Being No. 1 Calls For Leadership, Not Just Bashing Rivals

By , Richard A. Nenneman is editor in chief of the Monitor.

THE "new world order" is not settling in gently.

But this is not a column about the breakup of Yugoslavia or the future of the Commonwealth of Independent States. It is about America and its current dangerous excess of election-year rhetoric.

Is it really necessary for the president to say that "we are No. 1," or the "undisputed world leader"? There is an overtone of the Hertz rental ads in proclaiming oneself at the top of the heap. Maybe it's only a carry-over from his automobile-oriented trade mission to Japan in January.

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Given the poor planning that went into that trip, there should be little wonder that the Japanese have felt it politically necessary to make the limited criticisms they have made in recent days about American work habits. Japanese politicians have their constituencies, too.

Just as off-putting as these boastful remarks about being No. 1 are the political ads being shown on television for the New Hampshire primary. One shows an abandoned factory building in New Hampshire, failing to mention that old-style manufacturing jobs have been leaving New England for the past two generations.

To say that the United States is No. 1 today is to overplay the similarities between now and 1945. Then the US was the only major nation physically unscathed by war. Today our own economic infrastructure and social fabric need rebuilding.

If we are indeed No. 1, and if we are building a new world order, one of the first orders of business would be to assure Japan and Germany that we will fight to get them permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council.

If we are No. 1, our leaders should be explaining to the American people why it is that the Japanese still feel insular, why the American relationship is so important to them. Then we would be in a stronger position to deal seriously with the very real problems that do exist about entry of some US products into Japan. If we really are No. 1, we could listen carefully to the people of Washington State who would like to keep their baseball team in Seattle even if it is Japanese-owned.

The Germans do not need, at the moment, the same kind of defense by responsible political leaders in the US that the Japanese could use. But we should do more than we are doing to explain Germany's pivotal role in European affairs. Germany has been criticized for rushing to recognize the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, areas that for hundreds of years were connected to the old political boundaries of pre-1914 Europe.

Germany is also apprehensive about the fate of the former East-bloc countries, as well as the new republics in the old Soviet Union. A look at the map of Europe makes it clear why there is concern: If the millions of people in Eastern Europe who would like to emigrate to a place where life is freer and one's economic outlook more promising, Germany is the first target. This is why there has been so much German interest in rebuilding the new countries in Eastern Europe as quickly as possible.

The fact is that being No. 1 assumes a responsibility for the rest of the world which the US can no longer fulfill. Major adjustments must be made in this country as Defense Department funds are increasingly allocated to other uses and as the nation tries to do something more substantive about its own serious domestic problems.

The US needs the rest of the world, particularly the strength of Germany and Japan, to help it implement its vision of the new world order. An election year gives all the candidates a built-in forum to articulate their vision of this new world.

Not since 1945 have we been more in need of leaders who could try to pull it all together - the domestic along with the foreign-policy side - and give their vision of what this great nation can do in the decades ahead, both for itself and the world. In the end, whoever can articulate this vision just might find it politically more profitable than Japan-bashing.

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