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Bush in Japan: Enduring Lessons

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WHITE House protestations aside, no one in either the United States or Japanese governments was - or should be - very happy about the outcome of George Bush's Tokyo trip.

Envisioned as a mission of goodwill to celebrate a growing partnership between the world's two greatest economic powers, the trip, America's first major foray into post-cold-war economic diplomacy, degenerated into an embarrassing squabble over minor trade matters. It is crucial to try to understand what went wrong and why, if we are to do a better job of advancing US interests in the future.

First, the country needs to discard cold-war patterns of thought and action. Military rivals look into zero-sum games. But among economic competitors, there are always areas of mutually beneficial agreement. Cooperation among economic partners can never be taken for granted, and must always be accompanied by hard bargaining. But common ground can be found that will bolster economic prosperity in both nations.

At the same time, unlike nuclear stalemates and armed conflicts, economic challenges rarely lend themselves to dramatic once-and-for-all breakthroughs. Instead of test-bans, cease-fires, and unconditional surrenders, progress in economics is incremental, the product of prolonged give-and-take. President Bush had no chance of pulling off a quick turnabout in US-Japan trade links, and he and his advisers should never have created any such expectations.

In this brave new world of economics, the real enemy will sometimes be ourselves. US as well as Japanese consumers have good reasons to prefer Toyotas to Chryslers, and these have more to do with failures in American management and engineering than with "unfair" Japanese trade practices.

Second, we surely need to define our national economic interests, but we must realize that this is a difficult task given the size and complexity of our economy. Some things that are good for General Motors are also good for the US, but not all things at all times. It is a puzzle why Bush and his advisers decided to turn the spotlight on overpaid executives from a declining industry, rather than showing off our more dynamic business sectors - in telecommunications, computers, and finance, for example.


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