Three billion Asians are thanking whatever gods they worship that they won’t have to ponder the question posed in this article’s title, or so the American Secretary of State seems to think — ‘US is back in Asia’. “The United States is back,” triumphantly announced Madam Secretary on Wednesday in Bangkok. “President Obama and I are giving great importance to this region… I believe strongly the United States has to be involved in this region.”
Of course, with her comments, Mrs. Clinton "reiterated Obama administration concerns that North Korea… is now developing ties to Myanmar’s military dictatorship." But those are American concerns (or better said, we are told that those are American concerns), not really Asian concerns, even if they concern Asians. Living in South Korea, I can say that the only threat South Koreans feel from North Korea is that it will collapse and place a burden on the South’s economy. ASEAN nations are so threatened by Myanmar that they have included her as a member.
About Mrs. Clinton’s announcement that "[t]he United States is back" and is not only again "giving great importance to this region" but also "has to be involved in this region" I have four thoughts.
First, I hadn’t realized we had left. I live in a country with a sizable American military presence. American forces have been here in Korea the whole time since I arrived a dozen years ago. Across the sea, in Japan, the American presence is even bigger. Sure, here in Korea, some American soldiers have left, but mostly they’ve been shifted to other parts of Asia, namely Iraq and Afghanistan.
Second, doesn’t Madam Secretary realize that such statements are not only laughable but also deeply insulting? She’s lucky Asians are known for their politeness or she would have faced some choice words. Upon hearing that "[t]he United States is back," are the peoples of this region supposed to be grateful? Asians got along quite well in our "absence," not only the fake one Madam Secretary refers to but the one that lasted several millennia before our gunships "opened" Japan to trade in the mid-nineteenth century. The hubristic comment from Mrs. Clinton’s husband’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright, that "America is the indispensable nation," comes to mind. Does our government really think that these kinds of statements will be received by foreigners with anything other than scorn of derision?
Third, just why are we are “giving great importance to this region” and why is it that “the United States has to be involved in this region?” How about “giving great importance to” and being “involved in th[at] region” sandwiched between Canada and Mexico? Most Americans would not like the idea of China being greatly involved in our region, and most Central and South Americans, patriots of their own republics, would feel the same way. Why should our involvement in the affairs of Asia extend beyond the free exchange of goods and ideas?
Fourth, how is our bankrupt country supposed to finance our “return” to the region? Are we going to go into deeper debt to the Chinese and other Asians for the privilege of being “involved” in their region? Our government seems to see our involvement in Asia and the rest of the world as a kind of twenty-first century white man’s burden (sorry, Mr. President) that is not only our birthright, but our honor-bound obligation to uphold, no matter how much it costs our country. I suppose those in power need the self-satisfying illusion of indispensability so badly that they are willing to forfeit our future by sinking our country deeper and deeper in debt to maintain it.
Never "misunderestimate" the stupidity of the American government (thank you, Messrs. Mencken and Bush). Perhaps we should reverse the question posed in the title: What would America do without Asia? Even better, let us rephrase the question: What would both America and Asia do without the "entangling alliances" Thomas Jefferson warned us against but with instead the "peace, commerce, and honest friendship" he advised? The answer is that both America and Asia would get along quite well and be more prosperous and peaceful places.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he lectures English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.