Symbolically at least, mission accomplished

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 2009, 12:00am

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent four-stop swing through Asia led to some accusations of symbolic superficiality. Perhaps - but there can be more real meaning in acts of diplomatic symbolism than first meets the eye. This is why, notwithstanding the immensely scary worldwide economic drama that overhangs everything now, Mrs Clinton's first tour as America's top diplomat represented a strong new beginning for US diplomacy.

There are two notable extremes to symbolic diplomacy. At the Machiavellian end there is the symbolism of intentional deception: you are pleasant as a way of putting out an obscuring fog around your desire to make war. At the other end is the diplomatic symbolism of intentionality: you make every effort to conform your symbolic moves to the reality of your underlying foreign-policy values and goals.

Mrs Clinton's trip curriculum came healthily close to the latter extreme. She first went to Japan for an obvious symbolic reason: going there first would mean a lot more to the Japanese than to anyone else on her tour and everyone else would understand the decision completely. After all, it was her husband, as president in 1998, who spent more than a week in China without once stopping off in Tokyo, America's No1 ally in Asia. The omission was seen as a slight. Mrs Clinton gracefully offered a corrective.

Now to Southeast Asia: you had to love that stop in Indonesia; it is almost always ignored by high-level US political officials. Even so, does anyone think that Indonesia would have made the short list if John McCain had won the election? Or even if Mrs Clinton had? Everyone knows that President Barack Obama lived there for four years as a child and is thought to want to make an official visit there this autumn.

South Korea, the next stop, always seems to be grinding at the US with a grudge or two - or vice versa. Sometimes you have to wonder whether the last time Seoul and Washington were ever true soul mates was during the Korean war. Mrs Clinton handled matters well, emphasising commonalities, and wowing South Korean women with her feminist spirit and modern cool.

The symbolism in China was equally seamless. Yes, we in the US do care about human rights, and the like, but before solving that problem let's work together to ride out this economic storm.

Overall, Mrs Clinton trekked well through troubled territory. The serious economic downturn is only one of Asia's problems. The other is the political-stability question. Will China's rising unemployment trigger Tiananmen-like street scenes? When will Japan find a new prime minister who can run the country with political savvy? Will the overall tone of Muslim politics in Indonesia stay moderate enough to continue to sustain its nascent but promising pluralistic democracy?

These are questions of substance, not symbolism. And America's ability to help others with their problems is limited. But good symbolism helps, and picking Asia for her first foreign trip and carrying it out well made a very fine start.

Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist and veteran US journalist



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