LOS ANGELES — Serious intellectual narrowing can happen to even the brightest folk once nested down on the U.S. East Coast. They become preoccupied (almost neurotically, almost provincially) with the problems of the past — especially with the Middle East and Europe — and lose sight of the new problems and opportunities of this 21st century. They become lost in the inner space of a 20th-century time warp.

Yet, it is the near-unanimous opinion of everyone, that the big news of the current century is the whalelike emergence of the Asia-Pacific region as the new center of global geopolitical gravity. People on the East Coast sometimes lose track of this, and thus it is our noble civic duty from this end of the United States to remind them what’s what.

After all, before too long, the presidential mind and body of Barack Obama will take leave from his friends in hometown Chicago to establish White House residence in the intensely provincial environment of Washington D.C.

Concerned West Coasters everywhere need to remind him that “we stand on the western edge of the Pacific at the start of the Pacific Century,” as Steve Sample has framed it. “Our view from here shifts the paradigm. There is no longer ‘the Far East.’ That is the Eurocentric view, now obsolete. Here it is ‘the Near West!’ — made even nearer by the erosion of distances and borders through the communications revolution.”

No one makes this case for Asia as the Near West better than Sample, who has been cogitating over the growing Pacific mega-phenomenon for more than a decade. Since 1991, Sample has been the president of the University of Southern California (USC). One of three internationally prominent universities in Southern California, it shares limelight with the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles. All three are world-class institutions that have resisted the temptation to rest on their laurels.

This is particularly true of USC under Sample, who deserves credit not only for almost heroically raising USC out of past doldrums of intellectual mediocrity but also for taking up the task of expanding our cosmopolitanism. This prominent educator recently employed the civic pulpit of the World Affairs Council here in Los Angeles to lay out a speech on his theme that greater L.A. is nothing less than “the capital of the entire Pacific Rim.”

Solid statistics and some wily interpretation made his case. The facts are, though, that the Los Angeles area has the largest population of people of Mexican descent than anywhere outside Mexico, the largest Korean population outside Seoul, the largest Filipino population outside Manila, the largest Japanese population outside Japan.

We have by far the largest Asian-American population. More than 120 different cultures, 96 cradle languages, 600 different religious groups, and hundreds of foreign-language radio and TV stations remind us hourly that in Kansas we are not.

Sample’s contribution is to shout out the historic importance of the entire West Coast, even as he cannot help proclaiming Southern California’s leading role: “Greater L.A. is an economic powerhouse. The county [L.A. county alone] is the world’s 18th largest economy: larger than those of Sweden, Indonesia, Switzerland, Norway, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Greece or Denmark.” He scarcely had to remind anyone of the region’s flamboyant film industry, but perhaps not many realized that Univision, the largest radio and TV company serving a growing Latino audience, plants its headquarters here. L.A. is also the American headquarters for many Asia-based banks and companies, including Toyota and Honda.

The careless listener might have mistaken the Sample speech as little more than some sort of boastful Chamber of Commerce pitch. But the USC chief was aiming for a broader audience and a higher star: the notion of Los Angeles (not to mention San Diego and San Francisco and Seattle and so on) as the major contemporary historical soul mate with the likes of Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, New Delhi and Dubai, the rising star on the very western edge of Asia and the eastern edge of the Middle East.

That deepening and lengthening family structure of economic and demographic alliances — and it is truly massive when strung together — means that to ignore the new “Far West” is to chop in half America’s expanse of future possibility. Instead of viewing China as a potential enemy or Japan as inscrutable or India as impossible, the futurists among America’s leaders will want to envision them as kindred spirits. How can they help us as we help them?

Surely it is the folly of Neanderthals and isolationists to resist reality. If the environmental crisis failed to heighten the sense that we are all in the global soup together, surely the emerging economic meltdown makes that point.

Sample’s vision, so sharpened from his eye-opening years here, should remind the incoming Obama administration of the West Coast as the main bridge that America has to the future. America may be one nation but it has two coasts; and they are rather different.

Columnist and author Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is writing a major book on Asia. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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