It was a great moment in Washington and cheers were unrestrained in political circles when the news came in that the Japanese government had agreed to a "voluntary" limit during the next three years on the number of cars to be sent to the United States. But a happy event for the politicians who must worry about votes in next year's midterm elections is not a happy event for people who have to think about the long-term welfare of the US.
The restraints are "voluntary" only in the most superficial sense. They were extracted by back-room pressures. The Japanese were told they had to do it to avoid worse restraints by legislation. The episode left a bitter after-taste among the Japanese who were thus given a second reason in one week to wonder just how much Washington values their friendship and alliance.
Officially, Japan is America's most important friend, partner, and ally in all of Asia. A foreign policy statement issued by the State Department on April 24 says: "Our relationship with Japan is not only the cornerstone of our policy in Asia but one of the most close and vital relationships in our global alliance structure."
April 24 was the same day that President Reagan cancelled the embargo on US grain shipments to the Soviet Union -- with one day only of advance notice to Japan. So, on one and the same day, Washington calls the Japanese "the cornerstone of our policy in Asia" and humiliates them by the surprise cancellation of grain sanctions.
That abrupt change in US policy embarrassed the Japanese because it left them with a few modest sanctions of their own against the Soviets. It humiliated them because it advertised the fact that the relationship is not a true partnership. Were it a true partnership they would have been both consulted and informed before such an important change of direction in foreign policy.
In the background is an earlier episode when they were also neither consulted nor informed in advance. That was when the news broke that Henry Kissinger had been in Peking and had arranged a visit there for President Nixon. The Japanese were caught with an anti-Chinese posture which overnight became obsolete. They had to trail Washington in accepting the most important foreign policy change since the communist revolution in China.
After the cancellation of the grain embargo and, one week later, the extraction of that "voluntary" curb on Japanese car exports, the Japanese may be pardoned for wondering whether Washington really considers them "the cornerstone" of US policy in Asia. Does one treat essential allies quite that cavalierly?
The essence of the matter is that the Reagan administration is a long way from understanding and appreciating the real shape of the world we are all living in today. The US is at the center of an alliance system which is vital to American security. No one is quicker than a Reaganite to talk about the Soviet menace. And with it goes a statement of the importance of building up the American defense posture. But, even if Congress approves of all the new guns Mr. Reagan is proposing, those new guns would begin to reach the troops in the field only in 1984 or 1985. It will take at least three years to even begin to improve the relative military power of the US against the USSR. During those three years the security of the US rests in its alliance system. Without the allies, the US would (if the Reaganite picture is correct) be at the mercy of Soviet weaponry.
Cultivating allies is an absolute first priority consideration for US security today. Without the alliance Moscow could have a field day. No individual country could stand alone against Soviet blandishment or pressure. It is the alliance system which makes it possible to be independent of Moscow. Moscow.
The most important ally in Asia is Japan. The most important allies in Europe are West Germany, France, and Great Britain. Of those three the key is West Germany because it is the front line of NATO.
When the Reagan team begins to cultivate allies we will know that it is conducting serious foreign policy. So long as it treat s them as Japan has just been treated, we know that it is still playing domestic politics with foreign policy.