A Failure of Cognition


January 17, 1992|By HELENA COBBAN

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- "The characteristic reliance on intuition . . . had blocked the objective cognition of the modern world.'' Thus one Japanese writer explained an earlier Japanese government's move into its disastrous conflict with the United States. Fifty years later, after the embarrassment of President Bush's visit to Tokyo, we can ask what is blocking his administration's ''objective cognition'' of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Nor should citizens of the U.S. and Japan be the only ones who ask this a question. For the relationship between these two powers will be a major pillar of whatever new world ''order'' -- or disorder -- may emerge from the ruins of the 45-year Cold War.

The reference to World War II does not imply that I fear another U.S.-Japan war is on the horizon. But then, a war is not the only bad thing that might happen between our nations. What about a Japanese decision to disengage from the U.S. -- and from the U.S. economy?

One well-informed Japanese friend tells me that hostility to the U.S. has grown alarmingly among nationalist elements in his country, more or less in lockstep as the Soviet military threat has declined. And disengagement from the U.S. market, he says, is increasingly one of the policies they advocate.

Given the interdependence between the two economies, is Japanese disengagement really something that Americans should worry about? Yes, it is.

A Japanese pullout from the American economy may not have as precipitous consequences as President Eisenhower's decision in November 1956 to pull the plug on Fed support for the British pound. But a decision by Japanese investors to de-emphasize investment in the U.S., to the benefit of other capital-hungry economies in Asia, could rapidly start to corrode America's power and well-being.

Has President Bush -- generally a man with a sure touch in foreign affairs -- thought all this through? Did he have a good picture of the hopes the Japanese entertained concerning this important visit? They had hoped it would symbolize a new strategic partnership between the two powers, providing steady joint leadership for the Asian-Pacific zone in the post-Cold War years.

And then Mr. Bush turned up in Tokyo with Lee Iacocca and his equally churlish chums. If their presence and the agenda it imposed upon the visit looked like ''old whine in old bottles'' here in the U.S., what on earth did it look like in Japan? The answer is, disappointing. The much-famed ''Asian courtesy'' prevented Prime Minister Miyazawa from saying as much to Mr. Bush's face. And the visit notably failed to provide Mr. Miyazawa the life-belt he needed to keep his own troubled administration HTC afloat. The lesson for Japanese politicians seems to be clear. The next time there is a high-level encounter with the Americans they will likely insist on less Asian courtesy, and more (domestically popular) straight talking.

If Mr. Bush had known how the Tokyo fiasco would be received, worldwide as well as inside the U.S., no doubt he would have planned the visit differently. What was it, then, that blocked his ''objective cognition of the modern world?'' As so often in human affairs, what caused the mistakes was inattention, more than malice.

But this inattention to the realities of U.S.-Japan relations is no small matter. It is an inattention that the Bush administration can and must correct.

Non-government analysts note that, for decades, successive administrations have relied much more heavily on China hands than on Japan specialists when staffing the bureaus handling East Asian affairs. Mr. Bush, a former ambassador to Beijing, merely continued this trend.

But which country will be more important to the U.S. in the 1990s? Mr. Bush should insist that his national-security adviser assemble, as soon as possible, a high-powered team of Japan specialists for consultation and top-quality staff work.

Such a group could provide good advice on how Japanese sensitivities ruffled by the recent trip can best be smoothed. They could build on the considerable fund of goodwill toward the U.S. that still exists in Japan, to make sound recommendations about the nature of a new partnership in Asia.

But all the best work of foreign-affairs specialists will be useless for the country if our own economic house is not put in order. And in that task, given their performance to date, it should not be the auto company bosses who are asked to take the lead!

Helena Cobban wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.

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