The anomalous position of Christopher LaFleur

When the history of American trade policy is written, people will ask what the U.S. State Department was doing. An insight into the answer can be gleaned in the career of Christopher LaFleur. At a crucial time for US-Japan trade relations, he has served in Tokyo not only as the effective head of the American embassy but, also reportedly, as the local chief of the Central Intelligence Agency.

TOKYO. For decades Americans have been told that the Japanese establishment is working as fast as it can to open the country’s markets to American exports. As far back as the 1970s, such apparently authoritative publications as the Economist magazine and the Wall Street Journal declared Japan to be already “one of the most open markets in the world.” Since then the U.S. government has negotiated dozens of “market opening” deals with Japan, each of them hailed (at the outset at least) as a famous victory for the American side. Yet the truth is that, as the $70 billion U.S.-Japan annual trade imbalance testifies, few American exporters even today have established anything more than a token foothold in Japan. Certainly, as a proportion of Japan’s total imports (meager as these are for an economy with a $4 trillion GDP), American goods represent an ever dwindling proportion.

A question arises: why on earth has America’s Japan trade diplomacy been such a failure? The plot thickens when you remember that Japan has constantly been portrayed as enthusiastically Americanizing its societal and economic arrangements.

Part of the explanation of the mystery is the utterly perverse role played by the American embassy in Tokyo. Not to put too fine a point on it, Japan’s America handlers have long had two embassies working for them –the Japanese embassy in Washington plus the American embassy in Tokyo.

An American embassy that works against America

In essence when Japanese and American economic interests collide, American diplomats root for the Japanese side — and often do so quite openly and unashamedly. American taxpayers unwittingly underwrite the cost of a vast diplomatic apparatus in Tokyo whose basic function is to undermine American economic interests. Strange but true.

As authors James Fallows and Jeff Shear among others have documented, America’s Tokyo-based diplomats take the view that American economic issues should be constantly sacrificed for the sake of the “relationship.” The idea is that Washington has forged such a beautiful – if tragically “fragile” — friendship with Tokyo that Washington should never allow mere money to come between it and true love. Oddly enough, America’s love goes largely unrequited in Tokyo. For the truth is that whenever Tokyo has had to choose between love and money, its head has always ruled its heart.

This lopsided arrangement was originally rooted in the imperatives of the Cold War. America needed bases in Japan or at least thought it did. And, precisely because Tokyo seemed a lot less committed to the “relationship” than Washington, American diplomats felt they had to buy Tokyo’s cooperation. Now of course things are different given that the Cold War has been over for more than a decade. But Washington has done essentially nothing in the last decade to improve American exporters’ prospects of selling in Japan. In large part Washington’s failure to push harder is a function of advice it is getting from the American embassy in Tokyo.

With the change of administration in Washington, the time is surely overdue for a thorough-going reassessment of the U.S.-Japan relationship. As part of that reassessment, the Bush administration should launch a review of the leadership of the American embassy in Tokyo. Clientitis is a problem for American diplomats everywhere but probably nowhere is it more manifest than in Tokyo.

An “American” diplomat in Tokyo

As a first step, the administration should focus on the anomalous role played by the embassy’s top policy expert, Christopher LaFleur. LaFleur’s official title is deputy chief of mission, which means he is second only to the ambassador in the embassy pecking order. Now that Tom Foley, who was President Clinton’s ambassador to Tokyo, has returned to the United States, LaFleur is currently charge d’affaires, thus in name as well as in practice is in overall control in Tokyo. But even after President Bush’s new ambassador, Howard Baker, arrives, the chances are that it will be LaFleur more than Baker who drives policy — for the simple reason that LaFleur’s job allows him to oversee the flow of information to the ambassador. Moreover, unlike the ambassador, LaFleur has many years of on-the-spot experience in dealing with the Japanese.

LaFleur’s position in Tokyo is anomalous for several reasons. For one thing he lacks credentials in economic policy-making , yet economic policy should now be by far the most important concern of American diplomacy in Tokyo. For another, his term as deputy chief of mission, which began in 1997, has been notable for its virtual total lack of any pressure on Tokyo to do anything effective to increase Japan’s imports of American goods.

Moreover LaFleur has a long record of membership in the so-called Chrysanthemum Club, the nickname given to an influential group of American officials, think-tank operatives, and academics who profess a special admiration for Japan and generally take Japan’s side in trade disputes with the United States. LaFleur’s Chrysanthemum credentials were notably on display in the notorious FSX affair in which, after massive lobbying by the Japanese system, Washington permitted the sale of a vast tranche of top secret American aviation technology to the Japanese at a fire-sale price. LaFleur’s role in that affair alone should disqualify him for the ultra-sensitive role he now performs in U.S.-Japan relations.

All the evidence is that LaFleur is in no hurry to be disabused of his Chrysanthemum opinions. Certainly he does not ever seem to have made any attempt to take on board the views of the so-called Japan revisionist group of writers, who for years have been pressing the U.S. to take a tougher line on trade issues. The fact is that none of the key revisionists in Tokyo has ever even met LaFleur.

Conflict of interest: the Miyazawa family

Then there is the problem that LaFleur suffers from a major conflict of interest by virtue of his marriage to Keiko Miyazawa, daughter of one of Japan’s most powerful political figures, Kiichi Miyazawa. A former Prime Minister and recently Finance Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa started life as a career official at the Ministry of Finance, which is the secretive and nearly invisible top institution that dominates the Japanese power system. As a former elite bureaucrat, Miyazawa ranks head and shoulders above other politicians in Japan (who for the most part are third-raters who stand in awe of the country’s powerful bureaucrats). Under a facade of suave Americanization, Miyazawa is a nationalistic strongman whose interests on key U.S.-Japan economic issues are the polar opposites of those that LaFleur should be espousing.

This is not of course to suggest that LaFleur is necessarily being improperly swayed by his Japanese family connections. The point really is that a diplomat holding such a sensitive post at such a sensitive time should surely be like Caesar’s wife – he should not only act properly at all times but make sure that his loyalties are never seen to be strained by the remotest suggestion of a conflict of interest.

It should be noted that for many years after World War II, American diplomats were automatically disqualified from serving in Tokyo if they were married to Japanese nationals. This rule applied even to officials of low rank and in the case of marriages to Japanese nationals who had no connection to the Tokyo establishment. This reflected the traditional rule in European diplomatic practice of barring diplomats married to foreigners from serving in their spouses’ homelands.

A connection that is not widely known

It is interesting to note that the deputy chief of mission’s connection to Miyazawa is not widely known even among well informed Americans in Tokyo. Certainly it appears to have had little or no publicity in the Japan Times and other major English-language publications read by Japan-based Americans. Even Ivan P. Hall, a Harvard-educated former American diplomat who is now one of America’s most prominent Japan watchers, was unaware of the conflict of interest until I pointed it out recently. Hall commented: “I find it really odd that you are the only person who has ever mentioned to me that our deputy chief of mission at a critical time in economic relations with America is the son-in-law of Japan’s finance minister.”

LaFleur’s supporters maintain that merely to raise the conflict-of-interest question is to impugn his honor. Not so. As should be clear from the decision by Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and other top Bush administration officials to divest themselves of their stocks, the public has a right to expect that government officials are not strained by personal connections that conflict with their public duties. No one has suggested that O’Neill and other top Bush officials are not honorable people. Rather the point is the principle of the thing: conflicts of interest must be eliminated. Period.

It is time America g0t serious about opening up the world’s second largest market to American goods. And LaFleur’s position is a stumbling block to that effort.

Eamonn Fingleton is the author most recently of In Praise of Hard Industries: why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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