Free-Trade Outtakes: May the Source be With You
My iconoclastic nature prompts me to hold fast to the benefits derived from change — especially when what was lost is found or else what was old is new.
Sounds cryptic, you say. No problem, clarity follows. Through no effort on my part, certain events reinforce my thinking or else reshape my leanings. This time my spark comes from the management shakeup in a nearly 60-year-old Japanese company. Howard Stringer, a Welsh-born American, now heads the Sony Corporation as chairman and chief executive, succeeding a Japan native who quit the position. This is extraordinary on several fronts, chiefly the history of war between Japan and America. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) notwithstanding, American access to foreign markets is not exactly free flowing. Conversely, Japan sought to exploit the economic opportunities world trade promised after WWII, while refusing equal access to its own markets.
The pain from these wounds lingers on both sides of the ocean, to be sure.
Then there are the jingoistic and misanthropic practices in both nations — to say nothing of misapplied attitudes of their citizens. Remember when made-in-Japan meant “inferior” and “arrogance” guided Americans pursuing new business ventures in foreign territories?
That was then, this is now. Old ways give way to new understanding. Nothing like encountering multiple hurdles, — especially in Pacific Rim countries featuring Japan, the main recipient of American meat exports — to shake up attitudes that need a reality check up. To that end, the American red-meat industry is certainly feeling the pinch from recalcitrant international foes and/or trading partners.
Consider that several U.S. senators fired off an official notice to the Japanese ambassador, threatening retaliation unless Japan lifts its beef export ban quickly and efficiently — but to no avail. Such U.S. threats of economic sanctions against Japan carry about as much muscle as a bicycle in a tractor-pulling contest. A good poker player would not make such a move. Predictably, the response from Japan was polite but firm. The country intends to stay on its wait-and-see course, thereby making no decision before its internal panel of experts determines the ideal age to test cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Given that Americans are astute at political pressure, it is not surprising that President Bush reportedly is using the muscle of the White House in pressuring Japan to reinstate trade with the American meat industry. Although this is not likely to happen simply on the President’s say so, one thing is certain. The way the Japanese conduct business abroad is changing — and tapping Stringer to shepherd the Sony business is a good indication. This appointment did not happen suddenly, as Stringer was first hired to head Sony Corp. of America in 1997. He proved his mettle in that position, big time.
The American beef industry is in the struggle of a lifetime, but salvation is not likely to come quickly — especially if it depends heavily on export business.
International trade remains complicated, frustrating, and often disappointing to those with high expectations. Given the nature of its trading partners, the industry must find a way to patiently endure. In so doing, the industry must also collectively figure out how to knock down trade barriers. Economic sanctions may work in some cases, but there must be a better way.
May the source be with you.