Call it U.S. exceptionalism or a deep distrust of government. Whatever it is, Americans have demonstrated a historical preference for divided government as a check against one-party dominance. But nobody had ever expected a U.S. election with a hairline split and as much divisiveness as the one that just ended. With a vote margin of 0.01 percent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Florida, in the House of Representatives the Republicans have a five seat margin, and the Senate is split right down the middle between Republicans and Democrats.

And despite efforts of Bush and Gore to present a conciliatory tone in their late evening speeches, the pundits are predicting that this choice for divided government could end in stalemate, political gridlock and a weakened presidency. Overall, the media groan, this was a lose-lose election for everyone and a dismal way to begin the 21st century.

But wait. What about foreign policy and all those countries, like Japan, that take delight in a weakened or at least less hegemonic America? The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Foley, tried to speak to this issue in Washington on Nov. 20 when he suggested that no matter who the next president was, American policy toward Japan would not “produce a radical shift in relations.”

That is certainly not what Tokyo wanted to hear from its ambassador friend after eight years of Clinton “Japan bashing” and then “Japan passing.” Foley may have had good intentions when he spoke, but the fact is that no matter who becomes president, or ambassador for that matter, it makes little or no difference when it comes to U.S. policy toward Japan. What produces the radical shifts is American economic performance and that, and only that, is what explains Clinton’s radical Japan policy swings.

The record of nearly three decades documents that the intensity of relations and trade conflict between Tokyo and Washington is determined almost exclusively by the U.S. growth rate, adjusted for inflation, and little else. It’s a numbers issue — when the U.S. economy goes badly, domestic special-interests get moving and the trade war heats up.

Which political party is in power or who is president has proven quite inconsequential over time. When U.S. economic growth is good, no matter what Japan does, it’s not of much concern to a Republican or a Democratic administration.

Because the U.S. economy has been so robust during the last three or four years, even taking into consideration Japan’s huge, growing trade surplus with Washington, there has been little reason for Tokyo to worry about tensions in the bilateral relationship.

Call it “Japan passing” or “Japan nothing” or whatever you want — there has really been nothing for Americans or Japanese to stay up nights worrying about. That is why Japan was not among the discussion topics in the yearlong U.S. presidential election and that is also why the new president is not going to give it much attention either. That is, not initially.

Add to all of this the fact that the Japanese economy has been underperforming in recent years and it is easy to explain why recent poll data shows that U.S. and Japanese public perceptions of each other have never been better. Economic issues with Tokyo have been on the margins of American concerns and military ties, which are usually upgraded every 10 years, were reinforced with the recent upgrading of U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines. China is joining the World Trade Organization, North Korea is joining the real world and Tokyo is preoccupied trying to dig its economy out of a decade-long slump. What else could Bush ask for?

Foley is not the only one in the American-policy forecasting business with blurred judgment. During the last several months, a number of reports have surfaced in Washington and Tokyo outlining what the next president should or should not do with Japan on trade and security issues. For the Republicans, Richard Armitage has led the wonk attack by publishing: “The United States and Japan: Advancing Toward a Mature Partnership,” a report that put a focus on enhanced Japanese military improvement, but did not have very much to say about trade issues.

Once again, this is what the pundits think Tokyo wants to hear. Traditionally, Japanese have preferred Republicans in the White House because they tend to let Tokyo do what it wants as long as it plays ball on regional security issues. Tokyo also hopes that with China’s entry into the WTO, America might now spend a little more time “talking up” the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Tokyo is also counting on the fact that Bush will have an impressive network of advisers and that they will have easy access to them. Bush will make about 5,000 political appointments in the executive branch, but only about 30 of these people will be dealing with Japan policy. Thanks to the “rotating door” of Washington politics, all of them have been involved in Asian affairs for years and their views are well known in Tokyo. Having some genuine Japan expertise in Washington will certainly be a big improvement over the Clinton era.

Still, there are too many unknowns for anyone to suggest that there will be no “radical shifts” in Japan-U.S. ties. If former Gen. Colin Powell takes over the State Department, this will weaken the Defense Department’s intervention in foreign policy, as was the case in the Clinton administration.

Foreign policy adviser Condoleeza Rice, former Undersecretary of State Robert B. Zoellick and Asia expert Richard Armitage share Bush’s view that American forces abroad are overextended, but they are all leery of giving Japan too much independent capability. Andrew Card, designated to be Bush’s White House chief of staff, was head of the American Automotive Manufacturers Association in the 1990s and helped push U.S.-Japan trade talks toward trade war. And Lawrence B. Lindsey, chief economic adviser to Bush, went on record Dec. 1 at the American Enterprise Institute saying the Clinton administration has sent mixed signals to Japan on economic policy and indicated that a Bush regime would be different. But even he was intentionally vague on the specifics.

The Republican Congress, which is now making new demands for access to Japan’s automobile market, will no doubt find it refreshing to be included in White House policy. During the campaign, Bush promised to lower the level of partisan conflict, and given his record in Texas and the fact that Congress is barely controlled by Republicans, he is likely to be more successful working with Congress. A unified front between the White House and Congress on Japan policy might not be what Tokyo had been hoping for, especially since it will out of necessity include a heavy dose of Democratic Party opinion on trade issues.

So here we are back at the beginning of a new administration, exactly where Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush and Bill Clinton started. The big difference between those presidents and the new Bush administration is that the U.S. economy is still relatively strong and Japan is finally moving in the direction everyone has been trying to push it for a decade. So in the short-term, there is the prospect for continued smooth relations.

And as long as the U.S. economy stays robust, Washington will not have to worry about Japan’s large trade surplus with the U.S. Only if the U.S. economy sours or the Japanese boost their exports to the U.S. — both very likely near-term scenarios — will Japan become a pressing issue for the Bush administration. If U.S. economic indicators, especially the growth rate, are as clouded as recent data suggests, then promises of smoother bilateral ties or no radical shifts in U.S. policy could evaporate very quickly.

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