LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Abraham Lowenthal : Redefining U.S. Foreign Policy by Focusing on the Pacific Rim

<i> Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a producer for Fox News, and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." </i>

This weekend, a select group of movers and shakers from the Western United States are meeting in Marina Del Rey to discuss such international issues as trade policy, immigration, environmental controls and human rights. The gathering is the inaugural retreat of a new Los Angeles-based think tank, the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Unlike most Eastern policy-formulating organizations, the council will have as its focus the Pacific Rim--the western parts of North, Central and South America and the nations of Asia. Billing itself as nonpartisan, it will conduct study groups, issue reports and plans to publish a journal, all with an eye toward the increasing role international events--particularly those to the south and west--play in determining the quality of our lives here at home.

A West Coast-based policy organization with a focus on Asia and Latin America seems like a timely idea. Witness the current conflict over trade with Japan and the struggle to establish intellectual-property rights in countries like China. The decline in the dollar, concerns about North Korean nuclear proliferation and the nation’s confused relationship with Vietnam--all seem to cry out the need for new policies and new initiatives.

The driving force behind the Pacific Council is Abraham F. Lowenthal, director of USC’s Center for International Studies and a well-known authority on Latin America. Lowenthal, 54, has attracted a variety of top-echelon leaders from the public and private sectors and has raised some $3 million to fund the new institution. He says that although it will be headquartered in Los Angeles, the Pacific Council will be a regional, national and international organization--and he claims that investing in it will pay off in expanded trade, more jobs and better international relations.


Lowenthal was educated at Harvard; he has served as a fellow at the Brookings Institution and at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was an ardent supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement. His wife, Jane S. Jaquette, shares his interest in international affairs and teaches at Occidental College. His two grown children live in New England.

At his home in Santa Monica, Lowenthal talked about the need to educate Western U.S. leaders on the myriad issues of international affairs and about the importance of impressing upon regular people the impact events in faraway countries can have in their daily lives.


Question: When someone wants to find answers to questions about the Pacific Rim, they’re likely to look toward East Coast-based institutions. Why is it that the centers of study about something that concerns us so much here are in the East?

Answer: I’m not certain it’s accurate to say the centers of study are only in the East, but it’s certainly true that the main centers for bringing together leaders to discuss national issues in general are in the Northeast . . . .

You have to go back to the era between 1915 and 1925, when a number of organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations, were formed. This was a time when the U.S. role in the world had changed--and the live wires on Wall Street and in industry, in the law firms and so on, recognized that the United States would be affected by things going on in the world.

But when they talked about the world, they basically meant Europe. Those Eastern organizations had great influence on foreign policy, especially after the end of the Second World War, when the country had to figure out new strategies for the changes brought on by the postwar era.

The premise upon which we are now working . . . is that the world has changed again. And American society has changed as well, so that it seems inconceivable that a small group of men from the Northeast are going to decide what America’s foreign-policy interests are.

America’s role in the world is now being defined by open political discussion--the NAFTA debate is, I think, a forerunner of how American policy will be defined in the future. And the interesting thing about NAFTA is that, if the Congress included only representatives from east of the Rockies, NAFTA would have been defeated. It was passed because of support in the West.

As California and the West continue to grow in influence, it’s important that we develop new forums for exchanging ideas among people who make decisions in a variety of different sectors--government, large corporations, small business, trade unions, education, professions. Europe is no longer the focus. If you look at the trade figures, it’s Asia, Mexico and Latin America--that’s where the markets are growing. And we have a high level of expertise in these areas right here, in our universities, in our businesses and in our diverse population . . . . *

Q: We’ve heard so much about the decade of the Pacific Rim, and L.A.'s role as a center of this new region. Though trade figures show we are at the center, why has Los Angeles not become to the Pacific Rim what Miami is to South America?

A: Part of the problem is that the Pacific Rim is a construct and not a reality as such. It doesn’t have a center--Los Angeles, or any other place. But Los Angeles ought to make itself central to communications and the networking of ideas in this broad region. It is something that would be very much in the interest of all of us--not just here, but throughout the Western United States--if there were more concerted efforts to make Los Angeles central to the Pacific Rim, because it is one of the most dynamic population centers of the region. So rather than thinking about perception or reality, I think we should be thinking about opportunity.


Q: Is one of our problems the divided vision we have in Los Angeles? We look back east, feeling a bit inferior. We often look south with fear and loathing. We look west, and we’re mystified. Is this lack of focus holding us back in our relations with countries like China, Vietnam, Malaysia?

A: The failure to focus can have grave consequences. When you look at America’s exports, and the expanded opportunity for trade--which mean jobs--the real possibilities are in Pacific Asia and Latin America, and yet we don’t have a good focus on those regions. The Clinton Administration has probably gone farther than any previous one in defining those areas as being of great importance. But having a focus requires sustained attention--and, so far, we are not doing that.

Here in Los Angeles, we have a great wealth in our population groups--people from Mexico and Latin America, and from virtually every country in Pacific Asia. New York City became an important international center in part because of its varied demographic connections. We are in a similar position. We can build influence by taking advantage of the knowledge and understanding about the world which comes from those diverse population groups who live here in Los Angeles.


Q: One complaint many business people have here is that the infrastructure to support international trade is weak--compared with cities like Chicago or Seattle. Will this be an important issue for your group?

A: It is something we will look into. I’m not a trade specialist, but there are plenty of people here who are. I think we should try to access what needs to be done. But I should make it clear that the Pacific Council is not a trade-promotion organization. It’s an organization that wants to look at a broad range of issues that affect the lives of people in the western part of America--intellectual-property rights, immigration policy, environment, human rights--a whole host of policies, among which these trade issues are important, but not exclusive.


Q: But isn’t trade central to everything? In the past decade, we’ve seen economics conquer ideology, and particularly in the Pacific Rim, trade has become a revolutionizing force.

A: I’m not sure what you mean by trade conquering ideology, but I think there are some very important political and ideological issues that are not resolved by expanding trade. Issues of human rights, free political participation, free expression--these are central questions, and the real trick is how to reconcile efforts to expand economic growth and trade, with efforts to protect rights and expand democratic governments.


Q: There is an growing expression among some U.S. business people that many Asian nations have trade policies actively hostile to our interests. Is that a legitimate concern and is it a valid topic for debate within your organization?

A: A conflict between countries over trade policy--such as the current one between our country and Japan--is very important for us to focus on and try to analyze what are the true issues. We have to ask what’s behind their policies, and what’s behind our own. By doing that, we may be able to identify areas of potential reconciliation and find ways to check the core interests of each party.

We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we have very sensible economic policies internationally, and other countries have self-interested, narrow, projectionist policies. But if we step back and look at the history, we can recognize that we have often, and still do, pursue policies that other groups regard as selfish and self-promoting. That’s the natural way of the world--countries organize themselves to protect the interests of their people. In our country, we have such an open political process, which is so permeable to influence by particular interests at so many places, that we come out with very mixed-up policies.

I worked on the Caribbean Initiative in the Reagan Administration--to allow for more free trade with Caribbean nations. But the exceptions were textiles, sugar and practically every other significant export from the region. So what we need to do now is look ahead at how economic involvements are changing and try and figure out ways to reconcile conflict in the mutual interest of countries.


Q: When we think Pacific Rim, we see the West Coast of North America and the nations of Asia. Many forget Central and South America. Is that a mistake, and what is overlooked when we think that way?

A: Well, take as an example Chile. It’s a country of modest size in terms of population and overall national product, but it’s been very successful at simultaneously restoring democracy and finding niches of international trade where it could really make a difference. For example, Norway is the world’s largest exporter of Atlantic salmon. Chile is the second-largest exporter--even though Chile does not have an Atlantic coast. They’ve brought salmon from Norway, parlayed them in their Pacific waters and now market them in places like Los Angeles as Atlantic salmon. They’ve found other niches--wine, table fruits, raspberries. Chile’s largest export market is Japan. They have successfully oriented their economy to recognize the importance of Asian markets.

We on the West Coast of the United States can seize our own niche within the dynamic economies of South America. If we organize ourselves right, we can become a bridge between South America and Asia. We have this blurred border with Mexico, this strong population of people of Latin American background and a concern and familiarity with the region. We can bring together people from Argentina and Brazil, from Chile and Peru, with partners in Asia. That would position us to broker relationships, build deals and expand political and economic relationships in ways that could be interesting.


Q: What impact do you hope this organization might have on the average walking-around Angeleno?

A: The regular, walking-around person on the street, whether it’s in Los Angeles, or San Diego or Denver--everyone in the Western United States--lives in a world where things happening outside our borders are increasingly important to their daily lives. Important to whether they have a job, what the schools are like. What is the status of public health, and is the environment threatened? Drugs and the narcotics trade, and the value of the dollar they carry in their billfold. Every one of those things is affected by what goes on beyond our borders. To say, “Forget about all this international stuff, let’s concentrate on problems here at home,” doesn’t make sense anymore.

If our decision-makers, in the public and private sectors, understood international trends better, and developed smarter responses to things like German and Japanese economic policy, or changes in migration patterns, it would certainly have a real impact on the lives of people. And that’s at the essence.

But it’s not the sort of thing where we do a study on an issue and, three weeks later, people’s pockets are full, or their neighborhood is safer or their schools have improved. But everything interesting in life happens at the margin, step by step. And it’s in this way that our organization--if it can attract the right people and keep them focused--will have a real, positive impact on people’s lives.