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Worldwide Locations

Former US Diplomat on US-Asia Relations

Nicholas Platt (harvard.edu)

Nicholas Platt (harvard.edu)


The period of your service in the diplomatic corps coincided with the period of the Cold War. A number of people have suggested that with the end of the Cold War, Islam has replaced Communism as the great threat (or "evil" to use the popular idiom) to American interests. Given your experience in Muslim countries, how would you respond to this claim?

I think this analysis is wildly oversimplified. Having lived in a Muslim society, my experience was with a religion that was broadly moderate which had, like our own, extremist fringes. It is the extremist fringes that have inflamed the world and are regarded as the big threat. It is a huge mistake, though, to equate the extremist fringes with the broad body of believers in Islam, just as it is with Christianity. I do not think that the West or the US or anybody else has a conflict with Islam per se but we do with the extremist fringes.

So you do not believe that there are certain highly placed people - in the academy, in policymaking circles, in the Administration - who are making this argument persuasively, i.e, that at the level of ideology, Islam functions in the same way now as Communism did during the Cold War?

There are people who think that but they are extremists themselves! These people have, in their own way, just as extreme an ideological mindset as the people they are pointing to.

What did you see as the role of the Asia Society following the events of September 11, 2001? How, if at all, under your leadership, did the mission and goals of the institution change as a result?

There were several facets to our response to 9/11. First of all, as a New York institution that had just gone through an extensive renovation, we felt that we should postpone the opening and be responsive to the mood of the community. In fact, when we did open almost two months after we had initially planned, it was regarded as a constructive event rather than as an inappropriate celebration. People in New York really wanted to see things continue, to see life go on, for new things to happen, so they welcomed us.

At the programming level, we saw an immediate need to do a great deal more programming on Islam, on Afghanistan, on the impact of Al-Qaeda in regions of significance to the Asia Society, and that included Afghanistan and Pakistan particularly. Of course that also fed into an urgency about programming vis-à-vis India and Kashmir. Within days, we started to do programming on the situation in Afghanistan. We then tried to integrate some of these political and religious themes into cultural programming as well. If you look at the programs for that year, you will see an integrated packaging of programs around the need for more knowledge about Islam and the need to try and address some of the questions that were most on people's minds: Why are we hated in other parts of the world and what can we do about it?

You have said in a speech recently that, "While there was scant approval among the populations of the Asian countries for our policy towards Iraq, the behavior of the governments was generally supportive of the US, and our relationships were, for the most part in good shape." Do you feel that this disjuncture - between popular will and elected governments - might eventually backfire and make the US more unpopular in the region? In other words, how is it possible for the US to manage this kind of dissonance, which seems particularly unsustainable in democratic contexts?

I have been back to Asia several times since I wrote that speech [in February 2004], and I have found that - with the exception of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where issues related to extreme Islam are front and center - that Asian countries remain mainly preoccupied with their own politics and economics. They are all on a big growth roll right now. Even though their peoples do not approve of what we are doing, they seem to back their governments' desire for a supportive relationship with us.

You can go country by country, from Australia to India to China to Japan, and our policies in Iraq are controversial. But they are not terribly high priority in those areas. Of course a lot depends on how the situation plays out. Like our elections, these attitudes are going to be event-driven and to the extent that these events are favorable or neutral, there will not be much change in the situation. But if there are more disasters and so forth, this will have a bad impact on the way the US is viewed. Most of our Asian allies are reasonably well disposed to America in general even though they have problems with the government and government policy.

There are people in Korea worried about us lowering our troop levels, sending 10 per cent of those stationed in Korea to Iraq. There are people who are worried about where to send the Korean troops that they have committed to us in Iraq. But they are not central, inflaming issues at this stage.