Asia's vast economic potential and its enduring romantic appeal enfeebled Western thinking about the region in the 1990s. The people of East Timor now pay the price, in blood.
In the first blush of the global age, Asia became the promising future and Europe the grim past in Conventional Wisdom 101.
But Asia is also a region of unfinished revolutions and of deep social conflicts. Asian countries have developed no effective common institutions to deal with their own explosive volatility, which has been exacerbated by this decade's boom-and-bust cycle. The powers of Europe and North America, seduced by the promises of riches to be had in an Asian status quo, have not sought to advance serious political change in the area.
The sickening government-inspired slaughter and destruction that have swept East Timor in recent days crystallize the reality that Asian nations and the international community are unprepared and unwilling to deal honestly with Asia as a regional and global powder keg.
Three months ago President Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair and NATO's other leaders spoke proudly of the new era in humanitarian intervention that their Kosovo campaign had inaugurated. But Asia appears to lie outside the new zone of shared humanitarian responsibility.
NATO's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo showed that Europe did learn the lessons of two world wars. One is to keep the United States deeply involved in European security. Another has been to develop regional economic superstructures that foster stabilizing forms of political integration.
But in Asia, regional organizations work hard to keep all eyes focused on trade and away from politics. Pushing trade as the paramount value in international relations is the raison d'etre of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and a reason the Clinton administration has felt so at home with APEC.
Expect no serious protests or ideas about what is happening in East Timor from that toothless organization's well-publicized annual summit in New Zealand this weekend. Nor will you hear any protests from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the only other major pan-Asian regional body with any political clout.
The United States has long preferred to deal with Asian nations bilaterally rather than help develop effective regional structures. The Clinton administration's obsessive focus on Asia as a zone in which only trade and economics matter has made things worse. When Clinton sketched his thoughts on the world's security problems in an Aug. 16 address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he did not even mention Asia, although he talked at length about Russia, the Middle East and Africa.
Even if the United States were ready to take on a more ambitious and visionary role in stabilizing Asia, it would receive no significant support from its European allies, who take an even more shortsighted view of Asia as a source of profits than do Americans. The Europeans look the other way when North Korea rattles missiles at American forces or China threatens Taiwan.
Asia not only lacks structures that resemble NATO and the European Union: Asia does not even have the equivalent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sets guidelines on human rights and democracy for its members. ASEAN's motto on these subjects is: Don't ask, don't tell.
Regional structures are no panacea. But their lack is a telling admission of the refusal by Asian governments and their American and European partners to set standards on human rights and democracy in Asia and then seek to hold Asian governments to those standards. Western thinkers who say they practice Realpolitik elsewhere grow misty-eyed and romantically patronize the Asians as having societies with different values when massacres occur.
Indonesian President B. J. Habibie and his foreign minister, Ali Alatas, have at least indirectly abetted the attacks on the East Timorese by denying that the bloodshed is occurring under the complaisant eyes of their military. As the attacks intensified, these leaders insisted that their forces were in control. They say no international intervention was needed.
Such public lies are on their way to becoming material for war crimes indictments in Europe. Habibie, Alatas and armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto appear to have settled on a strategy that outdoes Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic in ruthless cynicism: They permitted the East Timorese to vote for independence by a 4 to 1 margin in a referendum on Aug. 30, then unleashed the military to punish the Timorese for their vote and to make independence now impossible.
They place themselves beyond the pale with their pretense. But they know they are unlikely to pay any real costs in international relations. The United States and the U.N. Security Council have dithered as the killing has intensified.
"Where is the dignity of the Security Council members?" Portuguese Ambassador Ana Gomes demanded as they put off action yet again on Monday and deferred to Indonesia's sovereign powers. In tatters, ambassador.