THE United States and Japan must conclude a new political compact to govern their relations. Without it, constant bickering over trade issues will steadily erode ties between them - damaging these two nations as well as the global political and economic system. Three facts dictate this conclusion. The end of the Cold War is dramatically increasing the impact of economics on international politics. The US and Japan, as the world's two leading single-nation economies, are charged with major responsibility for building the future. Yet they will not be able to work together or even to pursue their separate self-interests unless they are guided by a shared sense of political purpose.
The earthquake in the Soviet empire, the Single European Act, Japan's coming of age, and declining US political and economic preeminence present the challenge - but also the opportunity - for an historically unique development: to achieve, without war, both a basic restructuring of global politics and a radical but orderly shifting of power and influence among nations.
Given the magnitude of events - ranging from the collapse of communist ideology to the creation of a worldwide market - it is startling that the US and Japan have permitted their relations to deteriorate to the point of being denominated in terms of a single function: The bilateral balance of trade.
With the mutual process of adjusting to new realities posed in these narrow terms, there is little hope of a successful outcome. In particular, the US Structural Impediments Initiative is resented in Japan as a condescending effort to direct the course of Japanese society, and it comes at a time when turmoil in Japanese domestic politics precludes the response demanded by the US Congress.
Fault lies on both sides. Americans believe (wrongly) that gaining increased access to Japanese markets would eliminate the US trade deficit. Japanese pretend that economic acts can be insulated from political consequences. Blame does not correct the problem. That can only be done by statesmanship of the highest order - conducted not by economists and businessmen who currently dominate US-Japanese relations, but by far-sighted political leaders.
The first step is to recognize and reiterate what the US and Japan have in common. Both nations practice democratic politics, though each in its own way. Both are wedded to free market economies, though the details are different. They share a similar strategic outlook. They are coming to understand those international problems, from poverty to pollution, that threaten them both. To be sure, the US and Japan are culturally distinct, but this need not be an impediment: The two nations should be looking to build a partnership rather than a marriage.
The next step is to reassess the US-Japanese security relationship in light of recent international developments. Most immediately, the rapid improvement in East-West relations, especially in Europe, obscures the fact that Soviet naval power in the Far East is formidable and that US-Japanese cooperation remains critical. Indeed, even with a radically reduced Soviet challenge, there will be a continuing joint role for the US Seventh Fleet and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force - the latter properly constrained by Asian attitudes. Thus Americans must recognize that US forces are in Japan primarily to protect US interests, and should not be fully funded by Tokyo, as is now being demanded by some congressional leaders. And Japanese must recognize that their security is supported by US forces, which must therefore have wide latitude for training and related activities. Silence about these shared interests, prompted by political sensitivities, serves neither nation.
Burden-sharing must also be seen in the broadest context - in terms of security. That means counting everything that Japan does, not just militarily, but also in areas like foreign aid, where it has now surpassed the US. It means seeing the virtues of another unique possibility: for Japan to translate economic power into political influence without passing through a period of further military buildup.
The key is for Japan to begin accepting responsibility for helping to manage the international economic system - and the emerging political system. As other nations have found, that requires pursuing broader interests in order to secure self interest. It also requires that other nations accept such an expanded Japanese role. And it means ending the habit of writing alliance strategies in Washington while expecting Tokyo only to write the checks to pay for them. In particular, Japan will need to share leadership in designing responses to the agenda of new global challenges.
Developing a renewed political purpose will only happen if the two governments develop a new political compact, covering relations across the board and bringing together all parts of both governments, as well as private-sector groups. Only with such a dedicated and visible political effort, going to the core of the relationship, can the US and Japan put in perspective the trade issues that are now driving them apart.