Thursday, April 17, 2014
Rockefeller rebooted for Asia's century
Many US citizens have heard the phrase "American century", coined by media mogul Henry Luce in 1941 in an article predicting the post-World War-II rise of America as a superpower. Fewer know that another titan of American industry, John D Rockefeller, gently opened the way for a multipolar world through his philanthropic activities in Asia.
John D Rockefeller's relationship with China started during the American Civil War, when the business magnate sold kerosene in the country and supported missionary work there. It can be argued that Rockefellers' Asian legacy is an important part of America's multicultural heritage.
At the Rockefeller Foundation's first board meeting in 1913, plans to focus on providing healthcare in China led to the development of the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing. Opened just four years later, the institution still stands today.
Perhaps no other American family has contributed more to cultivating and broadening our understanding of the arts, cultures and traditions of Asia than the Rockefellers.
John D Rockefeller III, father of the four-term US Senator Jay Rockefeller from West Virginia, founded the Asia Society in 1956 with the aim of promoting greater knowledge of Asia in the US.
As a former president of Asia Society, Vishakha Desai, has stated, "The Asia Society's success is due in large measure to the foresight of John D Rockefeller III, his parents, and the successive generations of Rockefellers who understood the social, economic, political and cultural significance of Asia long before most of the American public."
When this author first moved to New York City after completing graduate studies at Harvard, on several occasions I visited the Asian Art Fair, where a dizzying array of Asian art was annually displayed at the Armory on the Upper East Side, partly sponsored by the Asia Society.
During one of these visits I accompanied my mother to observe the miniaturized figurines of the ancient fertility goddesses, admired for their terracotta clay originally from the Harappa region, which is part and parcel of the 2,500-year-old Indus valley civilization.
Today, as Asia embraces globalization, there is a need to revive the Rockefeller vision for the 21st century. How can we synchronize the ancient and the post-modern with the humane and the technologically advanced? In the age of hyper-connectivity and big data, our universal pursuit of global culture must harmonize billions of growing minds in Asia and the West.
"What clear vision Rockefeller had," wrote Richard C Holbrooke, former chairman of Asia Society, on the 50th anniversary of its founding. "He founded the Asia Society only 11 years after World War II, only three years after the Korean War - well before Vietnam became a national trauma. Asia was perceived by most Americans then as an area that meant poverty, disease, overpopulation, and war. The Asian American community was nearly invisible."
At the New York City headquarters recently, the new president of Asia Society Jossette Sheeran announced that it was launching an innovative think-tank to develop "solutions for the Asian century".
The non-partisan, "Asia-centric global network" of experts will be working to create the solutions that advance prosperity, security and sustainability of Asia and the world. The goal is to attain a new level of understanding between Asia and the US in a global context and build on Asia Society's policy successes.
At a keynote address at the Asia Society Policy Institute's launch on April 8, deputy secretary of state William J Burns highlighted the importance of the US's pivot: "As a Pacific nation in the midst of a Pacific century, we are fully committed to this historic undertaking."
The Asia Society Policy Institute plans to create a network of experts who could offer both an in-depth local, managerial, corporate, and global policy perspective on the major challenges of the day.
Towards that end, a panel of diplomats and policymakers attempted an open and frank discussion on the ways in which Obama administration's attempts to "pivot" or "rebalance" have been perceived on the other side of the Pacific by both small and large nations.
While Singaporean Ambassador to the US Ashok Kumar Mirpuri whole-heartedly welcomed the American pivot, former prime minister of pakistan Shaukat Aziz, with its roller-coaster relationship with the US, seemed at best ambivalent about the strategy.
Speaking at the event, China's ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said that a sound China-US relationship was very important to maintaining peace and prosperity in Asia.
Cui quoted Lao Tzu in reference to the pivot, saying "We have to come up with a new way". The reference is to a Taoist idea of a pathway that is indescribable, which cannot be put into words.
"If the two sides can reject more firmly the Cold War mentality, can rise above the constraint and confines of outdated military alliances and truly see each other’s success as an opportunity for common prosperity, China-US relations can certainly see greater progress in the future."
Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at the Institute for Global Cultural Studies, SUNY-Binghamton.