Faculty Spotlight: Michael Armacost


Portrait of Michael Armacost
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

In conversation with Shorenstein APARC, Michael H. Armacost, a Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow, discusses his initial draw to U.S. government and East Asian affairs that eventually led to a twenty-four year tenure at the State Department, including posts as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Ambassador to Japan and the Philippines. Armacost highlights current research activities and perspectives related to the relationship between foreign policy creation and the U.S. election system.

What initially led you to focus on East Asian and Pacific affairs?

I was teaching international relations and U.S. foreign policy at Pomona College in the 1960s, and when I got my first sabbatical in 1968, we were involved in a big war in Vietnam, Japan was becoming a formidable commercial competitor, China was descending into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, yet despite all of this, I had never been west of Long Beach. Determined to fix that, I arranged to teach at International Christian University in Tokyo the following year. While there, I also intended to devote my time to learning as much as possible about Japan and Northeast Asia. During my leave, the chairman of my department at Pomona put my name in for a White House Fellowship. By chance, I was selected, perhaps because I traveled the longest distance to interview. When I arrived in Washington, D.C. in August 1969 to spend the year working for Secretary of State William P. Rogers, I discovered two things: first, that the Secretary had little interest in White House Fellows - he sent me down to work with Deputy Secretary Elliott Richardson - and second, since I was trained as an academic and had just returned from Japan, people assumed that I was an expert on Asia. They put me to work on matters related to Japan, Korea, and China, and I never looked back. One thing led to another, and I suppose that’s the way many careers evolve.

Much of your research examines U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia, and how elections impact U.S. foreign policy debates. To what degree, if any, will the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States affect foreign policy? 

Foreign policy is rarely an issue in most congressional, senatorial, or gubernatorial races, but it is becoming a more central subject in the national conversation. Since the president’s approval rating for his handling of foreign policy has fallen to very low levels, it probably reinforces the reluctance of Democratic candidates to look to the White House for help in their campaigns, other than as a major fundraiser, and as someone who may help in getting out the vote in certain constituencies.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming book? 

Lots of people write about how foreign policy affects the outcome of elections, I’ve long been fascinated by the way in which our presidential election system influences the conduct and content of American foreign policy. If one is working in the State or Defense Departments or with the National Security Council staff, one can immediately sense when an election is looming. Policy issues that appeal to powerful domestic constituencies move up on the agenda. Negotiations requiring possibly distasteful accommodations with foreigners get kicked down the road. If the United States is involved in armed conflict, the White House looks more urgently for ways to win or settle. Major exporters of goods and services tend to get easier access to subsidies or protection from foreign competitors. Issues of significant concern to large ethnic groups get more urgent attention. There is nothing particularly surprising about all of this. Politics does not invariably trump strategy in election years, but elections place foreign policy choices in a context in which their domestic political consequences acquire greater weight. In that sense foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. My book examines some of these interactions in the successive phases of elections in the United States – the quest for nomination, the general election campaign, the transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, and the early months of a new administration (especially when party control of the White House changes).

You co-teach a course in the International Policy Studies Program focused on U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia. What are the largest policy challenges ahead, and how are they explored in the course? 

Several years ago the Obama administration announced its intent to rebalance its geopolitical priorities to devote more time, attention and resources to U.S. interests in East Asia. It has attempted to bolster its security role in the area, to promote a regional free trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), to energize its involvement in Asian regional institutions, to engage pariah regimes like Myanmar diplomatically, and to find a delicate balance in our China policy between engaging Beijing constructively and hedging against the growing power. These are sensible objectives. The administration has done better on some than on others. The major current policy challenges are by-products of Washington’s efforts to sustain this rebalancing strategy at a moment when extricating the United States from the Middle East, and as South Asian problems are proving to be much more difficult and costly than anticipated. In the course, we explore these themes through dialogue and simulation. The course often attracts a diverse cross-section of students from China, Japan, South Korea and countries in Southeast Asia – some of whom go on to pursue, or continue careers in foreign affairs.

Tell us something we don’t know about you.

At the end of the Reagan administration I was serving as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the no. 3 position in the State Department. George Shultz and his Deputy, John Whitehead, both resigned on January 19th, so I inherited the Acting Secretary role until the Secretary of State-nominee, James Baker, was sworn in. Had a terrorist attack been directed at the Capitol during the inauguration ceremony on January 20, 1989, the new president, vice-president, president pro-tem of the Senate, and speaker of the house were all in attendance, and could in theory, have been victims. I was not there, because as far as I can recall, I had not been invited. I learned only years later that as Acting Secretary of State, I was 5th in the line of presidential succession at the time of the ceremony - a potential reality that totally appalled those who uncovered this possibility, and thoroughly shocked me when I was informed about it. Fortunately, the inauguration proceeded peacefully without incident, and I went on with my business totally unaware of the unlikely scenario that could have vaulted me out of bureaucratic obscurity.