Rebooting Rockefeller For A Second Asian Century

Many Americans may have heard the phrase, “The Twentieth Century is the American Century,” coined by Henry Luce, the publisher and media mogul who defined the post-World War-II rise of America as a superpower. Yet, few may know that another titan of American industry, John D. Rockefeller, with his philanthropic activities stretching back more than a century, coupled with a passion for Asia, may have gently opened the way for the coming multipolar world.

“In 1863, John D. Rockefeller sold his first kerosene to China and made his first gift to China missions,” notes Mary Bullock in “The Oil Prince’s Legacy: Rockefeller Philanthropy in China.” Indeed, it can be argued, Rockefeller’s Asian legacy is part of America’s deep multicultural heritage.

Rockefeller Foundation

At Rockefeller Foundation’s first board meeting almost hundred years ago, the focus on providing healthcare led to the development of the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, China. Opened in 1917, it is an institution that still stands today.

Perhaps no other American family has contributed more to preserve, cultivate and broaden our understanding of the arts, cultures and traditions of Asia than the Rockefeller family. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, the grandson of the oil magnate and the father of the four-term U.S. Senator from West Virginia, developed a penchant for Asian arts and sculptures. With his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, they amassed and gifted, perhaps, the finest collection of Asian art in the United States.

As the former president of Asia Society, Vishakha Desai, has stated, “The Asia Society’s success is due in large measure to the foresight of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, his parents, and the successive generations of Rockefellers who understood the social, economic, political and cultural significance of Asia long before most of the American public.” The Rockefeller family’s excursions into Asia represent an unparalleled cultural exchange that continues to shape U.S.-Asia relations even today.

When I first moved to New York City after completing my graduate studies at Harvard, I literally lived in the shadow of the Cloisters on the Upper West Side. On several occasions, I visited the Asian Art Fair, where a dizzying array of Asian art was annually displayed at the Armory on the Upper East Side, partly sponsored by the Asia Society.

It must have been during one of these visits I accompanied my mother to observe the miniaturized figurines of the ancient fertility goddesses, admired for their terracotta clay originally from the Harappa region, part and parcel of the 2,500 years old Indus valley civilization.

Today, as Asia embraces globalization there is a need to revive Rockefeller’s vision for the 21st century. How can we synchronize the ancient and the post-modern with the humane and the technologically advanced? In the age of hyper-connectivity and big data, our universal pursuit of global culture must harmonize billions of growing minds in Asia and the West, who must confront competing market forces. This is the great challenge of our times, as I have argued in my two books on the President, “The Global Obama” and “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia.”


“What clear vision Mr. Rockefeller had!” wrote Richard C. Holbrooke, former chairman of Asia Society on the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. “He founded Asia Society only eleven years after World War II, only three years after the Korean War-well before Vietnam became a national trauma. Asia was perceived by most Americans then as an area that meant poverty, disease, overpopulation, and war. The Asian American community was nearly invisible.”

Now, as America pulls out of the longest war in American history from South Asia or the AfPak region, we live in the post-9/11 world ever more mindful of the security challenges. Asia Society has decided to redouble its efforts in the emerging Asian nations by founding the Asia Society Policy Institute.

josette sheeran Rebooting Rockefeller
President of Asia Society Josette Sheeran

At the New York City headquarters recently, the new president of Asia Society Josette Sheeran announced that it was launching an innovative think-tank to develop “solutions for the Asian century.” The non-partisan, “Asia-centric global network” of experts will be working to create the solutions that advance prosperity, security and sustainability of Asia and the world. The goal is to attain a new level of understanding between Asia and the U.S. in a global context and build on Asia Society’s policy successes.

Henry Kissinger

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who opened China under the Nixon administration, offered wise counsel to a packed auditorium. When asked about the Asian century hypothesis by the current deputy director of the IMF Bank, Zhu Min, he said, “It depends how you define it. I would argue that there is no Asia that is a unit. The history of South Asia, the history of East Asia is very different. South Asia has been connected to the Middle East and Europe in totally different way than China and East Asia has been connected. So there are very few institutions that deal with Asia as a unit…. But it is clear that the degree of domination the US exercised in the previous century should not be attempted in the 21st century, and should not be repeated.”

Former Secretary of State Kissinger with the Deputy Director of the IMF Bank Zhu Min. Photo by Dinesh Sharma.
Former Secretary of State Kissinger with the Deputy Director of the IMF Bank Zhu Min. Photo by Dinesh Sharma.

At the keynote address, William J. Burns, Deputy Secretary of State, highlighted a similar theme: “As a Pacific nation in the midst of a Pacific century, we are fully committed to this historic undertaking. That is exactly why the President is taking a unique trip to four countries in the region later this month: Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines…. In the fall, the President will return to Asia – to Burma, China, and Australia, for the East Asia, APEC, and G-20 Summits.”

Inspirational Mission

While the mission of Asia Society Policy Institute is truly inspirational, it faces several hurdles. Foremost, it needs to organize a network of experts who could offer both an in-depth local, managerial, corporate, and global policy perspective on the major challenges of the day.

Towards that end, a panel of diplomats and policymakers attempted an open and frank discussion on the ways in which Obama administration’s attempts to “pivot” or “rebalance” have been perceived on the other side of the Pacific by both small and large nations. Singaporean Ambassador to the U.S. Ashok Kumar Mirpuri whole-heartedly welcomed the American pivot, while the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Shaukat Aziz, with its roller-coaster relationship with the US, seemed at best ambivalent about the pivot.

China’s ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai may have summed it up best while quoting Lao Tzu, “We have to come up with the new way,” referring to the Taoist idea of the pathway that is indescribable, cannot be put into words. “This is certainly not a G-2 concept or spheres of influence concept. We need to come up with a new model, that is, the win-win cooperation for all the major powers. That is not to leave out any of the minor powers….We have to work together on so many issues…. If the Chinese economy does badly it will hurt America. If the US economy does poorly it will impact China. This is quite evident. We don’t have any other options.”

I asked President Sheeran, how will the newly founded institute find alignment with the State Department’s pivot towards Asia, announced by the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? She suggested, “Asia Society has a wide reach in Asia already. Asia Society’s Policy Institute is ideally suited to provide the solutions for the Asian century,” as stated in its mission statement.

Asia Society Rebooting Rockefeller

While the focus of the institute will be to develop creative policy solutions, the arts, culture, education, and leadership training will be the necessary grist for the mill. She said, paraphrasing an Asian journalist, “We’re rebooting Rockefeller!” Tom Nagorski, Executive V.P. of Asia Society concurred. Given the depth of Asia Society’s cultural legacy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest, Asia Society’s Policy Institute may be attempting to reboot Rockefeller’s second Asian century.

Dinesh Sharma
Dinesh Sharma is the author of 'Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,' which was rated as a Top 10 Black history book for 2012 and 'Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency.'