In This Review

From Dominoes to Dynamos: The Transformation of Southeast Asia
From Dominoes to Dynamos: The Transformation of Southeast Asia
By John Bresnan
Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994, 115 pp.

Bresnan's volume, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, is the most thoughtful, comprehensive, and insightful recommendation yet on the adjustment needed for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. It should be widely read in Washington.

No serious reader can put this book down without harboring deep concern about the ability of the American political system to rise to the occasion. In the areas of security, economics, and human rights, the challenges are formidable. In the security realm, the author quotes one influential Southeast Asian analyst as follows:

There is enormous goodwill toward the United States in Southeast Asia. But the hard feeling is that China and Japan are here to stay, and these two countries will have to be dealt with. One is not clear whether the United States is in fact a reliable player in this equation . . . It's not so much the size of the presence that the United States has in Southeast Asia, it's the perception. And the perception right now is of the United States in withdrawal.

On the economic front, the author stresses the need to expand exports much faster than in the past. But he points out the innumerable obstacles, many of them self-inflicted. The U.S. Trade Act of 1988 has diverted official U.S. attention from the biggest economic opportunities in the region. American companies lack competitive financing. The U.S. government, according to its own representatives, is in disarray in its foreign economic policy. The capital-short United States will be unable for at least ten years to make investments in Southeast Asia or anywhere else abroad. New incentives are needed to change traditional corporate behavior. The quality of the Department of Commerce and its numerous dependent agencies needs to be improved, but this branch of government is the most heavily staffed by political appointees of any in the U.S. government. And the funding of the Export-Import Bank comes nowhere near the level of that provided by Japan. Moreover, U.S. export credits, small as they are, are biased in favor of agricultural products even though they represent only ten percent of U.S. exports.

Finally, the author demonstrates how far from a consensus the United States and Southeast Asian governments are on the human rights issue.

In sum, this sober volume makes it clear that the U.S. government has its work cut out for it if it hopes to fashion a credible role for itself in post-Cold War Southeast Asia.