President Obama is scheduled to spend a week in southeast Asia, starting this weekend, as part of his administration's ongoing effort to cultivate American influence in that increasingly important part of the world. Alas, it looks increasingly likely that the congressional impasse that shut down the federal government could continue into the weekend. If that happens, he is widely expected to cancel his trip, as then-President Bill Clinton did during the 1995 shutdown.
"If Obama doesn't go he will upset people in Asia for sure. But, he won't go," Thomas Wright, who studies foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told me on Twitter. "I'd hate him to miss it, but I don't see how he can go. He needs to be in D.C. and be seen to lead, broker a deal, etc."
And that's probably what will happen. But going to Asia might actually be more in the United States' long-term interests, the advancement of which is after all Obama's job. In a parallel universe where American presidents are allowed to act purely in the national interest, and not be quite so constricted by the Kabuki theatrics of Washington politics (yes, I know Kabuki is from a different part of Asia), Obama would leave some senior advisers in charge of shutdown negotiations and jet off for Manila.
Here's why: what the United States is doing in Southeast Asia, or at least seeking to do there, is really important in a way that this latest D.C. political drama just isn't. The American goal with Obama's trip and over the last few years, not explicit but quite clear, is to organize the region under U.S. leadership, as a counterbalance to China in its own backyard. Southeast Asian economies are rapidly growing; trade through regional seas is becoming a crux of the global economy. Both China and the U.S. are pressing for influence there. The stakes in the shutdown are real, both politically and for the many actual Americans who will be directly affected. But the stakes of American outreach in Asia are continental and generational in scope.
I think, here, of this quote from "Confront and Conceal," a 2012 book by the New York Times' David Sanger on Obama-era foreign policy:
"If we get China wrong," one of his most senior diplomats said to me, “in thirty years that's the only thing anyone will remember."
It's not clear what the world will look like in one generation or two, but what happens in Southeast Asia will be a major factor in determining whether the U.S. "gets China wrong." China is nearing a decision: should it try to peacefully coexist within the U.S.-led global system as it is, or try to challenge that order outright? Right now, China isn't strong or savvy enough to do that, and the U.S. has succeeded in heading it off, in part by organizing politically in Southeast Asia; see, for example, Burma's government essentially flipping from pro-China authoritarianism to U.S.-aligned democratization. But the American effort in southeast Asia will only get harder as China becomes more powerful and less diplomatically unskilled. Obama's scheduled trip across the region, while unlikely to nail down many concrete policies, is an important part of the larger American effort to convince leaders there that they should rely on Washington over Beijing, that they can trust American commitment.
That might not be as immediately dramatic and captivating as the fight in Washington over a government shutdown, but as Sanger's quote implies, the stakes on the shutdown are just not as high.
Look at it this way: The federal government shut down eight times under Ronald Reagan. What did history ultimately record as more important: any one of those eight shutdowns (say, the one in October 1986), or the Reagan administration's successful effort to use preferential trade policies to coax some Caribbean nations away from Soviet orbit and toward the American? I'd say that history has judged the latter to be more important. Even after the end of global communism and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the effects of the 1984 Caribbean Basin Initiative are still with us. I'm not sure the political or policy implications of the October 1986 shutdown, enormous though I'm sure they felt at the time, are still particularly visible today.
There's a secondary reason to go to Asia in the event of a shutdown: to reassure the world that the United States is still a viable world leader and is not in the process of eating itself alive. There's a growing sense abroad, in foreign capitals and outside of them, that the American system is increasingly broken and self-destructive. By standing up the leaders of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, not to mention all the other heads of state attending the various Asian summits he'd be skipping, Obama would send the message that America's political brokenness is starting to undermine its foreign policy. That would be particularly counterproductive, given that this trip is supposed to be all about sending the opposite message: that the U.S. is still powerful and is committed to Asia for the long haul. That's a message Beijing would notice as well.
To be clear, I'm not saying that China will suddenly displace America as the global leader because Obama missed one trip. But it would be a suggestion of American disengagement and self-imposed decline at a time when a number of allies and would-be allies in this very important part of the world are worried about precisely that. But what happens if Obama skips town during shutdown negotiations and leaves it to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough instead? Sure, some congressional Republicans would be offended and put-off, but that was going to happen anyway.