Hillary Clinton in Asia

March 22, 1995

Hillary Rodham Clinton's extensive visit to South Asia, which starts Friday, may not look very innovative at first glance. After all, first ladies have traveled abroad before, and Mrs. Clinton is just back from a conference in Copenhagen. Still, her trip to five South Asian countries holds the promise of some valuable dividends, both for the United States and for the countries she's visiting.

Many South Asians have what is often called a love-hate relationship with this country. Actually, it's more of an admiration-envy attitude. Much of it relates to the material wealth Indians, Pakistanis and their neighbors see in Hollywood movies or, more recently, on television. But a good deal of it draws on the more liberal social system here, notably the freedom of women to pursue their own goals unfettered by what can amount to bondage in their own societies. In that respect a woman emissary, especially a president's wife, can communicate with people in a way no male envoy can.

Not that Mrs. Clinton will be meeting just a bunch of downtrodden women. Quite the contrary. Two of the nations she is visiting, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are governed by women prime ministers, and a third, India, has had one. (All three were daughters of previous prime ministers.) And Mrs. Clinton's advance team has spotted pioneering projects by and for women which are breaking some of the shackles, like a bank in Bangladesh that gives loans to impoverished women to set up their own cottage industries.

Whatever faults are ascribed to Mrs. Clinton in this country, her personal commitment to health concerns and the welfare of women and children will resonate in all five countries, with many of the men as well as the women. Social and economic development are the issues that dominate politics in the subcontinent, from mountainous Nepal to tropical Sri Lanka. In India, which is still sorting out its conflicting emotions about the United States, Mrs. Clinton can be expected to stir the admiration of ordinary citizens the way Jacqueline Kennedy did on a similar tour while her husband and the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, hadn't yet figured each other out.

Symbolism counts for a lot in diplomacy, just as it does in domestic politics. In a region where U.S. interests don't always mesh neatly with local aspirations, an accomplished woman like Mrs. Clinton can create new bridges.

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