In Asia's Mirror: From Commodore Perry to the IMF

In Asia's Mirror: From Commodore Perry to the IMF

Mini Teaser: Asia has, in its moments of crisis, been forced to open up to the West before. These openings have been attended by an interesting kaleidoscope of moods, their usual pattern neatly captured in the life of just one man, both hero and anti-hero of t

by Author(s): Sebastian Mallaby

In March 1998 Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, the foremost champion of Asian values, gave interviews to Time and Fortune. Though he insisted that Asian values - hard work, high savings, an emphasis on education - promoted fast growth, much of what he said sounded remarkably humble. Having spent a good part of the 1990s talking up the supposed link between Confucian values and Asia's miraculous economic growth, he was now prepared to step back. "There are certain weaknesses in Confucianism", he acknowledged. "From time to time in the history of China, whenever there was weak government, Confucianism led to nepotism and favoritism. . . . Unfortunately, quite a few of the countries that have been growing fast have this incestuous system where banks are owned by conglomerates and lend money to another section in the group without proper feasibility studies." When Time's interviewer suggested that curing these ills would involve Asia swallowing Western ideas, Lee seemed undismayed. "If it is the best way of doing business", he replied, "it doesn't matter where it comes from."

America's Peculiar Angst

This, precisely, is the case for the triumph of the West: freedom, private ownership, and individual responsibility are efficient as well as desirable in themselves. It does not matter who understood this first; they comprise "the best way of doing business", as Lee says, so eventually they will be universally adopted. If Lee Kuan Yew, an Asian advocate of Asian ways, can bring himself to talk like this, one might reasonably expect something still more forthright from Western commentators, and especially from conservatives. Instead, one hears polite appreciation of Asia's strengths, and a trembling reluctance to intervene abroad. Conservatives are reluctant to judge rival systems, and to declare the American one superior. They are guilty of precisely that relativism for which they have traditionally excoriated liberals.

A century and a half ago, when Perry succeeded in opening Japan to trade, Americans rejoiced that America's manifest destiny, its mission to spread free trade around the world, had triumphed over Japan's attachment to its feudal order. Walt Whitman was moved to verse: "I chant America, the Mistress / I chant a greater supremacy." One finds flashes of the same exuberance these days from Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman; from members of the Clinton administration, in unguarded moments; from commentators such as Mort Zuckerman, who in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs declares that the next century will belong to America just as surely as the current one. There are a few conservatives among these optimists, to be sure: Lawrence Lindsey, a former governor of the Federal Reserve, declared, "We have shown our system of corporate management to be the best on the planet" (Weekly Standard, 1/12/98). But the striking phenomenon is not the extent of this exuberance, but rather the fact that it is less than universally shared. A surprising number of Republicans - politicians and their intellectual allies - are too afraid of hubris to chant anything much at all. Not for the first time, we are confronted with America's peculiar angst in the twilight of this century.

America enjoys world dominance in diplomacy, warfare, industry, science, media, and the sheer sense of how to live. And yet the old Reaganite confidence in American power and ideas has given way to a new kind of conservatism, one susceptible to the declinism of the revisionist school. The new kind of conservative worries about the loss of values in America, and wonders whether Asian values might teach Americans something. The new conservative notes that many Americans are unwilling to intervene abroad on behalf of American ideas, and caves in to this defeatism. Rather than celebrate Japan's Westernization over the half century since MacArthur's reform, the new conservative is more inclined to focus on what MacArthur failed to accomplish. Rather than celebrate the Westernizing Meiji Restoration that Takamori Saigo helped to bring about, he broods lugubriously on his failed counter-rebellion.

To anyone who has pondered the confusion of the post-Cold War world, none of this may come as a surprise. And yet there is something special about the Asian case, because it presents America with so clear an opportunity to spread its worldview at almost no cost to itself. There is much to be said for the idea that if America cannot persuade allies to back its policy on Cuba or Iraq, then it should shoulder the burden of activism warily, for it will carry a high price in diplomatic capital and treasure. A hegemon should proceed cautiously, by all means. But, in Asia's case, America has the IMF to do Commodore Perry's job. Walt Whitman would have marveled at this good fortune.

Sebastian Mallaby is The Economist's Washington bureau chief and author of that magazine's Lexington column.

Essay Types: Essay