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Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Residue of America's dirty fingerprints

Staff writer
PARALLAX VISIONS: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century, by Bruce Cumings. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999, 280 pp., $27.95 (cloth).

The field of Asian studies has attracted some brilliant scholars, many of whom have controversial views. Chalmers Johnson would probably top most Japan watchers' list of iconoclasts. Less well-known, but equally eclectic, informative and controversial is Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago and a prolific writer and commentator.

Cumings may have been partially eclipsed because he has focused on Korean studies. That's a pity, since Cumings has done strikingly original research and brings a fresh perspective to the entire field of East Asian studies. Those views are well-displayed in "Parallax Visions," a recently published collection of essays.

"Parallax Visions" is worth reading for three reasons: to become acquainted with Cumings' writings, to get a head-clearing dose of contrarian thinking about U.S. relations with the region, and to get a much-needed corrective to those who believe that the United States is in any way ready to deal with East Asia in the next century.

Several of the chapters have appeared elsewhere, but all were updated and expanded for this collection. They cover a wide range of East Asian topics, from U.S. relations with North Korea to Japan's postwar legacy in Asia. One chapter, on international and area studies, is of limited interest to most readers, but it is valuable nonetheless for the insight it sheds on the way the Cold War influenced academic studies.

The theme in much of Cumings' writing is the "lack of historical knowledge and sensibility about American strategy since 1945." Such commentators as James Fallows and Samuel Huntington point to the flaws and problems they see in the East and the difficulties they pose for the U.S. But Cumings argues that they "do not explore their own country and its responsibility for the world we all live in."

Consider these three examples. North Korea's resort to nuclear blackmail may be reprehensible, but U.S. outrage has to be tempered, given Washington's own nuclear threats against Pyongyang during the Cold War. Japan and South Korea have been faulted for mercantilist economic policies, but no nation was more successful at protecting its "infant industries' than was the U.S. The world may be frustrated by Japan's seeming reluctance to assess its behavior during World War II, but the U.S. has revealed similar blind spots in debates about the decision to drop two atomic bombs, the firebombing of Tokyo and various incidents during the Korean War.

In fact, Cumings argues, the U.S. and East Asia share a great deal, and have had similar experiences in the postwar years, if only because the U.S. has played such a large role in the region. Provocatively, he asserts that Japan and the U.S. share "a bifurcated stare": Both want to be "to the world" or "away from the world."

Although a robust internationalism has been the watchword of U.S. diplomacy in this century, there is also a strong strain of isolationist sentiment -- as Pat Buchanan reminds us today. Japan, too, has been torn between engagement and isolation, and between East and West.

Cumings see strong parallels between the U.S. rejection of European ideals and Japan's ambivalence toward China and its cultural system. (That tension is not Japan's alone, as leaders in South Korea and China will admit.)

Or perhaps the similarity is the visions of international order that Tokyo and Washington support. While they are different -- U.S. hegemony (ably served by its allies in supporting roles) is met by Japan's new Asian-focused diplomacy -- both serve as correctives to the ancien regime.

In economic affairs, there is also competition, not only for pre-eminence, but also for the spread of a model of economic organization, both within the state and among nations. The battle has been evident in the debate over an Asian Monetary Fund and will intensify in the wake of failed negotiations to begin another trade round.

Indeed, Cumings argues that "the central experience of Northeast Asia in this century has not been independence, wherein reigns autonomy and equality, but enmeshment in another web: the hegemonic web." The U.S. built that web (or at least maintained it during the second half of the century) and its presence continues, but the nations once ensnared have their own ideas about the future. Their desire for autonomy and self-definition is growing.

Unfortunately, there are few signs that Washington is prepared to accommodate them. That tension will be the chief issue in East Asia's relations with the U.S.

"Parallax Visions" offers little hope that the problems will be handled with grace, much less solved.

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