This conversation was originally published in Science & Diplomacy, available here.
Ambassador Rahm Emanuel was nominated to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan in December 2021. Before becoming Ambassador, he had an impressive political career, including serving as the 55th mayor of the City of Chicago, White House Chief of Staff under President Barack Obama, U.S. Representative from Illinois’ 5th Congressional District, and Senior Advisor to President Bill Clinton for Policy and Politics.
Ambassador Emanuel spoke with Dr. Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS and Executive Publisher of the Science family of journals, during a AAAS visit to Japan in October 2023. This is the fourteenth conversation in the Ambassador Conversation Series, and the first with a U.S. Ambassador posted abroad.
Sudip Parikh (interviewer): Having been the U.S. Ambassador to Japan since 2021, how have you observed science, technology, and innovation having an impact on bilateral cooperation?
Ambassador Rahm Emanuel: Let me start by saying that I come from a family of scientists, with my dad and brother both being doctors. Along with my personal connection, I’ve also interacted with science professionally, having worked to expand the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under U.S. Presidents Clinton and Obama, as well as often collaborating with the U.S. National Science Foundation. So, I came into this position with a viewpoint that science can create points of dialogue between countries. People often talk about sports, appropriately, as a channel of communication between nations, but science is another important example of soft power, which can greatly contribute to diplomatic efforts.
When I think of the American and Japanese relationship in terms of science, several things come to mind. For example, there are several different collaborations between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), including the Gateway1 and Artemis2 agreements, that have led to crucial successes in space science. We’re also seeing new and strong collaborations, such as a Purdue University initiative to train engineers in the semiconductor space,3 and a potential collaboration on AI on the horizon. Clearly, science plays an important role in our diplomatic relationship, and this will continue to expand as new technology and new situations arise.
Parikh: In May 2023, a partnership that you helped arrange between the University of Chicago and the University of Tokyo, supported by IBM and Google, focused on quantum computing, was formalized during the G7 Hiroshima Summit. I’m curious to know, with these collaborations between universities that you helped originate, is there a chicken and an egg there? Is it international relationships that create these partnerships, or the scientific dialogue?
Ambassador Emanuel: I do not necessarily think it is a chicken or egg situation; it’s more chutzpah. The particular collaboration on quantum computing between the University of Chicago and the University of Tokyo4 came about because of a lunch I had with the President of the University of Tokyo. By coincidence, he brought up quantum and I asked if he was interested in partnership. After nine months of work and numerous conference calls, we created this unique partnership and raised $100 million ($10 million over ten years) from IBM and $50 million ($10 million over five years) from Google. For these partnerships to happen, I think you really just need people willing to put in the work to get them started, and those efforts can come from scientists or policymakers.
I will say that what is interesting about these partnerships and scientific collaboration in general is that none of us will be in the same role or have the same title when we see the benefits of these collaborations. When we think about important and recent legislation, like the CHIPS and Science Act or the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most important things about them are the R&D resources they will create. We cannot know now what will necessarily come out of it, but this is where, one day, we will see the biggest impact. That is not to say that I am against a new runway or terminal, which have legitimate benefits, but I believe the real punches are the breakthroughs that occur when the United States decides to activate its universities and national laboratories.
Parikh: We could not agree more and appreciate you bringing up the importance of this legislation. Thinking of this legislation as well as the collaboration between the University of Chicago and the University of Tokyo begs the question: why do you think this stuff doesn’t seem to happen without support from government?
Ambassador Emanuel: I do not necessarily think I am the person to answer this question, but in terms of our collaboration on quantum computing, I am not sure that this partnership would exist without the help of the Embassy, and I do not think IBM and Google would have funded it. First, I think existing relationships are important; from being Mayor of Chicago, I already had a connection to Bob Zimmer, the former president of the University of Chicago. Now, there is also some Chicago Sun-Times story5 about how I’m crazy about quantum. I am particularly interested in quantum, but I’m equally invested in other issues like biotech, AI, and climate research because I believe they are all essential to the future.
But with any of these issues, I think it is fair to say you do not necessarily need politicians to start initiatives; you just need someone with the energy and persistence to see it through, because these are not easy things to pull together. It is about bringing something into the center of your focus and being persistent in a way that may even border on insanity. A little insanity goes a long way. When you are in positions when there is a lot happening, you need to keep your priorities in focus. It is essential to ask what are your As and what are your Bs? Then you must make sure that you never lose sight of your As. A lot of times, due to varying circumstances, your Bs may seem to crawl up to the level of As, which is why you have to be clear on what you aim to achieve in your position, and not get overwhelmed by matters that will prevent you from reaching your goal.
Parikh: In August 2023, Japan released more than one million metric tons of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant. A safety review by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that it met its safety standards; however, China put a ban on Japanese seafood claiming it was necessary to prevent the risk of radioactive contamination of food. You have been very public about your trust in IAEA’s safety assessment, including having a seafood lunch with the mayor of Soma City in Fukushima Prefecture. What is the role of science diplomacy in a situation like this one? How can it be used to counter mis- and disinformation, and help maintain relations between nations?
Ambassador Emanuel: Thank you for bringing this up, as I already have my answer. Scientists need to start speaking up because you are under attack. How Japan handled Fukushima or how China handled the COVID-19 pandemic are examples of two different systems of handling a crisis. In the next few years, somewhere in the world, another crisis will happen, and the scientific community needs to decide how you are going to face it. You either could use the Japanese protocol that included ten years of assessment with an international committee of scientists—which a Chinese scientist was on—to conduct an analysis and monitor it, which was internationally collaborative and fully transparent. Or you could use China’s COVID-19 protocols that were largely hidden or deceptive and had a complete lack of international cooperation. The real question going forward is, when the next big event happens, which protocol do you want to follow?
I do think the international scientific community must start using your outside voices. You can have all your meetings with each other, share papers, do peer reviews, but still, what you do will be under attack. Either we are going to have China’s protocols, or we are going to use the Japanese protocol. Now, I am sorry, but there will be a pop quiz in the future, and you guys have to decide, because all your protocols and all your academics are under attack here, not mine. Stop with the papers and use your outside voices. Get off your asses and start screaming.
It is not only important for scientists to hear, but also for scientists to say, because the next time we do have a crisis, you can either have people trusting scientists, or have them asking where you were when we needed you. If you don’t like where the public is in terms of backing up scientists, you may have to take a moment and look in the mirror. It is not entirely your fault, but there are some ways you likely contributed to the lack of confidence.
Parikh: That is an important, clarifying call. I would like to wrap up by asking how your current role as Ambassador is different from, or similar to, other positions you have held during your long political career?
Ambassador Emanuel: Well, it is different, and it also is not. There is this idea that if you are a diplomat, you have to wear a gray flannel suit, smoke a pipe, and think big thoughts. But it is just politics, or another variation of politics. You have people, you have their interests, and you try to work their interests into some kind of collaboration. It is taking a policy and then figuring out the politics around it.
I started in this position in January 2022, and war broke out in Ukraine just a month after. Very early on in the war, I was meeting with Japan’s METI Minister (from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry) to discuss how to get energy resources to Europe—energy security is a sensitive topic for Japan, given the 2011 Fukushima disaster. I made it clear to him that exporting energy was not anti-Russia but instead pro-Europe, as Europe includes some of the first countries that sent resources to Japan after the disaster, so all you are doing is paying back a friend. It is not about Russia at all; it is about helping out the same people who helped you out in your time of need. Soon after, it’s announced that Japan is sending resources to Europe. Through my experiences as mayor and chief of staff, I learned how to take something and reposition it so that it can look different and taste different, and it has led to results here, too. That is just politics. Maybe I should have put on my gray flannel suit and had a pipe out, but I do not do that.
Another example is when I came to this job, I realized that the image of the United States is that we arrive in six black vans, the ambassador or government official gets out of the car, runs to a meeting, runs back out to the car, and does not say anything else. It was awful, and the worst image of a superpower. I argued, since I have been taking trains my whole life, I’m going to take trains here. Now it has become a thing, and when Secretary of State Antony Blinken came, he even took the train. It’s become public diplomacy. I learned, being mayor, the importance of street-level, one-on-one politics.
I’m not saying politics and diplomacy are exactly the same, but the idea that policy and diplomacy exist on two opposite ends of a spectrum is completely antiquated. I think, in all your jobs, there are cumulative things you learn and don’t learn. Having a history, a reputation, can be quite helpful. But, in conclusion, all in all, this idea that politics and diplomacy are two separate entities is a complete fallacy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“NASA, Government of Japan Formalize Gateway Partnership for Artemis Program,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), January 13, 2021, www.nasa.gov/news-release/nasa-government-of-japan-formalize-gateway-partnership-for-artemis-program.
“The Artemis Accords,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), accessed October 26, 2023, https://www.nasa.gov/artemis-accords.
“Semiconductors@Purdue,” Purdue University, accessed October 26, 2023, https://engineering.purdue.edu/semiconductors/semiconductors-at-purdue.
“Memorandum of Cooperation in Education Signed Between the United States and Japan,” U.S. Department of State, May 20, 2023, www.state.gov/memorandum-of-cooperation-in-education-signed-between-the-united-states-and-japan.
Lynn Sweet, “Rahm Emanuel crafts $150 million quantum computing research deal with U. of Chicago, U. of Tokyo,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 18, 2023, https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/2023/5/18/23729270/us-ambassador-to-japan-rahm-emanuel-crafts-150-million-quantum-computing-research-deal-google-ibm