President Bush is in Asia to attend the Asian Pacific Economic Council in China, but he should pay attention to another Asian summit to which he was not invited. In December, Malaysia will host an East Asian meeting that deliberately excludes the United States. According to many close observers, America’s attractiveness is declining in the region where the allure, or “soft power,” of others has increased.
Asian countries have impressive potential resources for soft power. The arts, fashion, and cuisine of Asia’s ancient cultures have had a strong impact on other parts of the world for centuries, but Asia went through a period of relative decline as it lagged behind the industrial revolution in the West, and this undermined its influence.
In the 1950’s, Asia conjured up images of poverty and starvation. There was a brief political infatuation among some Westerners in the 1960’s with Nehru jackets and Maoist revolution, but it was brief. As John Lennon sang in 1968, “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”
Asia’s resurgence began with Japan’s economic success. By the end of the century, Japan’s remarkable performance not only made the Japanese wealthy, but also enhanced the country’s soft power.