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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Condoleezza Rice Makes Her Debut on the Asian Stage

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently visited Asia.

By any logic, and in all fairness, this column that’s usually devoted to Asia and America should accordingly applaud. And it does. But the truth is that good things don’t always happen when U.S. secretaries of state visit Asia.

In our recent era, Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state in President Clinton’s second term, tended toward tone-deafness when interacting with the Chinese (whom she might lecture), the Japanese (whom she sometimes didn’t get) and the Koreans (whom she’d tend to irritate) when on their own home ground.

The diplomatic friction got so bad that a top State Department official at the time (who shall go nameless for obvious reasons) once secretly and only half-jokingly — asked me to consider suspending my routine clarion calls for more attentive secretary-of-state visits to Asia.

My purpose and context then, of course, was to draw attention to the fact that her predecessor, during Clinton’s first term, devoted so much time to visiting the Middle East 29 trips to Damascus alone that Asia was often left to stew in its own juices on the diplomatic back burner. We don’t want that to happen, of course.

As for the current secretary of state, Rice is, to be sure, a capable and hardworking public servant. But as of late in the American press, the former Stanford University provost is being held up for her toughness, bluntness, decisiveness and instinctive aversion to fluffy, silly things like nuance.

In other words, Rice is being depicted in the U.S. press as the feminine version of her boss, the president who hails from Texas.

A recent profile by the excellent Paul Richter on the front page of the

Los Angeles Times

typifies the be-nice-to-Rice spin: “Rice Reshaping Foreign Policy: The secretary of state is displaying an affinity for quick action and a dislike for nuanced talk.”

Tough or bluff, Rice, in Bush’s first term, was pretty much overshadowed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had achieved near-iconic status, and by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who of course was the principal architect of the near-iconic Iraq mess. But that was then; and now she is the clear foreign-policy star of the second Bush administration.

As a minor member of the U.S. news media, I don’t particularly view her as a testosterone female. Rather, she increasingly comes across as simply a more compliant reflection of, and alter ego to, her boss in the White House than was Powell, who in his heart of hearts became the general who operationally and philosophically trended toward an understandable pacifism. Rice is no Powell, for sure.

For our new secretary of state, therefore, I have three wishes. I do hope she turns out to be good for Asia and the rest of the world; I wish her only the best; and I wish she could somehow find the time to read Kishore Mahbubani’s new book.

The important “Beyond the Age of Innocence,” just published by the high-end New York publisher Public Affairs, is in effect the logical sequel to the Singapore diplomat’s “Can Asians Think?” which also is a classic. With warmth and global caring, Mahbubani, now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy after years as Singapore’s U.N. ambassador, spells out why the world both loves and hates America, why America must work harder to engage the intellectual affections and political support of those with whom it disagrees, and why the rest of the world needs to understand that without an America properly, helpfully, energetically and globally engaged, world order, for the foreseeable future anyway, will be difficult to maintain.

This book should be required reading for all serious people in America, especially its secretary of state.

“Until recently, America has served as a powerful beacon, pointing to a future for all of humankind,” writes this career diplomat. “That is its essence, its real mission: to remain true to its soul and remain an extraordinary society. Over time, all of mankind will emulate the best features of American society. All that America has to do for the next hundred years is to keep the flame alight. If it does, it will receive humankind’s resounding applause and thanks at the end of the twenty-first century.”

To stay on course, America has to do more than stay true to itself; it must listen, very carefully, to others. Our monopoly on wisdom and morality can be very easily overstated. However, if we are all going to get along on this crowded interconnected planet, the need to observe with tender care any of a number of necessary nuances cannot be easily overstated.

Is Rice the right person for a position that perhaps can best be described as secretary of nuance? This trip to Asia, a continent of nuances, should begin to tell the story.


Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the

Los Angeles Times

and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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