A foreign policy debate in post-Cold War Washington pits "realists," who think the United States should just defend its raw self-interest in the world, against "idealists," who think America should promote human rights and democracy in other nations. A meeting taking place on the other side of the globe last week shows what a phony debate that can be -- because it shows that promoting democracy very often is in U.S. self-interest.
The meeting took place in Jakarta, where the foreign ministers of seven Southeast Asian nations seemed to take considerable pleasure in shooting down U.S. ideas relating to trade and human rights. The outcome wasn't good for the United States -- but it was no victory for the people of Southeast Asia, either. If the politicians gathered in Jakarta had to answer to those people, as few of them do, the policy outcome might have been different.
Take corruption in trade. The United States, alone in the world, bars its companies from paying bribes to win overseas contracts. Under pressure from some U.S. executives to relax the law, the U.S. government instead is pushing for others to follow U.S. standards. This would benefit U.S. companies, but it would benefit the developing world, too. Western firms bidding to, say, build an airport would know that the best offer would win the job. Host countries would get the best airport at the cheapest price, without millions of taxpayer dollars finding their way into ministers' overseas bank accounts. Trade and investment would increase. The only real losers would be less-competent construction firms -- and ruling elites having to suddenly live on their salaries.
But last week the seven-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) said no dice: Their corruption, in essence, is their business. If more of them had to face voters back home, they might have taken the issue more seriously. Of course, there's graft in democracies, too, but voters over time tend to object to the kind of wholesale looting endemic to some dictatorships.
The ASEAN countries also dismissed western efforts to discourage child labor in developing-world sweatshops. Now, there's no question that Western trade unions and other organizations sometimes cloak protectionism in a mantle of pious concern over child labor or low Third World wages. The West is hypocritical in expressing such concern while maintaining tariffs that keep those Third World workers from earning an honest living. There's also no denying the arrogance of U.S. firms disseminating everything from Coca-Cola to "Baywatch" around the world, and expecting the world to be grateful (which, more often than not, it is). And the "gift-giving culture" of Asian nations may indeed differ from America's.
But when Asia's authoritarian rulers, from Beijing to Singapore, complain about U.S. disregard for their "cultural values," it's fair to ask what gives them the right to represent their nations' culture to the world (the democratic Philippines being a notable exception). If the dictators of Vietnam or Indonesia -- both ASEAN members -- are so sure that corruption or child labor are part of Asian culture, why don't they put the question to a vote? The fact is that in countries that give some political space to nongovernmental organizations, such as Thailand, citizens soon begin agitating for decent treatment for workers, the end of child exploitation and honesty in government procurement.
Masters of the "culture defense" are the brutal military rulers of Burma, whom ASEAN'S fellow-strongmen welcomed last week as observers, on their way to full membership. Burma's dictators actually exposed themselves to election six years ago, forgetting Fidel Castro's warning that "the people can make mistakes." When an astonishing four-fifths of the people "mistakenly" voted against the regime and for the democratic party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the regime put her under house arrest and resumed its ruthless imprisonment of dissidents and its press-ganging of slave labor.
Burma's foreign minister, celebrating his nation's arrival at ASEAN, last week said his country respects "the norms and ideals of human rights."
"But like in any other country in Southeast Asia, we have to take into consideration our culture, our history, our ethos," Ohn Gyaw said. "What is good in other countries cannot be good in our country."
As he spoke in Jakarta, his government's controlled press back home was vilifying Aung San Suu Kyi, the courageous democratic leader who is married to a Briton. "Aung San Suu Kyi had her blood mixed with that of an Englishman and gave birth to two half-castes," it said. "Suu Kyi has been in the Englishman's arms."
Now some Americans have joined with ASEAN in promoting "constructive engagement" with the Burma regime. It's true that stable dictatorships can offer profitable opportunities for some U.S. investors, such as the energy giant Unocal, which has a $1.2 billion natural-gas contract in Burma now. Other energy firms so far have made more progress in the authoritarian former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan than in chaotic Russia.
In the long run, though, the commercial interests of the vast majority of U.S. firms will be better served by democratic governments, which promote economic growth, workers' rights, child protection and the rule of law. The people of the developing world will be better served by the same. It's got very little to do with culture; it's a question of being realistic.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company