US barges in with a Clinton smile

Is the only superpower too assertive, or not active enough? Japan visit shows need to tread carefully.

American power is most keenly felt overseas when the United States military is sent into action. A close runner-up might be a presidential visit.

From the mechanics to the message, the voyages of the US leader underscore America's dominance in world politics, economics, and culture in the late 20th century. Certainly no Roman emperor required the services of so many people to get from Point A to Point B, not to mention advance teams, bulletproof limousines flown in for the occasion, and a corps of reporters.

All of which makes it all the more remarkable that President Clinton can visit a grumpy and wary Japan for a day and a half, as he did last week, and leave with officials and ordinary people alike feeling better about the US than before he came.

The successes of this visit to Washington's most important ally - as US officials insist Japan is - illustrate a work in progress, America's role as global superpower. When the president travels, he walks a line between promoting US policy and sowing aggravation.

Vice President Al Gore, standing in for Clinton during a recent trip to Malaysia, spoke up in defense of a budding political reform movement and provoked cloudbursts of indignation all over Asia. But in diplomacy, people can also get bent out of shape over what seems like trivia.

"From the beginning of preparations for [the Clinton] trip my colleagues have been offended by the aggressiveness and insensitivity of the US side," said one Japanese foreign ministry official on the eve of the visit, citing overreaching security requests and last-minute schedule changes. "Generally White House people are quite pushy - not only in Japan but in other places as well."

The Japanese were disappointed that the White House rejected a proposed side trip to a resort area called Hakone, apparently because of insufficient time. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi "was very much looking forward to private time with the president in Hakone," says another government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Nonetheless, foreign ministry officials exuded satisfaction after Mr. Clinton's departure. "We had to change the schedule," one diplomat said, referring to the side trip, "but it has nothing to do with the American ... nature."

Visiting Japan seems to be an especially delicate proposition, in part because of some dependence on the US. The two countries are each other's biggest trading partners, but Japan has the more vulnerable economy these days. Japan relies on the US for its security, thanks to a cold-war-era defense treaty backed up by more than 40,000 American troops stationed here. US pronouncements - known as gaiatsu or foreign pressure - are often used as an excuse for politically unpopular actions.

Beyond the logistical sensitivities, one would think that proclaiming the virtues of the American way might not go over well with Japanese, but Clinton manages to get away with it.

Despite being in office for nearly six years, Clinton is still more campaigner than statesman, and he does little to mask his unabashed American-ness with diplomatic niceties. Nothing during his last trip appeared to make him happier than to sit around on bar stools with a cross section of Japanese and chew the fat in a televised "town hall."

He didn't hesitate to tell Mr. Obuchi that Japan should stimulate its economy as America did, by initially deregulating the telecommunications and airline industries. In his TV town hall, he urged Japanese to have a national debate over how to balance the pressures of work and family - just as in America.

But he took pains not to appear overbearing, noting in the latter instance that he didn't "have the answer for Japan," and adding, "It would be wrong for me to suggest it."

The charmer

In part, Clinton exhibited a trademark capacity for charming anything that crosses his path. But he also seems to be playing "good cop" in contrast to more aggressive and preachy messages of other officials. US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has been warning Japan that the US wants to see more deregulation and open markets or trade frictions will result, a threat Clinton touched on only lightly.

And Clinton may be seeking to counter the notion of an imperial America, which has preoccupied thinkers who try to figure out where US foreign policy is going. On any international issue, some critics will fault the US for being too pushy while others complain that it is inactive. Some detect imperial pretensions, while others worry America is too withdrawn.

The summer issue of the journal Foreign Policy addressed how America should exploit its dominance. Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that "the benevolent hegemony exercised by the United States is good for a vast majority of the world's population." Watch out, countered Charles William Maynes of the Eurasia Foundation: "A policy of world hegemony ... will guarantee that in time America will become outnumbered and overpowered."

Face to face with foreign public

Dealing with other nations' publics seems a good way of making America appear less of a bully and more of an example.

"One of the objectives of the trip," says National Security Council spokesman David Leavy, "was to speak directly to the Japanese people about the responsibilities that they have to inform their leaders about what they think are the best solutions to the economic crisis. The [town hall's] purpose was to speak directly to them about their responsibilities, about their abilities and to encourage grass-roots dialogue up, not just down."

* Staff writer Francine Kiefer, who traveled with Clinton, contributed to this report.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.