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Foreign policy specialists assess Obama's trip to Asia

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Post asked foreign policy experts if Obama's trip was a success or an embarrassment. Below are contributions from Michael Auslin, Michael Green, Victor Cha, Danielle Pletka, Douglas E. Schoen, Richard C. Bush, Elizabeth C. Economy, David Shambaugh and Yang Jianli.

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MICHAEL AUSLIN

Director of Japan studies, American Enterprise Institute

The optics of the president's trip fulfilled his stated intention of announcing that the United States was "back" in Asia, but the lack of tangible policy results suggest it was a success of style over substance.

Meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a statement that the United States will "engage" with the free-trade Trans Pacific Partnership does not substitute for a full trade policy. Relations with Japan remain strained, and distrust will linger even if Tokyo and Washington do solve the knotty issue of relocating U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa. Relations between Washington and Tokyo also continue to cool as both increasingly see China as their key partner in the future, despite concerns over how aligned their interests are with Beijing's.

Little of lasting import was reached with China on economic or security issues, and the long-term effect of Obama's lack of access to Chinese society, including human rights dissidents, may have convinced Beijing that it will be able to manage relations with the Obama administration in its favor.

Asians remain interested in the United States playing a leadership role in the region. Showing up is important, but it is only part of encouraging allies and convincing other nations of Washington's indispensability for maintaining stability and security. The dynamism of Asia requires an equally dynamic U.S. policy based on strength and liberal values.

MICHAEL GREEN

Senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; associate professor at Georgetown University; special assistant to the president for national security affairs, 2004-05

President Obama deserves credit for spending more than a week in the world's most dynamic economic region; in contrast, Bill Clinton skipped two Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits when faced with domestic political challenges. But Obama's trip to Asia should be a wake-up call to the White House about the limits of using the president's biography as foreign policy and the realities of power politics in the Pacific. It may have seemed like a productive strategy to defer decisions on arms sales to Taiwan and a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama before traveling to Beijing, but China's polite intransigence on just about every strategic issue on the agenda raised questions from Australia to India about whether Washington had unnecessarily ceded the upper hand in the bilateral relationship. Indians were particularly unhappy that in Beijing Obama promised to work with China "to promote peace, stability and development in South Asia" -- India's own back yard. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Washington this week, Obama should stress how much the United States looks forward to working with India to promote continued peace and stability in East Asia. A few gentle reminders of the depth and breadth of American power and influence would be timely.

VICTOR CHA

Director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, 2004-07; professor of government at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service; senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

President Obama's visit was high on optics and messaging, but low on policy substance. Obama's public diplomacy message of being the first American president with an Asia-Pacific heritage worked well in Asia, where both street and elite views of him (and by association, American standing) have been highly favorable since his election. However, beyond some agenda-setting, the visit lacked any policy deliverables. In fairness to the administration, it played down expectations of such; nevertheless, presidential summits are "action-forcing" events within and between governments -- that is, the summit enables the policy machine to make progress on critical issues that might otherwise be difficult to achieve.

In China, there may have been missed opportunities to push ahead on the human rights agenda or on Iran. Beijing appears to have pocketed Obama's unprecedented open-armed engagement and leveraged America's current economic vulnerability to say no on these issues. In Japan, too much was made of the "bow" to the emperor, and not enough attention was paid to the fundamental change underway in the U.S.-Japan alliance with a new liberal and independent government in Tokyo for the first time in 50 years. Yet perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was on trade, where Asians questioned whether the United States -- despite its economic difficulties -- will continue to lead Asia in support of the free-trade regime. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference and on each stop, the president was given the opportunity to enunciate a trade policy, yet he did not take up the challenge, to the disappointment of all regional players.

DANIELLE PLETKA

Vice president of foreign and defense policy studies, American Enterprise Institute

The problem with President Obama's recent swing through Asia cannot be boiled down to the kowtow, the collapse of Copenhagen, or the rebukes in Beijing and Tokyo. Lack of success does not automatically add up to failure.

The more damaging outcome of the trip for Obama is the entrenchment of the perception at home and abroad of the president as a pied piper of American retreat in the world. As Jimmy Carter, Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle might admit, shaking off such a sobriquet -- deserved or not -- is nigh on impossible. And while it's true that our Asian allies are still reeling from Obama's submission to China and his embrace of protectionism, the larger problem is the growing conviction that the president is eager to herald an era of American detachment and decline.

Obama has made three major foreign policy forays -- in Cairo, at Turtle Bay and to the Pacific. In each, he has underscored that America should not, cannot and will not lead the world; that the export of American values is the least of his priorities; and that engagement with America's adversaries takes precedence over the maintenance of alliances. But retreat generates its own consequences, internationally and domestically. Few will be tempted to cast their lot with a weak leader; many will be tempted to challenge him, and some will succeed. That's bad news for the president and for the nation. And not just in Asia.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

President Obama was unable to secure any lasting agreements on climate change, free trade, revaluing the Chinese currency, or, most important, sanctions on Iran and North Korea. On these latter issues he did ramp up his rhetoric in his final speech to U.S. servicemen in Korea. But we are no closer to agreements on any of these major issues than before his tour.

The president's failure to achieve any concrete results will impact his standing back at home and in his dealings with Congress over health care. While the president's own favorability rating may be temporarily enhanced by the visit, the trip is unlikely to impact his job approval ratings -- particularly on issues relating to leadership and accomplishment. Moreover, with Congress now showing increasing signs of restiveness, the visit is also unlikely to help him win agreement on a final health-care bill that would unite the Democratic Party and bring along at least one Republican.

The absence of agreements reached overseas makes it arguably more difficult to get members of Congress, who saw the November election results and Obama's declining approval ratings, to do anything other than what a variety of foreign leaders did last week: smile politely, offer encouraging words -- and then do what they believe is in their own interest.

RICHARD C. BUSH

Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; national intelligence officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council, 1995-97

It is not useful to assess President Obama's trip according to goals he didn't set for himself. Among other things, he set out to affirm that the United States remains a Pacific power, that it will repair self-inflicted damage to its reputation, and that the alliances with Japan and South Korea are strong. He did all that through the force of his engaging personality and the substance of his ideas. His grade here: A.

The major goal of this trip was to make the case for multilateral cooperation regarding the pressing challenges of the global economy, climate change, proliferation and Afghanistan-Pakistan. America cannot solve these problems alone. We cannot order others to help us. We cannot seek their help while ignoring their interests or giving disproportionate emphasis to human rights. The president understands this; his critics do not.

Making the case for multilateral cooperation is not easy. Others will be tempted to free-ride on U.S. efforts. They will not sign on after one round of discussions. Still, Obama advanced this objective. He may have gotten an "incomplete" on this, but through no fault of his own.

ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY

C.V. Starr senior fellow and Director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

President Obama put his money on Chinese leaders, betting that by playing nice early on there will be a big payoff down the road. He allowed Beijing to stage-manage the visit in such a way that it displayed virtually nothing of what makes him a rock star internationally. No hoops with Chinese basketball stars; no mingling with the Chinese people; and no roundtables with NGO leaders or activists. It was, optically, one of the worst U.S. presidential visits to Beijing in memory.

Substantively, the visit was no better and no worse than any other recent presidential summitry. There was a laundry list of issues for future discussion and cooperation and a few subtle hints of change to come on issues such as climate change. Lots of talk, little action -- just the way the Chinese like it.

Although I'd like to back the president, I'd place my own bet that being nice to the Chinese leadership isn't going to get us very far. It never has. What works is bringing others to the table to play. Our ace in the hole is that most other countries want the same things from China that we do: progress on reining in Iran, movement on the Chinese currency, greater transparency on Chinese military issues, improved food and product safety, etc. Our strategy should be to stack the deck with our friends and allies. That's our best chance for a winning hand.

In the meantime, let's start planning for President Hu's return visit . . . with lots of press conferences, town halls and media opportunities. It's their turn to play nice.

DAVID SHAMBAUGH

Visiting Fulbright scholar at the China Academy of Social Sciences; director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University

The Obama state visit to China was a substantial success, despite a few failures.

The failures lay in how the president spent his time in China. Not interacting with Chinese people (except the Chinese government's chosen students), not giving an uncensored nationally televised speech, not visiting any civic organizations or businesses, not visiting a wind farm or clean-energy firm, not meeting human rights lawyers or activists, and not meeting with the American business or scholarly community must all be counted as failures. He did not send positive signals in these areas -- but the Chinese government did not permit it and the American side did not insist on it.

But this is more than compensated for by the significant policy achievements embodied in the U.S.-China joint statement. This is a remarkable document, filled with multiple tangible areas of cooperation. One sees a demonstrable shift away from the "strategic hedging" of the former administration toward accepting China as a full partner in world affairs. The conciliatory, nonhectoring tone the president struck also went down well in China. After years of ambivalent hedging, a real paradigm shift in Sino-American relations is in the offing -- and the world will be better off for the newfound cooperative spirit.

YANG JIANLI

Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; former Chinese prisoner of conscience; president of Initiatives for China

President Obama enjoys the widespread respect of Chinese citizens. While I would have been pleased if he had met with some of the many disenfranchised groups of Chinese society -- including house-church Christians; intellectuals; and dissidents such as Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo -- I appreciate the president's measured approach toward building a relationship with the Chinese government. I hope that this approach will provide a future platform for the administration to more directly engage the Chinese leadership on the issues of social justice, individual liberties and the rule of law in China.

These issues are creating fissures in Chinese society that cannot be ignored. The consistent leadership of the United States in prodding the Chinese government toward making substantive reforms in these areas is essential -- both to improve the stability of Chinese society and to produce a long-term, secure and constructive relationship between China and the United States.

As the administration continues to develop its policies of engagement with the Chinese leadership, I hope and trust its deliberations will include direct dialogue with Chinese citizens and thought leaders from across the diverse spectrum of Chinese society, including Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, as well as Han Chinese. If affairs develop along this path, this first visit of President Obama should be deemed a success.


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