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No Early Blossoms in DC

Updated On: Mar 16, 2009

US winter is as bleak and bitter as the mood in the Capital


THE day I flew into Washington, DC was bitterly cold. White snow dressed the usually green lawns and matched the city’s famous landmarks like the Washington Monument and White House.

The reflecting pool at the Mall, where so many had gathered to watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration, was iced over. Locals said it was one of the coldest days in March for 50 years and the sub-zero temperatures undercut hope for an early spring.

The weather mirrored the mood.

After initial optimism at the historic election of the charismatic new President, the focus in America and especially DC has returned to partisan politicking. Republicans decry the President’s massive spending to stimulate the economy.

The new administration stumbles in moving ahead to get key appointees into office to move ahead with work. After speeches by Mr Obama and new Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the stock markets respond by plunging to new lows.

And every bit of bad news or misstep — big or small — is played up by the media. America’s recovery, like the hope of new shoots in spring, seems a long way off.

At a conference, where I am speaking, someone talks about the recent visit to DC by Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. The fact that the Japanese leader was the first to visit Mr Obama in the White House reasserts the place of Japan in diplomatic protocol, coming on top of State Secretary Hillary Clinton making Tokyo her first stop.

The world’s two largest economies, both democracies, re-emphasise their alliance at this time of crisis. This might reassure.

But many asymmetries undercut this show of partnership. Mr Obama’s high approval contrasts to Mr Aso’s 10-per-cent level of support in polls that spark speculation of the opposition in Japan winning the next election. The drastic fall in Japanese exports that have crippled their economy relate quite directly to the fall in demand in the United States. The provision in the US stimulus package to “buy American” is causing concerns about protectionism that would heap more woes on Japanese exporters.

And while the Japanese have experience in dealing with asset bubbles and the nearfailure of their bank system, this led to more than a decade of no or slow growth. Japan avoided collapse but theirs is an example that no one hopes the US will emulate in responding to the current crisis.

After the conference, at a reception at the Japanese Ambassador’s impressive residence, I look out over a beautiful Japanese lake and garden. I wait in a snaking queue of guests for the hand-made rolls of sushi. At the other end of the large hall, plates of salad and cold cuts of beef — a sizeable and typical American buffet — attracts no crowd.

I try to imagine what would happen to the two buffet lines if an “Eat American” policy was asserted. I imagine a world in which protectionism cuts off America from products from Japan and other Asian countries, and vice versa.

Remember after all that Japan and the US, for all their alliance and friendship, have intractable differences over agriculture, including the rice in sushi rolls.

The US also feuds with another close Asian ally, South Korea, over beef. This has undercut the possible US-South Korea free trade agreement and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s popular support. The US has also fought with Vietnam over “cat fish”, insisting that imports use a different name to avoid confusion and protect “real” catfish produced in the US south.

I try to imagine a world in which the US — like Japan — falls into an extended period of stagnancy, still rich but enfeebled without quick reform or steady hope for growth, and leaders with declining support. It is a world in which spring and new shoots of growth may never come.

A Japanese expert on the symbolism of cherry blossoms strikes up a conversation. She has come to give a talk at the Library of Congress since both Tokyo and the US Capitol are famous for the sight of these profuse, pink blossoms. Her talk was timed with the initial hope of coinciding with warmer weather and their blooming.

But, she smiles wanely, this does not now seem likely.

I think that while both cities share the cherry blossom as a symbol, they interpret them differently. The Japanese sense the transience of life in the brief colourful flowering, to be followed by decline and death. The Americans’ in-built optimism sees hope for warmer days.

When I go to the airport, the weather predictions are that the cold snap will pass and the weekend will see warm weather melt the ice away. I decide to pack away my winter coat. At an airport store, I buy a fridge magnet with Obama’s image on it, and a single word: “Hope”.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the US and concurrently chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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