A couple of weeks ago, before he was pictured on the front page of the biggest newspapers in America last week holding the hand of Chen Guangcheng, I had breakfast with Kurt Campbell. Campbell is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, making him the guy with day-to-day responsibility for many of the most sensitive issues the U.S. faces, from North Korea to Myanmar, Japan to China.
We have breakfast every so often. We have known each other for almost 20 years, since we both served in the Clinton administration. When we met this time, I was thinking of doing a column on Kurt. In my view, the work he has done at the State Department has been among the very best of any sub-cabinet official on the Obama team. If they gave out an MVP award for contributions to U.S. foreign policy over the past several years, justice would demand Campbell be considered.
But before I wrote anything, I wanted to talk to Kurt. One reason was to pick Kurt's brain on developments in Asia. Unlike most folks in top Washington jobs, he has a strategic perspective -- a worldview -- and he rigorously re-examines it and ensures it evolves over time. Few people, in fact, would so appreciate the watershed that the dramatic and confounding Chen incident represents than this guy who was at the center of it.
There was another reason I wanted to talk to Kurt, though. I didn't want to write anything about the work he was doing without getting his OK. Not regarding the substance of what I was writing, but that I was writing anything at all. Because while Kurt can hardly be called a self-effacing guy, a large degree of his success thus far has been due to the careful way he has worked behind the scenes. He knows that working quietly is what works best in Asia -- and also in Washington. Press coverage can be useful, but in a town where people actively seek puffery and the spotlight, he, like many others who have thrived in the current environment (including his boss Hillary Clinton), has recognized that you can get more done with less flak when you leave center stage to others.
Campbell has been among Clinton's most important lieutenants helping to shape and execute the strategic rebalancing to Asia that has been Obama's greatest foreign-policy accomplishment. (As for the others: Getting out of Iraq was a done deal before he took office. Escalating in Afghanistan was a mistake. Killing Osama bin Laden was dramatic and welcome but has been awesomely overplayed in terms of its long-term significance.) The rebalancing of U.S. priorities shifted America's focus from near-term threats to longer-term needs, and it was done in an unusual way: It didn't come with a grand speech first. It came with methodical work at the ground level. And Campbell brought to it an unusually well rounded background, having served both as a naval officer and a White House fellow working in the Treasury Department, as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific issues, as a member of the team that helped see NAFTA into existence, and also as co-founder of the Center for a New American Security.
Under Campbell's leadership, the United States established bilateral dialogues with countries throughout the region, including those like Laos that haven't had much attention since the Vietnam War era. It promoted reform and the possibility of better relations with Myanmar, a risky initiative that thus far has shown promise, marked dramatically last week as newly released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took her place in that country's parliament. It sought to find ways to draw closer to Japan despite that country's turbulent political environment, such as by reacting quickly and generously to help Japan recover after the tsunami. It put through a trade deal with South Korea. It made the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral deal to liberalize trade and raise standards on issues like intellectual property around the Pacific Basin, the new centerpiece of its international trade agenda. It stood firm against North Korean provocations without overreacting in the face of an unusually difficult moment in the history of that country's erratic leadership.
Many elements of the pivot have been outside Campbell's region. Deepening ties with India has been among its most important centerpieces. And there is no question that Secretary Clinton has not only overseen and powered and enabled this pivot, but she has also framed it with a series of powerful, timely speeches, such as the one she delivered on prosperity in the region in Hong Kong last year and via articles like the one she wrote for Foreign Policy last November called "America's Pacific Century." Others throughout the State Department have played a vital role in this effort, as has National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who, along with his team at the White House, has been deeply involved. And of course, none of it could happen without the vision, approval, and leadership of the president, whose trips to the region and meetings with visiting leaders have been essential.
But what has struck me about the pivot is the work behind the scenes and the attention to detail as I've watched the Strategic & Economic Dialogue with China evolve from a high-level show to one in which working-level teams from both sides established ties and relationships that had never been there before and would be essential in the future. And that's why I thought Kurt and his team deserved some public acknowledgement of their work. The architect Mies van der Rohe once famously said, "God is in the details," and the remark is certainly as true of diplomacy as well. It comes in the daily calls and visits and invisible to the public micro-agreements that knit relationships together, add stability, deepen ties, and ensure open channels at times of tension and context in moments of upheaval and confusion.