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Saturday, Oct. 16, 2004

Of course, U.S. should global-test policy


LOS ANGELES -- On the controversial issue of a so-called global test for prudent foreign policy, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has been skillfully put on the defensive by the Republican re-election machine. This is brilliant campaign politics but a potentially fatal foreign-policy direction.

In the first presidential debate, Kerry proposed seeking global acceptance for major U.S. foreign-policy initiatives. Alas, predictably, it triggered a withering Republican attack that the notion suggested wimpishness, as if Republicans were the global he-men and the foppish Democrats global "girlie-boys."

In response, Kerry backpedaled faster than a mouse catching wind of a hungry rattlesnake. That's too bad. On the substantive merits of the issue itself, Kerry is right and President George W. Bush is wrong. Major American foreign policy initiatives should and must pass some kind of informal global litmus test unless this country wishes to enter into a new kind of isolationism: not so much shrinking into our own borders but -- even more dangerous -- mostly going it alone every time we have in mind a major international move.

In Asia, for example, America's chief ally is undoubtedly Japan. In a pinch, it would and has come through for us, time and again. It was not that easy for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to dispatch even a token force of Japanese troops to Iraq, but that is what he did. The current generation of older leaders in Tokyo can be counted on as loyal to Washington, no matter who is in power.

But future generations of Japanese leaders may not be so easy, and therefore U.S. foreign policy must be more persuasive. Already, an anti-American revolt is brewing within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which more or less has held sway over Japanese politics since the end of World War II. Recently, the crash of a U.S. military helicopter in Okinawa triggered something of a mini-revolt within the LDP that has ominous implications.

Consider the unconventional views of Taro Kono, a member of the Diet. American-educated (at prestigious Georgetown University), Kono regards the current U.S.-Japanese alliance as an alliance of unequals and pushes for a more assertive, independent Japanese worldview. He is joined in his reasoned dissent by Upper House legislators Ichita Yamamoto and Yoshimasa Hayashi, among others.

Don't be surprised if there's a future prime minister or foreign minister in this group. Indeed, if Kono and others of his generation gain power someday, Japan may no longer be the automatic yes vote in Uncle Sam's back pocket. To be sure, bolting Washington for intimacy with Beijing is not the most likely scenario that comes to mind. Any Japanese distancing from the United States is likely to be gradual, measured and case-specific.

But just look at South Korea, a traditional and reliable ally, which has been seeking to put some distance between itself and Washington. Much of the energy for this comes from the younger generation of Koreans -- those Internet-savvy Netizens who put the relatively youthful Roh Moo Hyun into the Blue House. President Roh is by no means anti-American, but his foreign policy has been marked by pragmatism, thoughtfulness and careful evaluations of national interest.

Even in reliable Singapore, automatic pledges of allegiance to America cannot be counted on as once before.

It would be tempting to blame such new dynamics in East Asia on the Bush administration's brutishness. But that would miss the larger point that Asia, from giant India to giant China, is undergoing profound generational changes.

Although Kerry and Bush are about the same age, generationally they strike different poses and offer differing appeals in Asia and elsewhere, with the former connecting better with younger, upcoming leaders and the latter gaining more acceptance among the older generation currently in power.

This is a huge generalization, to be sure, boldly covering something like 60 percent of the globe's population. But if it is off at all, it is not by much. More and more, the world -- and especially Asia -- will be judging each and every American foreign-policy initiative by its content, not solely by its made-in-America origins. The new generation of Asians will be responding less as a loyalty test than in precise calculation of national interest.

This is why U.S. foreign policy must acquire new and immediate persuasive power, or else all major initiatives will wind up entirely in our own hands.

Accordingly, American foreign policy will increasingly be put to a "global test." Kerry is right about this: Indeed, the only thing wimpy about the assertion is that, having said it, he then wimped out, backed down and qualified it to death. Stop that, Senator!

Whether candidate or president, you need to stand up for the ideas you believe in and let the good judgment of the American people -- not the Republican re-election propaganda machine and other political enemies, here or abroad -- decide its merits.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright Tom Plate 2004


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