IN recent years the foreign policy of the United States has sometimes appeared to be unfortunately two-pronged: (1) Accommodate thine adversaries; (2) badger thy friends. North Korea and Cuba rated compromise and a helping hand. Japan, Britain, Germany, and France received unexpected slaps.
There is something to be said for trying to bring the last of the old Stalinist states into the mainstream of freely traded ideas and goods. But irritating important allies, sometimes simultaneously, is perplexing and counterproductive. Fortunately that's changing. Washington has ended most of its tiffs with allies.
Except those with Japan. Current trade fights over cars and air routes threaten to unleash animosities in both nations that could undermine one of the pillars of world stability and progress - the diplomatic/military cooperation of the trans-Pacific economic giants.
American trade representative Mickey Kantor is following a stick-and-stick policy. His team, to show it means business, has added the threat of airline sanctions to the ticking ultimatum of $5.9 billion in punitive tariffs on Japanese luxury cars if Japanese firms don't buy more US-made cars and car parts.
Japan has responded with a stick-and-carrot approach. The stick: lists of American goods on which Tokyo could slap $5.9 billion in retaliatory tariffs. The carrot: Japan's suggestion that it would settle the auto dispute by manufacturing an additional 400,000 cars in the US Midwest - and up the percentage of American-made parts.
That's a clever bargaining bid, since the Clinton administration's political aim has been to please the car- and car parts-producing Midwest.
But the Kantor team is taking brinksmanship to the brink. The Japanese team is trying to appear equally adamant.
Beyond such joint brinkmanship lies trade war and casualties: lost jobs, higher consumer prices, and public anger.
We're talking here about two of the most advanced, intelligent, law-based societies on earth. They certainly are capable of finding a mutually useful compromise under the trade rules they've both agreed to. Perhaps the Japanese offer of more cars made in the US (with more American parts) is a good place to start.
To paraphrase that much-quoted Churchill maxim: Jaw jaw is better than trade war.