Ron Brown was recently blasted by an organ that is usually quite friendly to Democrats, the New York Times. Its editorial page blasted Brown’s confirmation hearing for Commerce Secretary as a “bipartisan disgrace,” claiming it “amounted to an open declaration that companies with strong Democratic connections reserve the right to continue the attitude of greed that prevails in Washington.” The key issue was Brown’s and other appointees’ business ties to Japanese corporations. Clinton’s economic team has the duty to promote American business interests, even though many of its members have made their fortunes doing just the opposite.

Republican members of the committee might have grilled Brown to strengthen the ethical standards of the new administration or to at least score partisan points. But they didn’t. The Reagan and Bush administrations had been shot through with the same kind of foreign connections. Though the two parties may not be able to agree on the color of the sky, their leaders all know the color of the money that saturates the capital.

This is not the first time American leaders have been under heavy foreign influence. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress was under the thumb of the French ambassador. The Chevalier de la Luzerne supplemented his persuasive skills with lavish parties, gifts, and loans. Congress was mesmerized into granting France the right to negotiate the peace terms with England. As the eminent diplomatic historian Samuel Flagg Bemis put it, “Never in history had one people more trustingly or innocently submitted its fate to the disposal of a foreign power.” Congress did not realize that America’s ally was willing to sacrifice the United States for its own interests.

Had negotiators John Adams and John Jay not suspected the danger and ignored their instructions from Congress, the French might have gotten away with penning the United States behind the Allegheny Mountains. Instead, Adams and Jay focused on the country’s needs, took matters into their own hands, and thus gained a line on the Mississippi River, opening the entire continent to eventual American expansion. Theirs was one of the greatest triumphs of American diplomacy, though today they would probably be targets of a special prosecutor.

Economics, according to the followers of classical liberalism, is not supposed to be part of the high politics of international relations like territory or alliances. The doctrine of “free trade” forms the basis of their lack of concern for the role of foreign money in American society, a blind spot they maintain even when the money is directly linked to politics and national policymaking. Yet the original classical liberal economists were writing at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and could not sec its implications. However, it might have occurred to them that this was a development that would greatly accelerate trends already apparent from the commercial and military revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Of those liberals who did see this trend, the response was not that of visionaries, but rather of reactionaries, harking back to a premodern era already two centuries past when religious and dynastic concerns dominated high politics and economies were too underdeveloped to have much bearing on events. They hoped economics could continue to be isolated from other concerns. Their intellectual heirs still drag these dead notions around, displaying a tenacity for irrelevance unmatched except perhaps among the Marxists.

While economic issues per se have not caused many wars, the strength of national economies has made the difference between victory and defeat in those major conflicts that have determined the balance of power in the world. Thus wise statesmen have never been able to ignore the economic trends that could undermine the ability of their nation to control its own fate. Unfortunately, statesmen are at a premium in a system that so lavishly rewards political opportunists.

America’s Founding Fathers counted more than their share of statesmen among them. They learned that allies may have common enemies, but not common goals. The same holds true with regard to Japan today. It should not be surprising that new challenges can come from old allies. Though the Soviet Union presented a grave military threat, communism was never a serious rival to capitalism. Only another capitalist power can pose an economic threat.

The Japanese are strongly nationalistic. They have had to struggle for everything they have. Japan was “opened” by American warships, and its people were thrown into world affairs as the industrial West carved a sphere of influence in Asia. Japan’s leaders converted their land from potential prey to Great Power predator in record time. As the noted scholar of Asian philosophies Tom Cleary has written, “There is no practical way to overlook the military rule and martial culture that have dominated Japan for many centuries, virtually up to the present day.” The basic symbol of the sword may now mean computer chips rather than battleships, but the desire for victory has not diminished.

“The way of the warrior” came to Japan from ancient China. At the end of the Ming Dynasty an unknown author distilled the essence of this philosophy in a set of mnemonic phrases known as The Thirty-Six Stratagems. Several pertain to the current situation and are taken from Cleary’s 1992 book The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy.

“Hide a sword in a smile. You ingratiate yourself with enemies, inducing them to trust you. When you have their confidence, you can move against them in secret.” Alliances can be used to cover subversion.

“Let them climb the roof, then take away the ladder. You maneuver enemies into a point of no return by baiting them with what look like advantages and opportunities.” Tokyo has used the sophistry of “free trade” well in this regard, playing on the shortsightedness of Americans to penetrate deeply into key industries. Our continued trade and budget deficits merely strengthen the leverage of Japanese financiers.

“To capture the brigands, capture their kind. When confronted with a massive opposition, you take aim at its central leadership.” This can certainly be seen in Washington, where Japan’s financial net has been thrown wide to ensnare as much of the American political establishment as possible. Since the United States is inherently stronger, Tokyo must prevent a concerted American effort to regain global predominance.

The Japanese have contributed large sums to politicians and policy groups that promote “free trade” ideology, just as the old Soviet Union gave money to American communists. The only difference is that Japan wants others to believe in an ideology it rejects for itself. Otherwise, it’s the same old story. When foreigners dump money into the policymaking process, it is to promote their interests, not ours.