BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The U.S. secretary of state’s recent four-stop swing through Asia led to some accusations of symbolic superficiality. Perhaps — but there can be more real meaning in acts of diplomatic symbolism than what first meets the eye.

This is why, notwithstanding the immensely scary worldwide economic drama that overhangs everything now, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first tour as secretary represented a strong new beginning for U.S. diplomacy.

There are two notable extremes to symbolic diplomacy. At the Machiavellian end, there is the symbolism of intentional deception: You make nice-nice as a way of putting a fog around your intent — when the time comes — to make war-war. At the other end is the diplomatic symbolism of intentionality: You make every effort to conform your symbolic moves to the reality of your underlying foreign-policy values and goals.

Clinton’s trip curriculum came healthily close to the latter. She first went to Japan for an obvious symbolic reason: Going there first would mean a lot more to the Japanese than to anyone else on her tour and everyone else would understand the decision completely. She herself understood it especially well.

After all, it was her husband who, as president in 1998, spent more than a week in China without once stopping off, coming or going, even for a quick gulp of sushi in Tokyo, our erstwhile No. 1 ally in Asia. The omission was read widely as a slight. Hillary Clinton has gracefully offered a corrective. And it was gracefully received in Japan — mission accomplished until, of course, the next unintended (or intended) slight.

Now go to Southeast Asia: You had to love that stop in Jakarta. The place is almost always ignored by high-level U.S. political officials — as if it weren’t the fourth most populous country and the one with the most Muslims. In addition, now the whole world is wondering how the Islam versus West tussle will turn out.

Does anyone think that Indonesia would have made the new secretary’s shortlist if John McCain had won the election? Or even if Clinton had? Everyone knows that Barack Obama lived there for four years as a child and is thought to have wanted to make an official visit there this fall, which explains why Clinton went last week.

By the way, if the Obama visit does happen, it will be a bigger deal than when the pope visits Ireland.

South Korea, the next stop, always seems to be grinding at the United States with a grudge or two — or vice versa. Eight years ago, its president was viewed by an arrogant Bush administration as too liberal and eager for negotiations with North Korea. Now Seoul has a president who is just the opposite — cool toward the North — while the new U.S. president and secretary of state appear eager to move forward on the peace front. They have named Fletcher School Dean and veteran diplomat Stephen Bosworth, a good man, as special U.S. envoy.

Sometimes you have to wonder whether the Korean War was the last time that Seoul and Washington were ever true soul mates. Anyway, Clinton handled matters well, emphasizing commonalities, and wowing the South Korean female public with her feminist spirit and modern cool.

The symbolism in China was equally seamless. Yes, we in the U.S. do care about human rights, etc., but before solving that problem in China (which may never be solved), let’s work together as if we were in the same lifeboat riding out this economic storm.

Clinton seemed to handle the nuances well, avoiding public glaring matches while not coming across as utterly oblivious to China’s obvious imperfections. Overall, she trekked well through troubled territory. The serious economic downturn is only one of Asia’s problems. Other questions of substance involve political stability: • Will China’s rising unemployment trigger Tiananmen-like street scenes? • When will Japan find a prime minister who can run the country with political savvy (not to mention flair) like a Junichiro Koizumi? • Will the overall tone of Muslim politics in Indonesia stay moderate enough to continue to sustain its nascent but promising pluralistic democracy?

America’s ability to help others with their problems is limited, especially when we are struggling for a way out of our own soup. But good symbolism can help, and picking Asia for her first foreign trip and executing that trip well amounted to a fine start for this new secretary of state.

Clinton won’t be the last woman to hold this prestigious and important position, But by starting off in Asia as she has, she raises the possibility that she just might turn out to be one of the best — of either gender.

Syndicated columnist and veteran U.S. journalist Tom Plate is founder of the Pacific Perspectives Media Center and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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