By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN (NYT) 737 words
Foreign Affairs; Come The Revolution
Published: January 1, 1995
This is the first column Friedman wrote as an OpEd page columnist for New York Times.
Today marks the return of the "Foreign Affairs" column to The New York Times. "Foreign Affairs" is actually the paper's oldest column. It was begun in 1937 by the remarkable Anne O'Hare McCormick and was originally called "In Europe." In those days "In Europe" was foreign affairs for most Americans, and it seemed perfectly natural that the paper's one overseas columnist was rooted on the European Continent. Mrs. McCormick's 1954 obituary in The Times said she got her start in foreign reporting "as the wife of Mr. McCormick, a Dayton engineer whom she accompanied on frequent buying trips to Europe."
Obviously, I was born in a very different era, one in which columnists only have to accompany their curiosity and engineers travel to Tokyo for buying trips, not Paris. Both factors have led me to start my column from Japan. While I have no intention of calling my column "In Asia," the thought did cross my mind. Let's face it, when the history of the late 20th century is written, the most important event may not be the reconstruction of Europe, the cold war or the collapse of Communism, but rather the rapid modernization in one generation of two billion people from Japan to the border of India. Never have so many raised their standard of living so far so fast.
I was recently in Singapore when its Government decided that to keep attracting top-quality Cabinet ministers, it would pay them a percentage of the average salary of the country's senior doctors, bankers and C.E.O.'s. That came to $765,000 a year for the Prime Minister and $400,000 for the others. No wonder an American diplomat in Hong Kong told me: "I go to parties here and without fail I am the poorest person at every event. The BMW's and Rolls-Royces roll in one after the other, and then I show up with my little Japanese car. During my first tour here a decade ago, I felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. We represented the future. Now I feel like I am brought along to parties as a potted plant for adornment."
Yet, Walter Mondale, our Ambassador to Japan, complains that many American business, educational and news organizations "still don't get it, still don't grasp how rich and dynamic this region is." He should know. The historic American ambassador's residence in Tokyo is being restored by a Japanese construction company because there were no American contractors here skilled enough to do the delicate job. A new study by the Mansfield Center found that there is still four times as much news about America on Japanese television as news of Japan on American television.
But if we are still smug about Asians, always waiting for their bubble to burst, it is nothing compared with their smugness toward America. They think they can defy the laws of gravity -- that economic consequences won't have political consequences. You can't have a conversation in Asia without being verbally caned over how flawed America has become and how superior is the "Asian Way." Their smugness, though, is as misplaced as ours.
How long can Asian governments keep their people so regimented and focused on export growth when their middle classes are growing so wealthy? Take Singapore. Thanks to its heavy-handed Government, it is clean, rich and seriously boring. Singapore is a shopping mall with passport controls. Any wonder American televangelists and Oprah Winfrey are increasingly popular out there?
How long can Japan's Government keep telling its youth that they have to accept lower wages and live in apartments as big as my garage so that Japanese companies can put all their profits into expanding markets abroad? How long will Japanese consumers pay $70 for a watermelon because Japan protects its highly inefficient food industry from foreign competition?
How long is China's leadership, the smuggest of all since it forced President Clinton to eat crow on human rights, going to be able to keep the lid on a country that is economically becoming North Carolina and politically still North Korea? And how long will Asians tolerate the fact that the economic boom has left them with five of the seven most polluted cities in the world?
The answer to all of the above is: not much longer, and that's why I chose to start here. Asia is not only going to be the world's biggest business story in the coming years. The economic revolution here is well under way, but the political revolution has just begun.