As the Clinton Administration inches toward another showdown with Japan over our growing trade-gap--likely to top $60 billion this year--Americans are reading Tom Clancy's new bestseller, "Debt of Honor," which also deals with a confrontation between the two countries.
Clancy's novel begins with a wholly plausible scenario. Some improperly galvanized gas tanks manufactured in Japan and shipped to a Japanese-owned auto plant in Kentucky explode and kill six Americans. Before this incident, a U.S. manufacturer of a supposedly superior gas tank had been stonewalled during negotiations over greater American access to the Japanese market. The congressman from the American manufacturer's district sees a chance to make a point and introduces--to wild public and congressional applause--the Trade Reform Act. The legislation would subject Japanese imports into the United States to the same treatment that American imports into Japan receive.
Japan's well-paid Washington lobbyists are powerless (and Clancy is bitingly funny and accurate about this breed of toadies). The freighters delivering Japanese cars to U.S. ports ride at anchor as the cars are inspected one by one. Japanese stocks collapse as manufacturers realize their main market is closing.
At this point, I visualized readers leaping from their recliners to telephone their congresspersons in support of new "get-tough-with-Japan" legislation.
But wait. We are only about one-third of the way through Clancy's plot. By giving the Japanese a taste of their own economic policies, we push them too far. Just as in 1941, when the Japanese felt cornered by the United States' oil and trade embargoes and launched their attack on Pearl Harbor, in Clancy's novel they retaliate by crippling the Pacific Fleet, paralyzing our financial markets, reoccupying Saipan and Guam and threatening us with a secretly acquired nuclear capacity.
The rest of the novel deals with clandestine CIA operations, cooperative Russians, duplicitous Chinese, good Japanese politicians versus bad Japanese politicians, a highly placed American turncoat and feats of military derring-do by hero Jack Ryan. And, of course, war between the United States and Japan is narrowly averted.
But the chief message of Clancy's book is that the United States must strengthen its military capability. He bellyaches about our underpowered Navy and is still very high on the importance of the CIA, even in the post-Cold War era. His novel reinforces traditional conceptions of American power based on military might rather than dealing with the industrial underpinnings of such power.
When it comes to the issue of difficult trade negotiations with the Japanese, his advice seems to be to give in, because otherwise they may "go ballistic," literally and figuratively.
If this is what average Americans also believe, then they will be happy when U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor announces some sort of face-saving agreement to open some of Japan's government procurements and sweeps under the rug auto parts and other important sectors.
But let us now try to plot the novel that Clancy did not write, the one in which we bumble along for a few more years while our trade deficit with Japan continues to grow. One day an incident occurs; perhaps it's a faulty Japanese car that causes American deaths, perhaps it's a Japanese-constructed building that collapses because bid-rigging and graft have caused the contractor to skimp on the proper grade of cement and steel. This time, the American public and Congress go ballistic. They demand not a new trade law but a total embargo on products made in Japan.
The Japanese, of course, retaliate. They will strangle our financial markets. They will destroy the U.S. government's solvency because by then they will be the chief buyers of government securities. And backing up all this financial and economic prowess will be a nuclear capability, something that can be delivered by one of the FS-Xs they are now learning to build. Of course, they won't have to resort to this; that is why they're working so hard now to conquer by non-military means.
By then, our President will be some jut-jawed Republican Jack Ryan type; perhaps his name will Dan Quayle or Ollie North. And he will still revel in all those military toys that our military-industrial complex will have built (instead of the cars, VCRs, computers, fax machines we might have produced). But if he tries to use them, the rest of the world will brand us a bully and an international outlaw. And so we won't, and a major war will be narrowly averted. A lone American fanatic may try to steer his airplane into the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Tokyo, but the Japanese will forgive us this lapse. And the rest of us will live happily ever after, working for the Japanese.