Japan imports all of its oil, some two-thirds of which comes from the Persian Gulf. From that same area, Europe gets close to one-third of its oil. The United States get from the Persian Gulf less than one-eighth of its oil.

But the brave peacekeepers whose lives are on the line in the hot and dangerous Gulf are young Americans, not Japanese and not Europeans. Certainly self-respect, gratitude and a minimum universal sense of fairness would compel the Japanese to pick up the considerable bill for keeping the oil flowing, right? Wrong. Even though the cost of deploying United States troops is expected soon to reach $1 billion a month, the Japanese are now vaguely talking in terms of making a total contribution of aid by the end of next March to all countries, including the hard-hit peoples of Turkey and Egypt, of barely $1 billion.

Even Japan's high-priced apologists and retainers in fancy Washington law firms and pricey public relations factories cannot defend such an abdication of leadership and responsibility by the world's second-largest economy, which is also the world's largest supplier of capital.

Americans are known to be straight-forward people. So why don't we simply demand the Japanese ante up their fair share?

The blunt truth: Toward the Japanese, we are in no position to impose a levy; we can only submit a plea. That is the relationship between a debtor, us, and our principal creditor, Japan.

Events in the Persian Gulf cannot be divorced from our continuing budget deficits at home and the sad reality that the United States government cannot meet its monthly payroll and obligations without borrowing from Japanese bankers. Debtors do not make loud demands on their creditors; instead they make quiet requests. When U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady approaches the Japanese leadership about the cost of the bill in the Persian Gulf, we are not putting the arm on Tokyo -- we're putting our hand out.

The Golden Rule of international finance continues to prevail: He who has the gold, rules. Further complicating and undermining the U.S. position has been the continuing drop in the value of the dollar to its lowest point in nearly 20 years. During previous times of world turmoil, the rest of the world in search of safety and stability would head for the dollar. But that is not the case in the fall of 1990 when the United States no longer looks like the planet's most dependable investment address.

Japan is not the only prosperous nation not putting up its fair share in the Persian Gulf. Neither Germany nor South Korea is knocking anybody over in obvious eagerness to pick up the tab. One can only wonder how in private these free-lunch countries' leaders rationalize their own selfish inaction. Maybe they think the United States doesn't mind sending our sons and brothers into danger because "Americans don't value human life the same way we do." During the Vietnam war, to which South Korea and the Philippines sent young men to fight in support of the U.S. cause, American critics of that war charged that the governments in Seoul and Manila were acting out of economic dependency, because they were not the United States's allies but the United States's clients. That was less than two decades ago.

In the Persian Gulf crisis, Tokyo has had a mostly free ride and free lunch, thanks to Washington. Japan can do precious little about its own oil dependency. But with stronger, smarter presidential leadership than the United States has had on energy from Ronald Reagan and George Bush up to now and with a genuine national commitment, a strong United States could be energy independent. And that would leave only the deficit dependency on foreign capital to be cured.