Friends or Rivals? The Insider's Account of U.S.-Japan Relations

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Friends or Rivals? The Insider's Account of U.S.-Japan Relations

By Michael H. Armacost
Columbia University Press, 1996
271 pp. $24.95
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A superb book that can be profitably read at many levels. First and foremost, it is a valuable firsthand account of U.S.-Japan relations during the critical period 1989-93, when Armacost was the American ambassador. Then, as now, the issue was how to adjust a Cold War alliance to a post-Cold War era whose outlines are still unclear. Armacost struggled bravely to promote greater coordination of U.S. and Japanese policies, but his efforts were almost always frustrated.

On economic issues, he blames both sides. Increasing the U.S. savings rate -- necessary to restore American economic health -- was not central to the Bush administration's congressional agenda. U.S. investment in Japan was paltry. Expanding market access for American goods is pick-and-shovel work, with no prospect it will change much anytime soon. Because of its unwillingness to take on the rice lobby and liberalize agricultural trade, Japan offered little cooperation in concluding the Uruguay Round of GATT. Political gridlock in both countries prevented substantial coordination of macroeconomic policy. On security issues, only modest adjustments were made to longstanding patterns of defense cooperation. Japan remained dependent on the United States but was curiously disengaged from regional and global security. It removed the legal obstacles to exchanging defense technology with the United States but passed on little technology. Fundamental asymmetries in the alliance remained.

In Armacost's view, Washington and Tokyo could have coordinated their trade, China, and aid policies more fully but for entrenched political interests. He is particularly critical of the obstructionist tendencies of Japan's Ministry of Finance. Still, Armacost is not a pessimist. He says that powerful forces of change visible in Japan are propelling acceptance of a more open market, competitive politics, transparent regulation, and cosmopolitan society. But his scope goes well beyond U.S.-Japan relations. A keen discussion of the larger forces of the global economy and the enormous frustrations and benefits of increasing economic interdependence, an astute analysis of the changed international and regional security situation after the Cold War, and, in a few pages, the best analysis ever written of the special features of the alliance and the likely severe difficulties of redistributing security burdens make this a genuine must-read for anyone interested in U.S.-Japan relations, the Asian security situation, or U.S. foreign policy more generally.

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