U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Thailand on Wednesday for several days of meetings with the Asian “alphabet soup” organizations – namely, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its security arm, the ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes Russia, India, the European Union and others. The purpose of Clinton’s visit is to trumpet the revival of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia as part of the Obama administration’s broader push to demonstrate “smart power” — that is, expanding U.S. influence by engaging in a wide range of diplomatic activities in every corner of the globe.
During Clinton’s visit, a bewildering array of multilateral and bilateral talks are slated on topics such as North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, the July 17 hotel bombings in Jakarta, increasing territorial disputes and naval competitiveness in the South China Sea, and the continued shortage of good news in Myanmar.
One meeting likely to be overlooked will occur on July 23, involving Clinton and ministers from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Clinton wants the United States to play a bigger role in the development of these countries, especially in the MekongRiver Basin. Primarily, this means giving new attention to two pariah states — Cambodia and Laos. Thailand is an old American ally and has a relatively strong economy, and Vietnam for years has benefited from U.S. investment and consumption, but Cambodia and Laos have lagged behind. Until June, these states were included on a blacklist that prevents the U.S. Export-Import Bank from financing trade with “Marxist-Leninist” regimes.
In June, however, President Barack Obama struck Laos and Cambodia off the blacklist. With the flick of a wrist, the United States has begun to erase the last vestiges of Vietnam-era grudges from its foreign policy, and to close the Southeast Asian chapter of the Cold War. The move came as a total surprise to those who saw Washington’s influence in the region as a static force. Human rights groups cried hypocrisy, and Thailand complained about new competition on the block. But there is little anyone can do when the United States changes its mind.
The incident provides another example of the apparent nonchalance with which the United States chooses strategically to alter its relationships with a particular region, though the alteration may have enormous consequences for the region itself. The Cambodian and Laotian economies will blossom as a result of the decision, which allows them to be absorbed into the U.S.-led global economic system. These two are small fry, but the United States already exports $68 billion worth in goods to ASEAN states — not much less than its exports to China — and these trade ties will grow quickly. In 1995, Washington formally normalized relations with Vietnam — now the United States exports nearly $3 billion in goods a year to Vietnam, and has become Vietnam’s top export market. This did not require the dismantling of the Communist Party of Vietnam; simply put, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States no longer saw a threat to contain.
The states in Indochina are only the latest batch of former U.S. enemies that Washington is attempting to bring into the international economic system. Before that, there were the Warsaw Pact countries, China, South Korea, Germany and Japan. Each time the United States extends its hand to one country or region, a potential hornet’s nest of rival regional powers is broken apart. Should a future China be hostile to U.S. interests, for instance, Washington hopes it will not find a Southeast Asia at odds with American interests and with nothing to lose, but rather one that shares interests with Washington and is reluctant to get on its bad side. China, for its part, will be well aware of Clinton’s meeting with the neighbors to the south.
The United States draws power from this ceaseless redefinition of what constitutes its nature, goals, enemies and friends. Other states must react to these redefinitions. It might be difficult to imagine now, but in the future, the United States — with the same equanimity — might normalize relations with the likes of Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Afghanistan or even Iran.
I don't know what it is. It looks desolate. It looks like years and years of sad stories. Why do you lead me here to look?
Look closely. What do you see?
It looks like miles of dead bones . . . just piles of them. I don't understand.
I want you to see their sad stories. I want you to feel their pain. I want you to speak life into them and revive their hope.
I can't do that, Lord. They're dead; they're dry; there is nothing that can be done.
Do as I ask.
Speak to them in whispers. Remind them of the hope that once was theirs.
Speak to them boldly. Proclaim to them the Life that still is within their bones.
Shout to them with all your might. Let them not doubt the power of the Lord to revive them and bring them peace.
Give them this message:
That the Lord who walked with Abraham and Joshua and Joseph and Ezekiel is the same Lord who calls these bones to shake and reform.
It is God who gives life and sustains hope. It is the "I am" who breathes air into hollow spaces and forms humanity from dust.
I will raise up my people from the dust and build my Church from the Earth. No more will this valley be mere dry bones. It will bloom and flood with streams of living water. It will be called my resting place, for it will gather those who are thirsty and hungry and those in need of peace.
Prophesy to the bones, whisper my words of hope, and proclaim the stories of my people. And this valley will become my resting place, the home of the living. And all will be drawn to it, because I have spoken.
I remember when I was a little girl going to visit my grandmother whose house was not so child-friendly. My brothers and I were not allowed to play in the house and we had to be careful not to touch the clean white walls when we climbed the stairs to the bathroom. It's funny, I know my grandmother loved us, but it was clear she did not love the dirt and mess that often comes with kids.
On a personal level, having a family has helped me get over my perfection in that area. I've given up my dream of a clutter-free kitchen and spotless floors. I feel good if I can just get all the laundry folded and put away before I start my next string of loads . . . and some weeks, even that doesn't happen. But when I have people over, do you think I want them to see my toy-strewn rooms? No way! Somehow I think I'm too good for that. I don't want people to see how I really live. I want people to see the perfect me and my perfect house.
I've heard it said that sometimes church can look too perfect. Somehow people look like everything is peaceful, predictable and perfect: perfect families, perfect jobs, perfect homes, etc. . . . in other words, too "clean." A church like that can be very intimidating if a person doesn't feel like his or her life is "clean" enough. Even if those in the congregation are friendly and long to extend love to "outsiders," a perfect image can become an obstacle to those receiving the hospitality.
How does this happen? We certainly wouldn't want to push people away! It comes down to transparency and trust. As we commit ourselves to being in community and learning to trust one another, we can begin to admit our struggles and weaknesses and, in turn, experience healing love. We can learn the beauty and art of depending on one another and receiving just as much as we give. Unfortunately, until then, our lives cannot fully experience freedom in Christ. And until we can live out our freedom in Christ, our lives are not real to those around us. Instead they appear as untouchables, too clean, too perfect, even too vulnerable.
If we as Christians try to maintain an image as those who have it all together, no troubles and a perfect handle on our lives, inadvertently we send subtle signals that those who have struggles may be loved, but their "dirt or life mess" is an inconvenience or doesn't fit in. As we are willing to reveal our own messes and confess our needs, we can experience a release of the Spirit who brings healing through the Body. Our lives become living testimonies to the freedom Christ offers us. Then our churches can be transformed from uncomfortable places of perfection to safe havens of healing.
reflections on culture and the human condition . . .
"For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
I Corinthians 13:12