President Bush's approach to his meetings in Japan illustrates much of what is wrong in America today.
The agenda, in the president's words, was "jobs, jobs, jobs." The strategy was for the Japanese to import more American-made goods -- especially cars and auto parts. The assumption underlying this approach is that somehow Japanese buying practices are at the root of our trade imbalance, and more fundamentally, our problems in productivity and competitiveness. It would be hard to be wider of the mark.
Leading a delegation of business leaders -- auto executives senior among them -- in an effort to shore up a weakening political position at home did several things, all of them bad.
The Bush visit reinforced the growing Japanes perception that the United States is in decline by trying to foist off products in Japan that the American public is less and less willing to buy. It is understood in the American automobile industry that, were it not for the "voluntary export restraints" that limit Japanese access to our market to its current level, Japan's vehicle exports to this country would jump from the current 30 percent level to close to 40 percent.
Mr. Bush also demeaned the presidency by engaging in what clearly should be a cabinet-level activity. Rather than covering a broad range of issues central to U.S. and Japanese interests, the visit was, sadly, reduced to a hapless political event.
Finally, the trip signaled to the Japanese that Mr. Bush is considerable trouble at home. And while the Japanese would prefer to continue to work with someone they know, they are not going to offer significant concessions to a president who may be on his way out. Unwittingly, perhaps, Mr. Bush undercut his effectiveness by his short-sighted and ill-conceived strategy of turning a presidential visit into an embarrassing plea for help.
There are significant problems in the U.S.-Japan relationship that need to be addressed, and clearly trade is one of them. But it is not the only one, and should not be tackled independent of other issues, including national security, assistance to the lesser developed economies of East Asia and the nations of the former Soviet Union, and measures to pull the world out of a crippling recession.
Unfortunately, very little occurred that was constructive. What the American public probably does not know is that promises to expand Japan's purchase of U.S. manufactured goods, such as auto parts, were already made. Toyota will more than double its purchase to $5 billion and Nissan will increase some 250 percent to $3.3 billion. Mazda and other major auto manufacturers will follow suit.
As for streamlining the process for exporting automobiles to Japan, while action should be taken by the Japanese government, any such measures will remain irrelevant as long as Detroit makes cars in which there is very little interest among Japanese consumers. When Detroit gets serious about penetrating the Japanese market by designing and engineering a car for that market, car sales will follow. Just ask BMW, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen and Volvo. They play in the same game as U.S. automakers and have been far more successful.
There are U.S. companies -- many of them -- that have enjoyed considerable success in the Japanese market. They have done it by persistence, commitment, offering quality products and service, and by tailoring operations to the local market. And they did this in a Japanese market that was far more hostile to direct foreign investment and importation than is now the case.
Mr. Bush's trip can be seen as but one event in a chain of many that continues to obscure the unpleasant truth. What Americans don't want to hear, especially the business and political leaders who were instrumental in leading us into our current mess, is that America itself is responsible for its continuing financial and industrial decline. Bashing the Japanese may make us feel better, but it doesn't alter the fundamental truth that somewhere along the line we as a nation strayed from the values that were the cornerstone of our success.
We lost our commitment to value, excellence and service -- all essential for competing in the world's markets. We follow destructive, short-sighted business policies that pit labor against management and the long-term interests of our companies against the personal financial gain of a few. General Motors' policy regarding executive bonuses on the one hand and massive layoffs on the other is nothing less than obscene. If disproportionate financial reward is indeed the only way to attract and retain "competent" management, then we as a nation will strangle on our greed.