As the Clinton White House refines its global agenda for the second term, it would do well to begin by meditating on the unprecedented twists and turns of its policy towards America’s central ally in the Pacific: Japan, At the start, the Clinton team was determined to defy the status quo, placing trade and technology imbalances well ahead of traditional concerns for the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Yet by the end of its first term the administration had reversed course and headed down the same “defense first, trade later” path trod by its predecessors.
How and why did this turnabout come about? Is a less confrontational approach a sign of growing maturity in the administration’s Far East strategy or a silent admission of its failure to solve the “Japan problem” once and for all?’ More specifically, what are the fruits of the labor put into Japan policy over the past four years? Is the Japanese market today dramatically more open to American trade and investment than it was in 1993? If so, how much of the progress is due to the U.S. “results-oriented” line in trade negotiations, and how much is the result of structural changes in Japan’s economy triggered by the bursting of its late 1980s financial “bubble”? Should “Clinton II” be content with merely monitoring and ensuring Japanese compliance with the trade agreements made under “Clinton I,” as some suggest, or should the administration launch another ambitious trade initiative more in tune with the changing nature of the Japanese economic system?