This handout photo taken from the twitter account of The Prime Minister's Office of Japan on May 26, 2019 shows US President Donald Trump (L) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) posing for a photograph while playing a round of golf at Mobara Country Club in Chiba. Photo by Handout / The Prime Minister's Office of Japan / AFP

Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe was very friendly with Donald Trump while Trump was president. The two leaders even played several rounds of golf when they were both in power, despite Trump’s anti-Asian, anti-alliance (and occasionally anti-Japan) disposition. 

Abe was quoted recently explaining himself, claiming that “golf was for deterrence.” Abe argued that other countries wouldn’t attack Japan if he was close enough to Trump that the two played golf together.  

This is fascinating because if we take Abe’s words literally, then in most respects his golf-deterrence gambit is a weird, poorly placed bet. And yet the idea of cultivating personal ties to the leader of his government’s security patron makes sense in ways that Abe didn’t express but that probably were relevant. 

One way to think about the causal linkage between personal ties and general deterrence hinges on whether the action in question functions as a costly signal. Does it tie hands or involve sunk costs? Does it change perceptions of the balance of resolve? Does it change the adversary’s knowledge of your military capacity?

Golf outings don’t function in any of these ways, making them cheap talk in the rationalist sense. Even if we think of golf as operating on some kind of personalized tripwire logic, we have research now indicating that tripwires aren’t very effective deterrents – and that’s when tripwires take the form of actual military forces, not golf bros.

Golfing for deterrence is also weird in the Japan context because “more deterrence” just wasn’t necessary. The United States has a large forward basing presence in Japan already and that’s doing the deterrence work, to the extent it’s needed. During the Trump era, I’m not sure it was; there’s no evidence indicating Japan would’ve been attacked on Trump’s watch if it hadn’t been for the US alliance commitment.

Then-president Donald Trump is shown driving Japan’s then-prime minister Shinzo Abe in a golf cart in 2018. Photo:

Moreover, to the extent Japan was under threat, Abe used his golfing with Trump to push the United States for a harder line on China and North Korea. Trump helped make Asia’s security environment more of a powder keg – the kind in which the risks of deterrence failure go up.

Abe goaded him into some of those positions, so excuse me for thinking that maybe, as Jeffrey Lewis suggested, deterrence was not actually what Abe meant. Policymakers have a tendency to talk about deterrence because it sounds defensive, but they often mean something more coercively transgressive.

Finally, it’s a misreading of American politics to think that your investment in a personal relationship with someone as unusual (and aspirationally despotic) as Trump would carry over to his successors or to the national security state.

Personal relationships matter. Leaders matter. But they matter more or matter less in certain contexts, and as any Korea watcher will tell you, the goodwill you build up with Trump is non-transferrable. That should not come as a great surprise.  

Having said all that, cultivating personal ties to a leader through golf (or whatever the leader’s into) is useful – and in the Japan-Trump context may have been necessary – for non-deterrence reasons.

It was human intelligence gathering focused on a highly unpredictable target (we’re talking about Trump). It may have also offered a psychic wage or ontological security for Abe’s cabinet, or possibly even for the Japanese people. 

Tobias Harris rationalized, I suspect correctly, that Abe probably “felt he had no choice but to pursue a campaign of abject flattery” because Trump’s attitude and erraticism put America’s treaty obligation to the defense of Japan in a precarious place.

Donald Trump (left) and Shinzo Abe playing golf at the Kasumigaseki Country Club on November 5, 2017. Photo: AFP / Japan’s Cabinet Public Relations Office/Jiji Press

Arguably the greatest benefit of all was the role that personal ties might have played in dampening the immediate prospects of alliance abandonment. 

Trump was extorting allies at the time, and abandonment was a very real threat for Abe to manage during the Trump years. Golfing can have affective effects on a person. Emotions may be dangerous in deterrence but are good in preventing an unbalanced leader from acting on his prejudices. 

Mostly this was a mini-thought exercise about whether there’s any merit to a golf-buddy theory of deterrence. I think there is not, at least in the Trump context. But there are uses for golf as strategic relationship management.

Is that what Abe was doing? Ultimately, we’re left to ponder whether we should take Abe literally, or just seriously. Where have I heard that before? 

This article was first published by The Duck of Minerva and is republished with permission. Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand; a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defense & strategy fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.