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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek editorial

NOVEMBER 12, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 45

A Matter of Identity
Kuala Lumpur's religious-labeling plan is divisive and risky

America's foreign policy is getting schizophrenic

Keep Malaysia's identity cards secular

More editorials:
New Start Wahid and Megawati must bury their differences
Shift Nissan's restructuring may speed up Japan's overhaul
Population Asia, in particular, must curb its burgeoning population
Post-Coup Pakistan's generals should seize the chance for fundamental reform

Only a few months ago, the United States Air Force was flying daily bombing missions over Yugoslavia, partly to fulfill treaty obligations to Europe. So it is paradoxical that the latest buzzword in Washington should be "isolationism." The term, in American politics, is pegged to the proposition that the country's best interests are served by minimal involvement in foreign affairs or alliances. It has deep roots, going back to the first president, George Washington, who warned against entangling relationships with Europe. (In 18th-century America, of course, nobody envisaged embroilments in Asia.) Isolationism, which became a major issue after World War I, was later laid largely to rest - first by U.S. participation in World War II, then by the Cold War, which produced a vast network of entangling alliances.

But isolationism seems to be gaining respectability again. Buttressed by a rise in right-wing assertiveness, it could create waves worldwide. U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, perhaps President Bill Clinton's most influential foreign-policy aide, felt compelled to address the danger head-on in a key speech last week. "Our internationalist tradition is increasingly being challenged by a new isolationism that would bury America's head in the sand at the height of our power and prosperity," Berger warned. He went on to denounce those, mostly members of Congress, who seemed bent on opposing all overseas obligations that cost taxpayer money or expose American soldiers to risk.

The chief catalyst - and expression - of this "new isolationism" (also called "ostrichism") was the overwhelming defeat in the U.S. Senate last month of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The action may be Congress's biggest foreign-policy rebuke to the White House since the Senate spurned membership in the League of Nations 80 years ago. Though Clinton has promised to abide by the CTBT's terms, conservative legislators, emboldened by their success, are working to cut U.S. funding for the international network created to monitor clandestine underground nuclear tests.

Another signpost has been the departure last week of politician Patrick Buchanan from the Republican Party to seek the presidency on a third-party ticket. Loudly cheered by supporters, the high-profile maverick boldly articulates a blend of nativism, protectionism and isolationism. In his worldview, America erred by entering World War II; Hitler wasn't going to attack the U.S. directly. The Republican Party, which controls Congress, has long had a strong isolationist streak. Today, however, it lacks leadership elements capable of placing America's world role above partisan politics.

As the U.S. heads into a presidential-election year, the leading contestants, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, are both internationalists. Still, they are likely to feel pressures to adopt a stronger "America First" posture or tougher stands against "adversaries," among which China is the primary candidate. Indeed, Washington's Beijing-bashers will be out in force, especially if talks on China's accession to the World Trade Organization fail to produce an accord this year. Already, Congressional hawks are accusing Hong Kong blue-chip conglomerate Hutchison, owned by Beijing-friendly tycoon Li Ka-shing, of being "an arm of the People's Liberation Army." They are opening hearings on whether the company's contract to manage the Panama Canal constitutes a threat to U.S. security. Bush, in particular, will be pressed by Taiwan's many friends on Capitol Hill to provide anti-missile defenses to the island. Such developments would further strain already troubled Sino-U.S. ties. At the same time, the advocacy of protectionism is likely to intensify - just as the WTO begins a new global round of tariff-reduction talks next month.

Most countries in Asia would oppose any serious American retreat. After all, four - Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines - are bound to the U.S. by defense treaties. Others, like Singapore, take comfort in the equilibrium provided by a continued U.S. military presence in the region. Washington's involvement and support is essential for the continued success of international agencies, such as the WTO and the World Bank, as well for peacekeeping operations.

Yet, an America that is too eager to intervene in conflicts would make many Asian countries nervous. China, in particular, worries about the prospect, especially as many people in the U.S. would like to see Taiwan or Tibet shorn off as independent countries. Certainly, a major theme of President Jiang Zemin's just-concluded trip to Europe, North Africa and West Asia was to build support for a "multi-polar world" that would counter-balance U.S. dominance. Perhaps it was no surprise that he was so warmly received in France, which also harbors concerns about American power.

It would be best if Washington could strike a balance between interventionism and isolationism as it continues to play its unique role in the world. A country that intervenes massively in a tribal war in Europe while scuttling a global anti-nuclear treaty cannot be said at the moment to be clearly defined by either term. As America's presidential electioneering intensifies, the nation's political schizophrenia is likely to become more pronounced. And that could mean a very rough ride for international affairs.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


Asiaweek Newsmap: Get the week's leading news stories, by region, from Newsmap


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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