Warren I. Cohen's latest book, The Asian American Century, examines the cultural bonds that link East Asia and the United States – to, Cohen argues, the great advantage of both. At a March 28, 2002 book launch sponsored by the Asia Program, Cohen advanced the proposition that throughout the 20th century, and especially in recent decades, cultural contact and interactions have profoundly shaped both the United States and the countries of East Asia. Exploring a wide range of topics – film, religion, food, medicine, politics, art, toys, games, sexual practices – Cohen explored the ways in which Asia and America have interacted, and in so doing, have fundamentally changed each other.

While noting the pervasive nature of American culture throughout the contemporary world, Cohen was dubious about the usefulness of the concept of "cultural imperialism." Asians are not simply passive vessels soaking up American influences, he maintained. Instead, Asians choose what seems most appropriate for their own purposes, and then modify these American exports to suit Asian ends. He noted with irony that American cultural transmissions have usually (and with the notable exception of Japan) been most successful when the element of coercion was least in evidence. Conversely, in the Philippines, a U.S. colony for half a century and a protectorate or client state until recently, the United States failed miserably in its attempts at "forced Americanization." Sadly, Cohen judged, it would be difficult to conclude that their colonial encounter with the United States brought many benefits to the Filipino people.

The impact of cultural exchange has been especially marked in the United States, Cohen asserted. The "Asianization of America" has fundamentally and permanently altered American identity – what it is to be an American. American civilization today is far more than merely the product of Europe, or more generally, of Western civilization and culture. Yet, according to Cohen, we continue to neglect our Asian heritage, and to obscure the basic ways in which contact with Asia has molded, and continues to mold, American values, habits, and institutions. This Asian influence will be increasingly difficult to ignore in the future, however, if for no other reason than because of the growing number of Americans whose family roots can be found in Asia. By the middle of the century, Cohen asserted, ten percent of Americans will be of Asian ancestry. This will ensure that even if America's influence on Asia gradually dissipates, the Asian influence on America will remain strong. Asia's "soft power," Cohen suggested, is every bit as noteworthy as America's "hard power."

Robert M. Hathaway
Director, Asia Program