WHEN President Clinton meets Asian leaders in Indonesia this week, one subject that won't be on the agenda is how Asians see us.
Asians are losing their high regard for the United States, and we are not sufficiently aware of it. Although still grateful for protection during the cold war and for access to American markets, Asians point to our declining economic influence and tarnished image as a political model. They don't like our adversarial style and moral arrogance in international relations, and they believe we are incapable of solving our social problems. As Asian influence grows in the world, we need to pay more attention to how they view us and learn from what they are saying.
Many Americans aren't aware of the steady erosion of our economic position in Asia. Once the dominant influence on virtually all Asian economies, we have dropped into third place or worse in the region. American direct investment in Asia has been stagnant for more than a decade, and our trade accounts are dramatically out of balance. Taiwan, a small nation with a population of 21 million, recently outstripped the US in direct investment in China. Japan did so long ago. As the leading player in intra-Asian trade and investment and in providing foreign aid, Japan has displaced the US everywhere as the dominant economic influence.
Partly as a consequence of our diminished economic position, Asians are turning away from American political and economic models. While we emphasize individual rights and free markets, they stress group achievement and government intervention in the economy. They ascribe their high growth rates to calculated limitations on personal freedom and intelligent economic stewardship. Increasingly they find their political and economic models in Taipei, Singapore, and Tokyo rather than Washington.
At a recent meeting in Washington, a retired American ambassador experienced in Asian affairs said that without a large military presence in Asia, our influence would decline rapidly. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is fond of pointing out that the Philippines, Asia's closest approximation to an American-style democracy, has the region's least admired political system and one of its weakest economies.
Asians also resent our adversarial approach to diplomacy. Over the last two or three decades the confrontational style of and public lecturing by political appointees and congressional delegations has replaced quiet diplomacy, removing American foreign policy from more professional hands. Political appointees, typically in office for less than two years, want quick results.
Although public confrontation is part of our domestic politics, it strikes a discordant note in the consensus-based societies of Asia. Similarly, American special-interest groups, although often effective in spotlighting neglected issues at home, cause harm abroad when they insist that single interests should shape our foreign policy.
Last June, American human rights advocates risked serious damage to our relationship with China by striving to transform Chinese domestic structures overnight. Asians believe our social system is spiraling out of control. Because emphasis on family solidarity and acceptance of authority have shaped their own views, they can't understand why a nation like ours tolerates breakdown in its families, murder in its streets, and disorder in its schools.
Underlying our failure to recognize Asia's changing view of us is the conviction that Asians want to be like us. Our economy has set the pace for the last four decades, and our democracy is justly admired.
But this view assumes the absence of alternatives. Brimming with self-confidence based on economic achievements, Asians believe they have found another course and are less willing than ever to listen to advice from Washington. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir bin Mohamed's attempt to exclude the US from a new regional grouping is only the most dramatic example of some Asian thinking today.
Much Asian criticism of America is misplaced or exaggerated. Many of our companies are highly competitive, and 95 percent of our work force is employed. Our free-wheeling political system still seems well suited to our multicultural population, although elections showed that more Americans are dissatisfied with its performance. Not all our cities are wracked with violence, and many schools are models of excellence.
Still, Asian views of us must be taken seriously. Rather than reject them, we should listen carefully and ask questions. Why do Asian countries have savings and growth rates dramatically higher than ours? Why do Asian students consistently outscore ours in math and science? Why are their cities so much safer than ours? Some of the answers lie in casting complacency aside and learning from the stunning successes of our Asian critics. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.