Foreign policy commands attention when it is crisis management. A street revolt breaks out in Egypt or Libya or Ukraine, and everyone asks how the president of the United States should respond. This is an important element of America’s role in the world, but it is essentially reactive and tactical. The broader challenge is to lay down a longer-term strategy that endures after crises. The Obama administration has tried to do this with its Asia policy — and the president’s trip there this week is part of it — but progress has been halting and incomplete. Still, the real threat to a serious Asia strategy comes not from the administration but rather from Congress and the American public. In fact, the difficulties in the execution of the pivot raise the larger question: Can the United States have a grand strategy today?
President Obama’s basic approach is wise and is, in many ways, a continuation of U.S. foreign policy since Bill Clinton’s presidency. On the diplomatic front, it has two elements: deterrence and engagement. All countries in Asia — as well as the United States — seek stronger and deeper economic ties with China but also want to ensure that the country does not become an expansionist, regional bully. Getting the balance between the two elements of this policy is hard to do and easy to criticize. In general, the Obama administration has handled this skillfully, keeping a close relationship with China while still setting out clear markers that should deter territorial expansion.
It’s fair to say that Obama has not given enough attention and energy to his own “pivot” strategy. Two trips to the region have been canceled. He has not been to China since his first year in office. His second-term team is conspicuously lacking in Asia experts. This is a mistake. Success in Asia could be the most substantive accomplishment of his remaining time in office.
There is, however, an important constructive aspect to the Asia policy. At the center of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It not only would be the largest trade deal in decades — involving most of Asia’s major economies and perhaps eventually even China — but it would also strongly reinforce American-style rules about free and open trade worldwide. Yet the president has not been able to get the “fast-track authority” that would make it possible to negotiate any trade deal.
The Democratic Party, once the greatest champion of free trade, has long turned its back on the TPP — a sad shift in a once open and optimistic party. In recent years, Republican support for trade has also gotten much weaker. The result is that the TPP, a grand, ambitious idea, is on life support. The U.S. military strategy in Asia will require significant budgets that are under pressure from both sides of the aisle. Public support for any kind of generous or ambitious foreign policy is extremely low.
The most worrying obstacle to a serious American strategy might seem, at first, to be a highly technical issue. The administration has proposed a reform of the International Monetary Fund that congressional Republicans are blocking. But reforming this agency is crucial to the United States’ future global role.
The IMF’s governing board has long been dominated by the United States and Europe. As Asian countries have become a larger part of the global pie, the administration has proposed enlarging their votes on the board. This would mostly take power away from Europe, not the United States. And yet, Republicans have held up this plan for three years, and they show no signs of being ready to pass it.
This issue has united Asian countries — China, Indonesia, Singapore — that see this as a sign that the West will never let them share real power in global institutions. They have a point.
After World War II, the United States confronted communism, but it also built a stable world order by creating institutions that set global rules and shared power — including the IMF, United Nations and World Bank. The urgent task is to expand those institutions to include Asia’s rising powers.
If Washington does not do this, it will strengthen the voices, especially in China, who say that Asian countries should not try to integrate into a Western framework of international rules — because they will always be second-class citizens — and instead should bide their time, create their own institutions and play by their own rules. At that point, we will all deeply regret that we did not let these countries into the club when we had a chance.