Friday, April 26, 1996

Are National Strategies in the Asia Pacific Relevant?

The Monterey conference on National Strategies in the Asia-Pacific sponsored by The National Bureau of Asian Research was the first of its kind that I had ever attended. I found the program informative, stimulating and entertaining and the speakers knowledgeable, articulate, opinionated and persuasive. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was: What a shame and what a waste that so little of this will trickle down to the level that can really have an impact on public opinion. In a private conversation, Rich Ellings, Executive Director of NBR, assured me that NBR publications are widely distributed and well received among the policymakers in Washington. Unfortunately, that was not my point.

Policymakers, whether they are in Congress or in the executive branch, are subject to political pressures exerted by the public. A poorly informed public is easily manipulated by special interest groups for the purpose of supporting (or withholding support for) certain causes. A better informed public would be more resistant to crass and willful manipulations. Rational policies can then be formulated free from unwarranted pressure. A challenge before NBR is to find the means of gaining maximum leverage from the work being done under its sponsorship and conclusions being reported at conferences, such as the recent one in Monterey. Just reaching the policymakers and political leaders is not enough. NBR needs to find ways of reaching the public directly and help shape the public opinion so as to be more consistent with the real world.

Inviting members of the media to attend was just one step in the right direction. However, a large number of them in attendance is needed in order to openly examine and debate the ideas being presented and reach some consensus. From the reassurance of a consensus, some individuals of the media may then be suitably emboldened to break new ground and introduce the real Asia to their audience.

Harry Wu is a case in point. Since his return from his arrest in China, he has testified before Congress, appeared before the United Nations and made a keynote speech before the national convention of the AFL-CIO. No one can deny that abetted by the media shower of publicity, his public clout "normalized" against his real and imagined credentials far surpasses that of such esteemed scholars as Dwight Perkins or national policy makers as Douglas Paal. Comparing Wu with persons of such illustrious academic record or distinguished government service would be ludicrous were it not so tragic. Tragic because Wu and his handlers are pushing U.S. towards what William Overfelt* called "an utterly gratuitous second cold war." Wu's success in getting his views conveyed to the general public should be a constant and embarrassing reminder that the voices of real China experts are rarely heard above Wu's din. The media picks up Wu's skewed but sensational charges about China with the greatest of ease, but rarely ever asks the China experts to explain their queasy assessments of Wu's exaggerations and distortions.

The China expert's reluctance to publicly confront the likes of Wu seems only partly due to the fear of soiling one's credentials. The rules of academia also work against such participation. Apparently academicians are graded by their symposium presentations and publication in prestigious proceedings --such as the NBR. Some quarters apparently even look askance at Foreign Affairs as not being sufficiently esoteric. Yet it is the informed op-eds in local newspapers and national magazines that will do more to influence public opinion than profound expositions in journals that the public does not see. More not fewer Michel Oksenbergs are needed to write for Newsweeks and compete for the minds of the uninformed.

China is not the only country the American public peers through warped lenses. All of Asia is poorly understood by essentially an Eurocentric public easily exploited with bits of partial truths and distorted views. Few Americans appreciate that Asia now has as much or more impact on U.S. national policies as Europe, be it trade, export related jobs, security, environment, human rights, or nuclear non-proliferation. Even many members of Congress are poorly informed having never ventured to that part of the world.

If the rules of the profession do not allow the authentic experts to get down on the mat and engage the likes of Harry Wu in open debate, --and, there's no doubt in my mind, blowing him away-- then NBR has an invaluable role to play. NBR can and must spread the message beyond the exclusive --and comfortable-- circle of policymakers and get to the public directly. By taking on the role of educating the public, NBR will enhance its relevance and greatly expand its support base. The point of the facetious title of this piece is that national strategies do not become policies if the public does not understand and support them. Even if the political leaders understand the stakes, they need easily digestible and readily available factual ammunition, sound bites if necessary, to give them the courage to explain the issues to their constituents. The American public needs to understand that the United States is as much a Pacific Rim nation as it is an Atlantic one. NBR has much to contribute to that endeavor.

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