Asia Will Believe the United States Is in the Game for the Long Term When…

Asia will believe the United States is serious about long-term engagement with the region when a U.S. president talks to the American people about why Asia is important to the United States. More precisely, they will believe the United States is genuinely focused when they see a U.S. leader change the paradigm and cast away the anachronistic political calculus that suggests talking about foreign policy and trade will not win you votes.

A real leader would have the political courage, national interest at heart, and capability to paint a realistic picture of the importance of Asia today—its vibrancy, dynamism, economic growth, and, indeed, its risks—and tell Americans why they have to raise their game, move to a new level of competitive acumen, and be part of Asia.

Asians will believe in a substantive and sustained U.S. refocusing on their part of the world when a U.S. president sets about building the political foundation for engagement in Asia here on U.S. soil. Practically, this means when Asians see and hear a president who is clear and unapologetic about the fact that Asia is fundamental to the economic health, prosperity, and future security of the United States.

Where the messages are delivered is fundamentally important. An effective U.S. leader cannot build a political platform in the United States by making speeches in Tokyo or Singapore—these points must be made convincingly in places like Akron, Ohio; Tuscaloosa, Mississippi; and Houston, Texas.

A Window of Opportunity

Asians will not always be concerned about having the United States engaged in growing their economies, helping to protect Asian peace, promoting regional security, and spurring innovation. But for now, the region needs and wants the United States to be more involved and more present.

The reasons Asia is now encouraging the United States to be part of its future go well beyond the fact that China has raised anxieties among its neighbors about what it wants to do with its fast-developing economic power. The United States is a major investor and market for Asian countries in its own right, represents an openness and governance model that promotes liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, and its educational models drive innovation. Even more, the United States has provided a security assurance in Asia that has allowed the region to grow and prosper. U.S. investments in the public good in Asia have borne real benefits, especially during times of crisis such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but also in everyday concerns like health, education, and regional security.

Asia is changing fast. Cold War political realities dominated by authoritarian regimes and strong top-down leadership models have crumbled all around the region in the last decade. If Time Magazine were to name a man of the year for Asia over the last year, it would be “The Asian Voter.”

Asian citizens are gaining a voice in their political systems and they have real and urgent needs and desires. Governments are struggling to address this new paradigm because institutions, which were purposely kept weak by autocrats in the past, are inadequate to meet new demands. Politicians are scrambling to adjust, leading some to dangerously reach out for jingoistic themes such as nationalism.

An empowered and growing number of Asians have high expectations of their governments. They want economic growth, and that means that a peaceful, strong, and economically prosperous China must be part of the equation. They also want political models that allow for respect, upward mobility, and delivery of basic public goods. In this area, no Asian countries are aspiring to emulate Chinese governance models. Instead, they are interested in adapting key parts of the governance models of the United States and other democracies.

If the United States does not use this window of opportunity to increase its equity in Asia, the enthusiastic welcome will surely fade and the region will seek other solutions and models to fulfill its rapidly expanding needs.

Why Is This hard?

If telling Americans why Asia is important makes so much sense, why is it hard to do?

The answer is that U.S. citizens have not been encouraged to learn about, travel to, or do business with Asia in a sustained and strategic manner. Many Americans do not know what Bangkok or Beijing looks like; they do not know that the airports in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore would make most airports in the United States blush; and they have not worked shoulder to shoulder with Asian colleagues who have most of the same wants and needs they do.

The truth is that this situation will not get any better if the United States does not find a leader—in the true sense of that word—who understands Asia and has the political courage to tell his or her campaign advisers, “I am changing the rules. I do not care if talking about Asia to Americans will not win me votes. Americans need to know about this part of the world and what it means to us, and for the sake of the health, safety, and prosperity of this country, I am going to tell them about it.”

When such a leader emerges, he or she will have the strong support of the substantial majority of Asians—from every country. And though that leader may shock political jockeys and spin doctors, he or she will eventually have a place in U.S. history and the support of a new generation of Americans filled with hope and confidence. That president will have my support and my vote.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the October 11, 2012, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ernest Z. Bower