By Arthur I. Cyr
Scripps Howard News Service
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun an Asia trip by visiting Japan, still the most important ally of the United States in that massive region despite the rise of China.
Asian nations in total account for a steadily growing share of the global economy. Since 1985, total U.S. trade with Asia has surpassed that with Europe.
Secretary Clinton underscored this fundamental fact of economic life in her first public statement on arrival in Tokyo.
Unspoken but also important is former Senator Clinton's standing as a political leader in the U.S., and principal rival President Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination.
China has now surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world, after the United States. While the former economy continues to expand, albeit at a reduced rate, the latter contracted by approximately 12 percent in 2008, reflecting the severe current global recession.
Japan, however, remains by far the more advanced economy, with powerful efficiencies and technologies in fields ranging from industrial manufacturing to telecommunications. The half-century old Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of our security relationships in Asia.
After defeat in World War II, Japan formally renounced a military role beyond self-defense. Military spending is limited to approximately one percent of the gross national product (GNP).
That still translates into a military establishment sufficient to make China and other neighbors nervous. In turn, the relentless rise of China, including a rapidly expanding military budget, creates anxiety in Japan.
Coincident with Clinton's visit, North Korea has begun preparations to test a new relatively long-range missile capable of reaching Alaska as well as Japan.
This is not the first instance of rocket rattling by Pyongyang, but the timing underscores that some Cold War aspects linger.
Secretary Clinton has condemned the missile project while promising renewal of desperately needed economic aid if North Korea changes course.
Secretary Clinton's partisan role in U.S. politics inevitably complicates diplomatic leadership. President Obama regularly refers to his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, who appointed political rivals to his own Cabinet.
William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, had been a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination. This practice, however, has not been typical of modern presidents.
Since World War II, only three U.S. senators have served as secretary of state, James Byrnes in the Truman administration, John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower administration and Edmund Muskie in the Carter administration.
Byrnes' service reflects continuation of prewar practice, Dulles was appointed to fill an unexpired term and defeated in the election, and Muskie was picked by a beleaguered president desperate to improve rapidly deteriorating Congressional relations.
Obama deserves credit for courage as well as collegiality in picking Clinton for the job, especially given the intense, at times bitter character of their competition for the Democratic nomination.
The President initially has divided top diplomatic responsibilities. Vice President Joe Biden led the U.S. delegation to the recent European security conference in Munich, Germany.
So far in Asia, Secretary Clinton is demonstrating she has done serious homework, is well briefed and articulate. Japan as the initial destination reflects a solid sense of history. In an era of global interdependence and integration of societies as well as economies, a very smart domestic politician may provide very effective leadership of American foreign policy.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org For more stories, visit Scripps Howard News Service (www.shns.com).