Asia, Europe try to go distance without US

Los Angeles Times - Wednesday, December 8, 1999


WASHINGTON--Is it possible to imagine Asia and Europe running themselves some day without the intense American support of the past half century?
     Don't look now, but at the moment, across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, government leaders are building important new institutions that might eventually enable their regions to function on their own.
     The twin, seemingly contradictory fears expressed about the United States--that it has become too dominant globally and that it may turn inward and withdraw into Fortress America--are prompting both Asians and Europeans to try harder to learn how to operate without Uncle Sam.
     Europe is much further along. On Saturday, the European Union is expected to set up its first military unit, a "rapid-reaction corps" of at least 50,000 troops. No one can say yet how this military force, which doesn't include Americans, will work with NATO, the Atlantic alliance dominated by the United States.
     The EU's moves are causing a few jitters in Washington. In a speech last month at the National Defense University, Peter W. Rodman of the Nixon Center warned that Europe and America may be drifting apart. "The future of the transatlantic relationship is more precarious than it seems," he concluded.
     What's happening in Asia is also significant, although it has attracted far less attention in the United States.
     Asia's efforts are largely economic. In late November, the presidents and prime ministers of the 10 Southeast Asian governments gathered in Manila with the leaders of the three powerful countries of Northeast Asia: Japan, China and South Korea. They began taking steps to develop intra-Asian economic institutions, even envisioning the day when Asia might have its own common market and a common currency.
     Some Asian leaders openly suggested the idea was to counterbalance the United States. A Japanese newspaper, the Nihon Keizai, said some of those in Manila worried about "rapidly strengthened U.S. influence" and about American dominance of Asia's economy. There were faint echoes of the recent French talk about America's becoming a "hyperpower."
     South Korean President Kim Dae Jung summed up the spirit of the Manila gathering. The idea, he said, was "Asian cooperation for Asia."
     So far, almost no one in the United States has noticed. And surprisingly, the few officials in Washington who were paying attention to the Manila gathering have taken a benign, relaxed view. One senior administration official said the economic steps the Asians envision are "decades out," so far into the future that they have little significance for current policymakers.
     The Clinton administration's tolerance represents a striking change from the Bush administration.
     Ten years ago, Asian leaders began discussing the idea of an intra-Asian trade bloc that would have excluded the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
     The Bush administration reacted with outrage, fearing such a trade bloc might open the way to Japanese dominance over the Asian economy. U.S. officials pushed hard, and ultimately successfully, to scotch this idea and to create instead the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which does include the United States and its Anglo-Saxon allies.
     Why is the Clinton administration's policy so different? What's changed over the last decade? Among other things, the American economy is thriving and Japan's is stagnating.
     "I think we're feeling much more secure about our economic role than we were then," said Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth in an interview this week. "Our economy has rather turned around. This is a very different time from when [Americans] worried about Japan buying out the United States."
     American officials also seem relatively unconcerned because neither Europe nor Asia will be ready any time soon to operate without the United States.
     NATO's war in Kosovo showed the extent to which Europe depends on American military power and technology. And in Manila, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's press spokesman was careful to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance and America's other military alliances in Asia.
     Still, the developments in Europe and Asia pose important problems for future U.S. policy. What happens if Americans begin to ask why they are paying for military bases and alliances overseas that aren't wanted or needed anymore?
     In a new book called "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire," UC San Diego professor emeritus Chalmers Johnson, a longtime critic of America's alliances, argues: "Already, the United States cannot afford its various and ongoing global military deployments and interventions.
     "The isolationists in this country will have no problem with a Europe that goes its own way, separating from the United States," observed Rodman. "If the Europeans act as if they regard the [NATO] alliance as dispensable, some Americans will welcome the opportunity to wave the Europeans goodbye."
     Asia and Europe are changing. Both are becoming more self-confident and less dependent on the U.S. Over the long run, those developments could profoundly alter America's role in the world.

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