A leadership vacuum on trade issues

Richard Holbrooke

February 25, 1992|By Richard Holbrooke

IN THE last two months, U.S.-Japanese relations have deteriorated more quickly than at any time since the Tokyo anti-American demonstrations of 1960. Yet nothing fundamental has changed between the two nations. It is quite simply the result of a failure of leadership on both sides.

That this has occurred is particularly puzzling because George Bush and Kiichi Miyazawa are both personal friends and knowledgeable about each other's countries. Neither could have wanted this to happen, yet ultimately the current crisis can be laid to their own actions and statements.

When President Bush unwisely decided to change the focus of his December trip from global cooperation on trade to solving his own domestic economic problems, the implicit message was clear: Japan was responsible for America's current economic lethargy. Mr. Miyazawa's response was equally surprising. As the most fluent English-speaking leader in Japanese history, with hundreds of American friends (and an American son-in-law), he surely must have understood that his comments about the American "work ethic" would be heard as blatantly anti-American.

The truth, of course, is that trade issues cannot be reduced to simple formulas. The U.S., as President Bush himself admitted during his Asian trip in December, is not always "pure" itself. The two nations' economic differences have actually narrowed significantly over the very same period during which the noise level politically has risen. For example, the American trade deficit with Japan has decreased 27 percent over the last three years.

Yet while the Japanese have taken many positive steps on trade issues that once seemed unlikely or even impossible, they have failed utterly to explain themselves to the American public.

Both sides know that the world's two mightiest economies (together amounting to 40 percent of the world's total gross national product) have a responsibility to address pressing global problems that received insufficient attention during the Cold War.

But just when the Cold War ended and the moment had arrived to put substantive flesh on the rhetorical bones of the ideal of closer cooperation, two weak leaders allowed domestic politics to turn them away from their original -- and worthy -- game plan and instead pander to their own protectionist constituencies. In short, political weakness drove Mr. Bush and Mr. Miyazawa into positions with which neither man could possibly feel comfortable and from which they must now seek to extricate themselves.

Instead of postponing his trip to Washington, as he has just done, the pro-American Mr. Miyazawa should reschedule his visit to the pro-Japanese Mr. Bush. Then both men should tell the people of both their nations the truth: While we have many problems to resolve, there are even more opportunities beckoning us if we work together. If Mr. Bush and Mr. Miyazawa continue to abdicate their responsibilities as leaders of two great nations, both countries could descend into an economic trade war whose effect would be disastrous.

Surely, Mr. Bush and Mr. Miyazawa both know this. Why don't they say so, loudly and clearly?

Richard Holbrooke, a managing director at Lehman Brothers, was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Carter administration.

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