We Can't Banish 'the Smoke of Trade and Battle'

November 25, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

SEATTLE — Seattle. -- In October 1900, when this was a raw town of 80,000, across the continent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a Harvard philosopher, George Santayana, addressed an undergraduate literary club, delivering a pointed poem, ''Young Sam's First Wild Oats,'' which began:

Mid Uncle Sam's expanded acres

There's an old, secluded glade

Where gray Puritans and Quakers

Still grow fervid in the shade;

And the same great elms and beeches

That once graced the ancestral farm,

Bending to the old men's speeches,

Lend their words an echo's charm.

Laurel, clematis and vine

Weave green trellises about,

And three maples and a pine

Shut the mucker-village out.

Yet the smoke of trade and battle

Cannot quite be banished hence,

And the air-line to Seattle

.` Whizzes just behind the fence.

Back then, before the birth of Seattle's Boeing corporation, an ''air-line'' was a fast train. In Santayana's poem, such a train symbolized the mingling of booming commerce and imperial politics which much of Harvard's faculty considered unaesthetic mucker-village'') and immoral. McKinley's re-election campaign and the angry debate about the Philippines -- America's acquisition of Pacific empire -- were boiling along. Santayana was indicting people whose politics amounted, he believed, to a feckless wish that the world would spin another way.

Today protectionism is a popular form of wishful thinking -- more popular and durable than many complacent people think now that NAFTA has been approved. But protectionism cannot deflect the forces that have turned this nation's attention to the ocean on the left side of the continent.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher says ''Eurocentric'' policies are anachronistic because ''Western Europe is no longer the dominant area of the world,'' his words express what the president's behavior expresses. Mr. Clinton has not been to Paris, London or Bonn but has been to Tokyo and Seoul.

The Asian orientation of U.S. policy is partly a result of Europe's decadence. Just two years ago there was much dreamy rhetoric about ''Euro 1992'' ushering in a new age. But 1992 came and went and in 1993 old Europe is paralyzed about ethnic cleansing, mean-spirited toward emerging democracies and market economies to the east, and stagnates beneath bloated welfare states. And American exports to Asia exceed those to Europe.

Twenty percent of all jobs in Seattle, which is a sailing day closer to Japan than Los Angeles is, are involved in trade. Last year the state of Washington exported $33.5 billion worth of its products, from apples and timber to aircraft and software.

Boeing's exports to Asia last year earned $5 billion. By 2010 China, which last year bought one of every six aircraft Boeing made, will need $40 billion worth of aircraft -- 800 aircraft in 17 years. Seattle's Microsoft corporation says revenues from the Asian nations represented at last week's APEC conference are growing 60 percent a year, twice as fast as revenues from Europe or America.

Today, 209 years after the first American ship -- the Empress of China -- sailed from New York to Asia, patterns of trade are infuriatingly perplexing to people eager to understand the world in terms of a tidy us-versus-them dichotomy. For example, Taiwan's largest exporter of electronic equipment is AT&T. The absence of clarity encourages a politics of anxiety and a continuing quest for protection.

Sixty percent of House Democrats opposed NAFTA, which would not have passed if a Republican were president. Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, has a better head on his shoulders than sits on 99 percent of Washington shoulders, and he has a canniness that deserves a better cause. He has demonstrated that a huge, diverse constituency, animated by both economic interests and cultural concerns, can be mobilized against free trade.

But, you say, does not the NAFTA vote reflect the strength of free-trade principles? Hardly. The truth is in this vignette:

As the NAFTA vote drew near, a pro-NAFTA Republican approached a fence-sitting Florida Republican and said, hopefully: ''We seem to have solved your problem about sugar and citrus.'' The fence-sitter replied with one word: ''Tomatoes.'' Principled believers in free trade were a minority in the pro-NAFTA majority.

So, as the argument about protectionism continues, proponents free trade would do well to stress a certain kinship between America and its trading partners along the Pacific rim.

In their overflowing energy and their often raw practices, including their protectionism that they must outgrow, the Asian nations resemble America in the post-Civil War ''gilded age,'' when roaring steel mills made the rails over which whizzed the air-line to Seattle.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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