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Speaker: open borders vital
to Asian recovery
April 13, 1998

Despite the current travails battering Asian economies, U.S. foreign and trade policy must stress engagement over protectionism, according to international trade expert and UConn alum Lionel H. Olmer.

"In my view, overall U.S. foreign policy objectives in Asia can be stated quite simply: to encourage and sustain democracy and the development of free market capitalism," Olmer said.

Olmer made his remarks when delivering the 8th annual Louis L. Gerson Foreign Policy Lecture on Wednesday. In a far-ranging speech that touched upon several major global political and economic issues, there was a bottom-line message: international trade, which occupies about a third of the American domestic economy, must be encouraged.

The so-called "Asian flu," said Olmer, is a passing phase. "These economies are fundamentally sound; they put out first-class products at competitive prices, and can continue to do so as they work through their financial crisis."

Olmer admitted that it's uncertain whether countries like South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia can weather severe economic hardships during the adjustment period. But if the U.S. closes its markets to imports in reaction, "the situation in Asia will become more difficult," he said.

China is likely to become, if it isn't already, the central concern of U.S. foreign policy makers, he said..

"There is no doubt in my mind that China will challenge America's influence in Asia and other parts of the world." China has a fifth of the world's population and an economy larger than that of the European Union.

But the challenge posed by China doesn't dictate a hostile relationship with the U.S., Olmer said, offering as evidence joint naval exercises the two countries have conducted. Nonetheless, he counseled patience from those troubled by the authoritarian practices of the Chinese government. "China will remain authoritarian for a long time to come. But that doesn't mean that China is a totalitarian society," Olmer said. "No, it is adopting some democratic reforms, including elections of officials in certain provinces; it has accommodated some U.S. demands that it adopt free market principles; and it has passed laws to protect intellectual property rights and to facilitate trade and investment."

A 1956 graduate of UConn, Olmer earned a law degree from The American University in Washington, D.C. He is currently a senior partner with the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.

Olmer served as Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade from 1981 to 1985. From 1977 to 1981, he worked for Motorola and coordinated the company's successful effort to become the first American supplier of communications products to Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.

The Gerson lecture series honors former UConn Professor Louis Gerson, who was chair of the political science department for 10 years. The series was established through contributions from Gerson's family, friends and students upon his retirement from the University faculty in 1988. Olmer saluted Gerson for sparking his interest in international affairs more than 40 years ago. "He quite literally 'turned me on' to the wide world beyond Connecticut, and it changed my life," Olmer said. "So I'd like to say now what I should have said nearly half a century ago, "Thank you, Professor Gerson.."

The lecture series brings to campus speakers whose careers have spanned both foreign policy making and scholarship. Previous Gerson lecturers have included Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb; and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost.

Gary Frank

Gary Frank is editor of Traditions.