Introduction: Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia: Fostering Links Between Americans and East Asians on Shared Social Concerns

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

June 5, 1998

This conference built on one of the conclusions that emerged from the Human Rights Initiative’s multiyear project on human rights in East Asia: U.S. relations with East Asia need to extend beyond a narrow focus on trade and security issues to address social problems in the region. Many of these social problems—for example, poverty, inadequate safety nets, insufficient health care programs, aging populations, the loosening of family ties—exist in the United States as well.

This phenomenon suggests a new approach to human rights policy between Asia and the West, particularly the United States: one based on a recognition of mutuality and a desire for cooperation, rather than confrontation. Such a policy would recognize that all individuals have a responsibility to speak out in the face of any human rights violation, whether in the East, in the West, or elsewhere. As much of the work to confront such problems is occurring on the local level, the task would be to create a more enabling environment for the cooperation of groups confronting and coping with cultural and social transformation—a first step in any “social foreign policy.”

When cultural resistance hardens, it places U.S. diplomacy on the defensive, even in matters of security and trade. Yet the government of the United States, convinced of the intrinsic attractiveness of its values, has never been adept at purposefully cultivating cultural bonds. This task must be addressed more seriously than it has been in the past. However, with reductions in U.S. foreign assistance funding and the assertive independence of many developing world societies, the bulk of this work is being done outside official circles. Civil society has become an increasingly important actor in U.S. relations with the outside world and in any conception of a “social foreign policy.”

The conference was an opportunity to bring together leading organizations and individuals specializing in three key issue areas—housing, the environment, and foreign workers—to discuss the dislocations produced in each country by rapid globalization and social change, and to describe how members of these societies are coping with them. In addition, participants identified the human, social, and material resources in their countries that could be bolstered to offset some of the detrimental effects of social change. Finally, participants elaborated on ways to create a more enabling environment for social actors to form productive collaborations in carrying out their shared objectives. The conference, which took place at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., on April 2 and 3, 1998, was cosponsored with the United States Institute of Peace.