The Pacific Ocean is a vast sea of American ineptitude and ignorance.
That's the daunting vista that presents itself to members of the newly formed Foundation for the Twenty-First Century when they consider the world's largest body of water.
Wherever they look, they see American economic and political interests awash in a rising tide of foreign competition and competence--highlighted just last Friday by announcement of a record $18-billion one-month trade deficit.
And that's why the foundation, based in San Diego but with some operations in Los Angeles, has been formed--to find ways to promote American interests in an area that, members say, has slipped from American dominance and could some day slip from American influence.
"It is getting stylish to demonstrate interest in the Pacific area," said founder and president Glenn Dumke, former chancellor of the California State University system. "It's fashionable, but nobody knows much about it."
In fact, Dumke believes things aren't much different from 30 years ago when he wrote a textbook on the history of the Pacific. Then, the publisher found plenty of experts on China and Japan but couldn't find any with "the broad view" of the region's history to comment critically on the book before its publication, he said.
Dumke apparently isn't alone in thinking that Americans have operated from a position of ignorance in Pacific affairs for too long.
Joseph Harned, who is executive vice president of the Washington-based Atlantic Council of the United States and a board member of the new foundation, said in a telephone interview that private groups concerned about U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific and elsewhere have been springing up around the country.
Many of these groups have established relationships with the council, a private group that develops and proposes long-range policy, particularly regarding the Soviet Union, he said.
"For many years there has not been a coherent and engaged constituency on foreign policy and international affairs," Harned said. But such a constituency may be developing, he added, noting that groups comparable to the foundation recently have been formed in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
"The role of the United States in the world is changing and people west of the Hudson River and west of the Potomac River are probably more aware of that than people east of those two rivers," Harned said, referring to New York and Washington, D.C.
An Important Factor
Most of these groups are motivated by "a desire to weigh in (on foreign affairs) as something more than objects of international terrorism," Harned said.
And while the Atlantic Council will continue to devote most of its energies to U.S.-European relations, the Pacific region is becoming an important factor in those relationships, Harned said.
Besides Harned, the Atlantic Council will be represented on the foundation's board by council vice chairman U. Alexis Johnson, a former undersecretary of state and ambassador to Japan, who will serve as chairman of the foundation's executive committee.
The foundation will hold its first formal gathering in November in Los Angeles to discuss Pacific issues confronting the next American President. Conferences on the influence of the U.S. Constitution on Pacific nations and strategic and economic aspects of U.S.-Taiwan relations are planned for next spring.
Over the long run, Dumke said he hopes the foundation will help teach Americans to use more finesse in their conduct in the Pacific.
As an example, he cited the growing--and generally tactful--Soviet presence in the Pacific.
In the newly independent former Trust Territories of the central Pacific, American fishermen are taking a high hand by "paying no attention to the local regulations, the local fees," Dumke maintained. "The Soviets are going down there and paying full attention to the regulations, being warmly welcomed and are laying the foundation for naval bases and everything else."
Both Harned and Robert Scalapino, a professor of government and director of East Asian studies at UC Berkeley, said the foundation will have to perform a balancing act if it's to stay away from political extremes--especially at a time when resentment of Japan's penetration of the American economy is high. For instance, Harned said he agreed to join the board only after receiving assurances that the foundation would be "bipartisan and politically balanced so that it's essentially centrist."