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Re-Orienting America

NEW YORK – Some 40 years ago, when I entered Oxford University as a graduate student, I declared my interest in the Middle East. I was told that this part of the world came under the rubric of “Oriental Studies,” and that I would be assigned an appropriate professor. But when I arrived for my first meeting at the professor’s office, his bookshelves were lined with volumes bearing Chinese characters. He was a specialist in what was, at least for me at the time, the wrong Orient.

Something akin to this mistake has befallen American foreign policy. The United States has become preoccupied with the Middle East – in certain ways, the wrong Orient – and has not paid adequate attention to East Asia and the Pacific, where much of the twenty-first century’s history will be written.

The good news is that this focus is shifting. Indeed, a quiet transformation is taking place in American foreign policy, one that is as significant as it is overdue. The US has rediscovered Asia.

“Rediscovered” is the operative word here. Asia was one of the two principal theaters of World War II, and again shared centrality with Europe during the Cold War. Indeed, the period’s two greatest conflicts – the wars in Korea and Vietnam – were fought on the Asian mainland.