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Patrick Lawrence: Reeking of Butter

The House speaker has just given off a reek of butter that seems to have sent the whole of East Asia in search of hankies.  

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

The Japanese have a wonderful expression they sometimes use to describe Westerners when they are behaving obtusely. In such cases they say Americans and Europeans are bata kusai, butter-smelling. There is an interesting story behind this strange locution. It is a good time to relate it.

When Westerners began to arrive in Japan in the mid–19th century, disrupting two centuries and some of isolation, the Japanese found, among their many other peculiarities, that they stank of animal fat. This was so because at the time of Commodore Perry’s “black ships” and the great “opening” of the Japanese islands, dairy products were not part of the Japanese diet. To the Japanese, in consequence, Westerners gave off a sour, unpleasant odor, which they named the smell of butter.

It was a long time, well into the modern era, before the Japanese started consuming milk, cheese, and butter. So the expression stuck. Bata kusai came to mean whatever the Japanese found in Westerners to be coarse, insensitive, gauche, or gracelessly assertive.

I have long treasured the Japanese idiom for its earthiness and, the important thing, because it is a reminder of how we Westerners tend to be unaware of the way we come over to others. John Wayne was bata kusai. Huge American cars with chrome fins were bata kusai. American trade negotiators hectoring the Japanese about rice and baseball bats were bata kusai. Ronald Reagan was bata kusai.

And Nancy Pelosi, bringing the Japanese phrase into the wider Asian context, is emphatically bata kusai. The House speaker has just given off a reek of butter that seems to have sent the whole of East Asia in search of hankies.  

It is obvious now that Pelosi knows absolutely nothing about diplomacy as it is conducted at the other end of the Pacific. For my money she knows nothing about statecraft altogether and anywhere, but let us set this aside for the moment.

Asian diplomacy is very different from Western practice. There is much about it that  Westerners would consider informal. Something of the Roman principle at times comes into it: Qui tenet teneat, he who holds may go on holding—in other words, let us proceed from where we are. Unwritten understandings are central to the process. Confrontation is a very last resort. Mahogany tables, fountain pens, and formal agreements come only after all the easily attainable objectives have been achieved—the symbolic gestures, the low-hanging fruit. There is typically no rush in Asian diplomacy.

Pelosi is asleep to these differences. To East Asians she has come over as a butter-smelling clod—clumsy, indelicate, incapable of nuance, not the slightest interested in the perspectives of others, ignorant of how she was looked upon. Given she has offered the world a display of how American diplomats and administration officials conduct our trans–Pacific relations, we must conclude that America is destined to get nowhere in the world’s most dynamic region in the course of our century. Those purporting to serve as our statesmen and stateswomen simply do not have the intelligence or the craft.

We saw evidence of this even in the few days Pelosi spent on her pointless wander. This is my point.

To begin with a bit of background, Washington’s plan since it began to consider China’s admirable rise from poverty a threat to America’s security has been to unite the rest of Asia in a coalition dedicated to containing China and limiting its further development. I date this thinking to the mid–Obama years, when Hillary Clinton was named secretary of state.

That was a very unfortunate appointment. Clinton bears within her the sort of paranoia we used to associate with Goldwater Republicans—among whom she took her place early in life. It was while Clinton was running State that we had the “pivot to Asia.” In hindsight, the pivot was the first, inchoate declaration that a second Cold War was on the way. Now that I am thinking of it, I do not see all that much distance between the Clinton mainstream of the Democratic Party and the glazed-eyes ravings of Mike Pompeo, who ran State during the Trump administration. He carried on about “our allies and partners” just as Clinton did, dreaming of how we would all gang up against “Communist China.”

This is common currency now. Antony Blinken, Pompeo’s replacement, rarely misses a chance to reference our allies and partners and the coming coalition. A kooky piece of big think published in The Wall Street Journal the other day names this idea “Rimland”—some chain of nations that will all line up seamlessly, casting aside whatever else they have on their minds, to surround not just China, but Russia, too, and win the great 21st century war for… for the 21st century, I suppose.

Here’s the thing. The thought of an alliance of like-minded nations uniting to wave the “democrats vs. authoritarians” banner and acting in concert against China has been—forgive the reference, this is the clearest way to say this—a form of masturbation from the first. It is the kind of thing that sounds good to people in Washington offices who do not travel and wish things were other than what they are.

Asians can read maps, believe it or not. Asians have interests and little interest in ideologies. Asians have relations with China that they find have many advantages. Asians have no interest in a confrontation with China—and certainly not in any kind of open conflict. However, among people who, by and large, have never walked to and fro among Asians such that they understand them as anything other than dehumanized digits, pulling East Asia together in an anti–China consortium seems a capital idea and easy as pie: All Washington has to do is tell Asians what to do.

I have found it remarkable to note how enduring this masturbatory fantasy has proven over the years. Whenever evidence of its untethered silliness arises, it is simply not discussed. You haven’t, I am certain, read or heard anything of this in our mainstream media, even though a police reporter from Wichita would be able to tell you all about it after a short while on assignment at the far end of the Pacific.  

And so you are in the dark, maybe—where you are supposed to be—as to the lasting significance of Nancy Pelosi’s big blunder. In a true, live-fire test of the allies-and-partners bit, it crashed somewhere in the South China or East China Seas. We await word of the remains. 

Pelosi’s first stops were in Singapore and Malaysia, the former a long-obedient client, the latter having somewhat a mind of its own in matters to do with East and West. What happened during these stopovers? I will explore this fully in the next paragraph.

Nothing. There were no joint statements of solidarity, nothing about alliances and partnerships against the mainland, and certainly no ringing endorsements for Pelosi’s courageous journey to Taiwan. Silence is at times worth a thousand words.

Koreans are casually known as the Irish of the East for their refreshingly forthright manner. Pelosi’s arrival in Seoul came to more than merely nothing-to-say courtesies. There was no delegation to meet Pelosi at the airport, to her reported irritation. President Yoon Suk-yeol said he was on vacation and could not meet her; a telephone conversation would have to do.

I am reminded of a friend in college who called the girl of his desires for a date. “I can’t,” she said, “I have to do my laundry tonight.” This seems to approximate what Yoon told Pelosi.  

Wow, given South Korea is one of five Pacific nations with which the U.S. has formal alliances—along with Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia— Diplomatic snubs do not get a lot more pointed.

Pelosi flew to Seoul straight from Taipei, and the reek of butter seems to have been strong by the time her plane put down. United Daily News, one of the big Taiwan dailies, had by that time reported a poll in which nearly two-thirds of those asked thought Pelosi’s visit was destabilizing and unwise. So much for the “big welcome” we read and heard about in the corporate media.

At writing, China has begun several days of live-fire military drills that Beijing is pleased to describe as dress rehearsals for a full blockade of the island should matters come to it. There is now speculation—interesting speculation, but speculation—that Taiwan citizens may now swing on the pendulum and want the governing Democratic Progressive Party to back off its pro-independence position and the U.S. to back off its open encouragement of the DPP.

Pelosi’s final stop in Asia was in Japan, America’s most reliable ally in East Asia. What did we hear from Premier Fumio Kishida? The Chinese ought to stop those exercises because they are dangerous, he said in his formal statement. It is in what the premier left unsaid that he made his point.     

After all these years, nobody in Asia seems to like the smell of butter.

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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