Why, at first, am I reluctant to whine about the president's choices for the top State and Defense jobs? For one thing, the former is a woman who is poised to become the first female Secretary of State; one fears the searing brand of "sexist." And the latter is a Republican, so readers might stereotype your happily nonpartisan, nonsexist columnist as a Democrat. But call me whatever you want: What I don't see in either of these choices is any Asian expertise, background, special feel or even new-to-the-issue interest. This puts American diplomacy at a handicap. We need this other half of the world on the A-team's resume and we need it bad.
I am close to giving up on this administration's foreign policy. Its top East Asia expert, Winston Lord, is said to be leaving his post as assistant secretary of State. Maybe he's sulking that foreign nationals from Indonesia and Korea with deep pockets sometimes got more quality time with the president than he did. Sure, the administration touts the Asian international business experience of Samuel R. Berger, its new national security advisor. Sorry, all that the likable Berger will get from me is a minor spark of enthusiasm. The new team, with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright at State, retiring Sen. William S. Cohen at Defense and Berger's predecessor, Anthony Lake, at the Central Intelligence Agency, has aggregate expertise that, sadly for our foreign policy needs, is crisis-focused and European-oriented.
In one sense, the Indonesian money scandal teaches an unintended lesson. It is true and important that the huge basketfuls of money from big-time overseas business sources were probably illegal and therefore unacceptable. But the actual advice from these Asian donors--at least to the extent that we know what really was said behind closed doors--was Confucian virtue itself: Work harder, Mr. President, on Asia and on the thorny relationship with China. If indeed that was the nature of the pro-Asian smoke being blown his way, this is the one time I hope Clinton did inhale.
Asia is increasingly our present and our future. If you're not convinced, take a look at the comprehensive study just out from USC's Southern California Studies Center on the extraordinary dimensions of the increasing Asian-American economic dependency. Put together by a USC team headed by Abraham Lowenthal, L. Thomas Vest and Michael Brownrigg, the report, "Los Angeles: Its International Connections" paints a panoramic canvas. Asian countries now provide more than four-fifths of all foreign imports into the Los Angeles area and, by contrast, the total of all European imports through Los Angeles in 1995 added up to less than the value of that year's imports from South Korea alone. Asia is not only the main retail market for American exports leaving the L.A. area but it's also the main foreign investor here: Since 1993 it has been socking more money into California properties and investments than Europe has. Even as Asia's economies cool, the interdependency seems cast in stone.
But it's not just money that ties us: From a security perspective in Asia, potential nightmares fester. At the same time that an untold number of North Koreans are wracked with malnutrition, if not starvation, Pyongyang spends and spends on its military buildup. With more than a million North Korean soldiers looking over its shoulder, South Korea tosses and turns over what it views as Washington's naivete in dealing with the North; it may start putting its vital democratic reforms on hold as it develops a case of national-security jitters. And at any time China, in the midst of a unpredictable succession struggle that should resolve itself at next year's party congress, is capable of blowing up over almost anything (just ask Disney officials about that). And will Japan ever really change? Amazingly, it covets three more or less worthless offshore territories claimed by (1) South Korea, (2) Russia and (3) China--so much for a good-neighbor policy.
Given all this, it seems phenomenally shortsighted of the Clinton administration not to add an Asian dimension to the operational psychology of the White House and the State Department. These societies and cultures pose special challenges and can be fiendishly difficult to understand. Too bad the administration's new foreign- policy A-team presents an incomplete breadth of competence. I just don't think this administration's heart is in the Asian challenge. I fear history is going in one direction and it in the other.