The joke about the Obama administration's
to Asia" is that the only people who don't believe it is happening are in
All over the world, America's friends and allies feel the ebbing of
attention from their regions and problems. But they mistakenly believe that this
reduction has resulted in greater attention elsewhere. So Iraq understands that
President Barack Obama is indifferent to the violence that continues to burn in
their country, but they assume he is increasing engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans
understand that Obama is indifferent to the war still raging in their country,
but assume he must be deeply involved in ensuring a peaceful transition of
power in some other country America cares about more. Europeans see a president walking
back from missile defense deployments and the Budapest Memorandum, which commits the United States
to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, and believe
that he has chosen to focus on Asia.
But Asian governments understand
they're getting the same treatment as everyone else: trade negotiations without
political investment by the White House, foreign policy that takes a back seat
to domestic political wrangling, sporadic mania of involvement in foreign
policy that achieves nothing, and lack of a strategy that either identifies
common goals or elucidates the means to collectively achieve them.
Former National Security Advisor
Tom Donilon, however, refuses to accept reality. In a wildly implausible op-ed
in the Washington Post on the eve of
Obama's current Asia trip, he argued that the pivot is alive and well. His opening
argument that the administration is pivoting to Asia? "Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton's first trip in office was to Asia, something no secretary of
state had done since 1961." Not only does it actually suggest how little
the pivot has achieved, since a trip five years ago is considered a signal
achievement, but travel is the wrong metric for determining foreign-policy
success. Countries visited is to foreign-policy success as job interviews are to employment: a necessary input, but no
one's impressed by where you had your first interview if you didn't get the job.
That said, Donilon's description is
actually a perfect illustration of the shortcomings of Obama's foreign policy,
the hallmarks of which include these six elements:
The first trip since 1961, you say! Amazing. The Obama
White House promotes this fact as evidence of its superior understanding of
the international order: No one else saw this coming! As Shadow Government's
Asia hands have often pointed out, much of the Obama administration's pivot is
actually carrying through on decisions made during George W. Bush's administration, such as
shifting a greater proportion of the U.S. fleet to the Pacific. This Asia strategy
is a continuation of its predecessor's, while claiming to be a departure of
2. Talking, not listening.
If the Obama White House had done its due diligence,
it would have known that Asian governments were some of the Bush administration's
biggest supporters -- and continue to be. The Obama White House might also have
checked with America's Asian allies about whether this "grand strategic concept"
would be beneficial. Most governments fear it goads China and may force the country
into confrontation. Among the Asian countries in which the Pew Research Center conducted polling in 2013, the median rate of favorable views of the United States was 64 percent, but the rate was 58 percent for favorable views of China. Even in Australia,
a long-standing ally of the United States, 40 percent of people polled think it's more important to
have strong relations with the United States than China -- but 33 percent think
the opposite. Governments in Asia don't want to have to choose between their
main economic partner and their main security provider, and they wish the Obama administration
hadn't put them in that position.
3. Symbolic gestures.
Hillary Clinton seemed to believe that "miles traveled"
is the measure of a secretary of state's success, but her difficulty
answering the question of her achievements in that position is its own
refutation. Her successor, John Kerry, is evidently on the same travel awards program; he at
least can claim devotion to a few key issues. But a trip by the secretary of state
is actually of little consequence. The fact that Clinton said in Beijing on that
first trip that the United States ought not to focus so much on Chinese human rights
violations and restrictions on political freedoms of its people is conveniently
left out in Donilon's op-ed -- but that statement resounded across Asia and
beyond. Substance matters more than symbolism.
4. Underappreciation of the existing order.
If the United States were under attack, it's conceivable
that the president might get the news from a Canadian voice -- not because
Canadian troops would be burning Washington (again), but because the U.S. and
Canadian militaries jointly protect the countries' airspace. The United States exports twice as much to
Canada as to China, and since the 9/11 attacks, Canada and the United States have administered their border with a
remarkable level of cooperation. The Obama White House takes for granted an
order that its predecessors worked to construct; it assumes all of America's international
advantages will continue to accrue if it does nothing to sustain or advance
them. As a result, that international order is eroding.
5. Inattention to allies.
Donilon claims the United States is "modernizing its
alliances" in Asia, but even that phrasing suggests its alliances are
currently unsatisfactory. Getting South Korea and Japan to cooperate on defense policy -- they won't hold joint
exercises, for example -- or on how to counter China would be a major
modernization of America's alliances in Asia. Donilon recognizes that, but his tepid
recommendation that "the president should follow up on his recent efforts to
mitigate long-standing tensions between the two countries" will hardly
persuade countries that have seen their relations worsen during the Obama
presidency. Asian allies know the Obama White House isn't going to solve their
6. No better options.
A corollary of the Obama administration's belief that
the international order will just maintain itself is that allies have no
alternative than to do what the United States wants. So the White House balks at negotiating
with Germany to continue participation in the Afghanistan mission, the logic being
that if it's not in Berlin's immediate interest, it's not worth doing. This
approach conveniently allows the Obama White House to know and care nothing
about the domestic politics and problems of America's allies. But Canada surely
notices that Clinton was rapt by Asia, rather than the country with
which America shares values, an intertwined economy, common air defenses, a solemn
pledge that an attack on one would be considered an attack on both, and,
incidentally, a 5,525-mile border. How much will Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government risk to
help a White House that continues to avoid a decision on integrating their two countries' energy
potential? The United States shouldn't take for granted that Ottawa will continue to do things
that are in the U.S. interest. It's threatening to forgo the Keystone XL pipeline for a
westward route to unilaterally deliver fuel to Asian markets, for example, and
it's less likely to keep troops in Afghanistan or pony up fighter planes for
Baltic air policing.
* * *
Countries with small margins for
error and dependence on the protection of others -- like America's allies in
Asia -- tend to have very sensitive antennas to the potential for abandonment. The
Obama White House may think that its fecklessness on Syria has no consequence or that its downward negotiation of what constitutes an end to Iranian nuclear weapons
programs has no downside. The administration seems genuinely to believe that
the president proudly insisting that "I don't bluff"
is adequate to reassure countries nervous about America's willingness to make good on
promises. It isn't. The pivot to Asia is one more instance of the Obama
White House patting itself on the back while America's allies fret about the country's lack
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images