassadorial nominations is how the host country will receive the appointment. Past presidents have sought to demonstrate the importance of the US-Japanese alliance by sending ambassadors, such as former vice president Walter Mondale, who are prominent in their own right. The appointment of a former president’s child — and a Kennedy, no less — fits with that tradition. Kennedy, for her part, gets an opportunity to fulfill a family tradition of public service — and will have no shortage of challenges to tackle.