The Procrustean Rim

By Jock O'Connell

This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee Forum section on Sunday, September 10, 1989.)

Among the more disagreeable figures in Greek mythology was Procrustes, the originator of the one-size-fits-all concept. It was Procrustes' sport to toss travelers he had waylaid onto an iron bed. Those who were too short Procrustes stretched to the appropriate length. Those who were too tall had the requisite inches lopped off.

I am reminded of Procrustes by the latest surge of interest in creating a multinational forum for promoting greater cooperation among the highly diverse and geographically far- flung nations of the Pacific Rim.

While an agency similar to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) may eventually be desirable for certain nations in the Western Pacific, attempts to create a more encompassing Pan-Pacific institution are likely to be hamstrung, if not entirely defeated, by some rather acute national differences over the basic purposes of the organization, the scope of its agenda, its structure, and even its membership.

Still, political leaders both here and abroad have not been deterred from launching initiatives that are as ambiguous as they are ambitious. Among the Americans now advocating some sort of Pan-Pacific organization are Secretary of State James Baker, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and California's own Senator Alan Cranston.

The credit for sparking the current wave of interest in a Pacific grouping, however, goes to Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister of Australia. During an official visit to South Korea this past January, Hawke proposed an intergovernmental forum for addressing economic issues in the Western Pacific. He subsequently called for a ministerial conference in Canberra this November to explore the concept further.

In addition to his own country and neighboring New Zealand, Hawke's original invitation list was limited to Japan, South Korea and the six members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

His selection was hardly random. Although the Aussie leader has steadfastly disavowed any intentions of organizing a formal trading bloc, the nations he invited do represent the core of a rapidly emerging de facto trading bloc.

Despite the attention Americans may lavish on the impressive growth of trans-Pacific trade in the last decade, intra-Asian trade has been expanding twice as fast. Over 70% of ASEAN's foreign trade is now conducted with other nations in the Western Pacific. And trade within the larger Western Pacific region now comprises nearly 65% of the region's foreign trade, up from 55% just eight years ago. Moreover, according to most estimates, the value of intra-Asian trade will exceed trans-Pacific trade early next decade.

Even so, virtually every nation in the region still engages in a substantial amount of trade outside the region, primarily with the United States and to a lesser degree with Western Europe. Indeed, had it not been for American and European consumers, the remarkable economic gains recorded by nearly every nation in the Western Pacific over the past few years would have been a good deal less spectacular.

But last winter ominous developments seemed to threaten the Western Pacific's access to the US and European markets.

In the US, frustration with enormous trade deficits continued to mount, feeding more aggressive protectionist sentiments aimed primarily at the Far East and most notably at Japan. In addition, the Americans and Canadians had just ratified a Free Trade Agreement to further integrate their already tightly knit economies, preliminary discussions were underway between US and Mexican trade officials, and there was even talk of negotiating a US-Japan trade pact.

Meanwhile, the European Community (EC) plan for removing virtually all remaining internal barriers to trade and investment by the end of 1992 was moving ahead, conjuring fears in some circles of an economic Fortress Europe.

Finally, the Uruguay Round of talks under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) had encountered a major setback in early December when high-level meetings at Montreal failed to produce any progress on a number of sensitive trade issues. A breakdown of these negotiations could have undermined confidence in the existing multilateral trading system, in turn driving individual nations to secure access to foreign markets by resorting to exclusionary trade pacts.

Circumstances such as these were certain to unsettle Australia and other economically non-aligned countries, especially those which depended heavily on rich export markets in North America and Western Europe.

As with most anyone else faced with an impending collapse of the prevailing order and the sense that others might be conspiring against him, Hawke concluded Australia should start a gang of its own. And the encouragement he received from the nations he initially recruited indicated how widely his apprehensions were shared in the Western Pacific.

In pitching his proposal, Hawke shrewdly refused to be describe in any detail the kind of regional organization he envisioned. He was keenly aware that some of his prospective partners were squeamish about being drawn into a formal trading bloc or into any organization whose agenda might involve more than just economic and trade issues. Still, given the circumstances of the time, it is inconceivable that Hawke did not at least long for a regional organization that would serve as a counter to the trading blocs of Europe and North American, while also offering a commercial refuge in the event the GATT collapsed under the strain of fruitless negotiations.

Regardless of what Hawke may have intended, any hope of realizing his original aims was soon thwarted by a party crasher, the United States. As the Bush administration pointedly observed, the US has more than a casual interest in the region's economic as well as military affairs and was not prepared to sit out Hawke's November planning conference.

Under pressure from Washington, Hawke was ultimately obliged to accept American as well as Canadian participation in the Canberra conference, leading the Australian press to charge that the US was hijacking the Prime Minister's initiative to suit its own commercial and strategic interests.

Apart from the fact that an American role was not at all consistent with Hawke's more limited and arguably more practical objectives, there were other significant problems associated with US participation in a regional organization in the Pacific.

Regrettably, these are problems that Americans proposing their own schemes for Pan-Pacific organizations seem inclined to ignore.

For one thing, the US is still very much a global power with widespread interests and involvements. Like Japan, it is an economic superpower; unlike Japan, it lies at the center of an intricate web of military alliances and foreign policy commitments worldwide. Despite the erosion of its economic clout, the United States remains the cornerstone of the Western alliance. Moreover, from a world trade perspective, it is as much an Atlantic as a Pacific nation, a fact that becomes rather obvious when one considers that the country's industrial and population centers are nowhere near its Pacific shore.

Because of America's multi-faceted interests, any organization involving the US risks becoming embroiled in controversies much more germane to America's role elsewhere in the world than to the somewhat narrower concerns of the Western Pacific. It is this prospect that could make membership unattractive for nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia which prefer a non-aligned status.

There is also the matter of defining the boundaries of the "Amazing Elastic Rim."

If the US is let in on the strength of its commercial ties with the Western Pacific, how could the European Community be denied? As a major trading partner of the Far East, the EC has a legitimate claim even though its membership would be absurd on geographic grounds.

But if geography is used to exclude the Europeans, on what grounds does one exclude the People's Republic of China? And if China is allowed in, how does one keep the Soviets out? And what about Chile or any of the other eleven Latin American nations with shore front property on the Pacific?

The typical American response is to include most nearly everyone, although there is the occasional tactless lapse. During a recent address in San Francisco, a senior aide to Alan Cranston, evidently forgetting the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement, seemed uncertain as to whether our northern neighbor and largest trading partner, would be involved in the Pacific forum idea the Senator is championing.

More common is the approach taken by former Deputy US Trade Representative Mike Smith. In an August 8 speech in Honolulu, Smith proposed a Pacific Rim free trade area that would include nations from every corner of the Pacific, except the USSR. Given the extraordinarily diverse and frequently conflicting interests of the widely dispersed nations of the Pacific at their various stages of economic development, and with their distinctive cultures, business practices and political systems, advocacy of an all-inclusive organization seems positively cavalier.

This casual attitude toward membership is characteristic of the fairly nebulous concepts that American leaders have thusfar advanced for a Pacific Rim forum. Perhaps because motives are mixed and often unclear, there is little agreement on our side of the ocean as to what such an organization would specifically seek to do.

For example, Secretary of State Baker has indicated he would like to have ecological issues included on the agenda of his forum, but there are others within the administration who would add regional security matters to the list. In other formulations, old standby rationales such as the patronage of cultural and educational exchanges have been trotted out, as have plans for more extensive athletic competition. But there is also more than a hint that America's decision to crash Hawke's party was predicated largely on a desire to prevent Japan from achieving economic hegemony in the region. In any event, it is no surprise that no one has yet provided a coherent description of what a Pan-Pacific Forum would do.

Even those who have confined themselves to schemes intended to promote economic development and harmonious trade relations across the broad sweep of the Pacific have been excruciatingly vague about how their plans would actually achieve these ends. Thus far, no serious proposal has ventured beyond the "let's-sit-down-and-chat" stage of intellectual maturation.

Alas, there are practical questions that won't go away. One particularly nettlesome problem that has received too little consideration involves accommodating both the US and Japan within such a body.

In light of the generally discordant state of contemporary US-Japan relations, why should anyone presume that the two nations would behave as perfect angels in the confines of a Pacific Rim institution? Clearly, resolving or at least minimizing current tensions between the two economic superpowers must precede the establishment of any regional organization in which both economic superpowers would be expected to cooperate earnestly.

And yet Mike Smith, among others, has actually recommended that the United States and Japan set aside most of their current trade negotiations in favor of jointly launching an initiative for a Pacific Rim free trade agreement. This, it seems to me, is as preposterous as telling a couple on the verge of divorce that the best way to save their marriage is to have a child.

Although issues currently dividing the United States and Japan are similar to those haunting our commercial relations with other nations of the Far East, it hardly follows that a multilateral forum offers any better chance of dealing successfully with US-Japanese trade disputes. Group therapy seldom works when the principal adversaries are in a much different league than the other participants. If anything, history certainly appears to suggest that altogether too much faith has been placed in the efficacy of multinational bodies in resolving bilateral disputes involving major powers.

Achieving greater harmony between the US and Japan is of greater importance than establishing a Pan-Pacific organization, and not merely because US trade with Japan is substantially greater than our combined trade with all other nations in the Western Pacific.

From a strategic as well as a commercial point of view, maintaining an agreeable relationship should be the highest foreign policy priority for both nations. And nothing, not even well-intentioned efforts to construct a Pan-Pacific organization, should distract the Japanese and American governments from this objective.

The US has significant issues to discuss with nations throughout the Pacific. Yet there is little evidence that a multinational forum offers a better vehicle for conflict resolution than do bilateral negotiations. By engaging in one-to-one talks, we should at least avoid the lamentable American habit of regarding all Asian nations as being pretty much alike.

Prime Minister Hawke's modest proposition of January had a certain compelling logic and might have resulted in an organization of some use to the nations of the Western Pacific. By contrast, the more grandiose and generally ill-considered schemes backed by several prominent Americans seem, well, downright Procrustean.

Copyright (c) 1989 by J. A. O'Connell

Other Articles by Jok O'Connell